D.C. United is promising much improvement this season.
“On paper,” Coach Ben Olsen said, “it all looks good.”
United’s roster seems deeper than last year.
“We’ve got some guys who give us more depth — on paper,” he added.
United looks like an MLS playoff contender.
“Do we have the team to do it?” Olsen said. “On paper, yes.”
But until the new partnerships on the back line and front line take hold, until Chris Pontius regains his form after recovering from a broken leg, until Perry Kitchen adapts to a new role and until a team with diverse backgrounds fully bonds, United is a paper tiger.
The first test in a season of heightened expectation will come Saturday night against Sporting Kansas City at RFK Stadium.
“It’s like setting all the dominoes in a row and waiting to see if the pattern is going to work,” said right back Robbie Russell, who arrived from Real Salt Lake. “It’s exciting. We feel like it’s starting to jell. We’ve talked a lot up until now, and now it’s about applying it.”
United hasn’t advanced to the playoffs since 2007, a rut magnified by the fact that more than half of MLS teams qualify for the postseason. No club has won more MLS Cup titles than United (four), but in the past dozen seasons, the team has missed the playoffs seven times.
In many ways — record, attendance, stadium — it feels as though the rest of the league has passed United by.
So if ever there was a time for rejuvenation, it is now.
“Expectations are always high here, even when we have a bad season before,” said Olsen, who is entering his second campaign after being named the interim boss in late 2010. “We want to make the playoffs and make a run at this thing, for sure.”
United addressed several areas, most notably at forward: Hamdi Salihi, a proven scorer for Rapid Vienna in Austria, supplants Charlie Davies, who returned to French club Sochaux after a year on loan in MLS.
Davies enjoyed some electrifying moments with United and finished second in goals with 11, but wasn’t in the true striker mold (strength, size and consistent finishing touch).
United owner Will Chang opened the checkbook to acquire Salihi. MLS salaries aren’t disclosed until the spring, but the Albanian will join 2011 league MVP Dwayne De Rosario and Montenegro midfielder Branko Boskovic atop the club’s payroll.
Salihi’s presence will ease the pressure on De Rosario. He had 13 goals and seven assists in 18 appearances after being acquired from the New York Red Bulls in midseason.
“Even if he’s not scoring, his movement is very smart,” De Rosario said. “He is going to take up a lot of the attention of the defenders, and his goals are going to come.”
With Boskovic returning from knee ligament surgery, Olsen has the luxury of placing De Rosario higher in the attack after he served in midfield most of last season. Newcomer Maicon Santos (FC Dallas) and returning veteran Josh Wolff (five goals, seven assists) are experienced options off the bench.
The starters on the flanks remain the same — Pontius and Andy Najar. Pontius was enjoying a standout season when he broke his leg in September, the beginning of United’s downfall.
Kitchen, runner-up for MLS rookie of the year last season, moves into defensive midfield after primarily manning the back line. He replaces longtime starter Clyde Simms, now with the New England Revolution. Kitchen brings bite to the position, an element the steady Simms lacked.
Two new starters join the back line: Russell, who won an MLS title at Real Salt Lake in 2009, and Emiliano Dudar, a 6-foot-4 center back from Argentina via the Swiss league.
“We definitely have the right tools, and if we perform to our standards, we can be in that playoff picture,” Kitchen said.
The departure of Simms, Quaranta, Marc Burch and Devon McTavish — the club’s longest-serving players — also changed the make-up of the locker room.
“Chemistry is something we thought a lot about in the offseason,” Olsen said. “We think we’ve done a good job as far as getting the right type of personalities in here, the right role models for our young guys and also guys with championship experience.
“On paper, it all looks good. But we have to get out there and prove we’re someone to deal with.”
United notes: United announced Friday that Wolff will serve in the role of player-assistant coach this season. Last season, the 13-year MLS veteran started 23 games for United. . . .
Center back Ethan White, who started 21 league matches as a rookie last season, said he hasn’t decided whether to undergo knee surgery. Club officials, however, expect him to have the procedure soon. White, fourth on the depth chart in central defense, has been bothered by a meniscus problem.