D.C. United still trying to mold its cast of newcomers into a cohesive MLS unit


Chris Pontius, left, is one of just six field players retained from the 2012 squad. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

When D.C. United set out to overhaul the roster this winter, a vital initiative after winning three of 34 MLS matches last year, the club looked inward rather than abroad.

United has had a low success rate with foreign signings in recent years, and the club believed the path back to respectability began with established domestic players.

“With international players, there is a risk and a period of adaptation,” General Manager Dave Kasper said Tuesday. “We needed a lot of pieces, and to go out and add a lot of foreign players is a real challenge. MLS-ready players were probably going to be our first choice.”

And their second, third and fourth.

Of the 11 newcomers under contract, Spanish defender Cristian Fernandez was the only one with no American ties.

Davy Arnaud came from Montreal and Nana Attakora from San Jose. Bobby Boswell arrived from Houston and Fabian Espindola from New York. Sean Franklin left Los Angeles, Eddie Johnson departed Seattle and Jeff Parke exited Philadelphia.

Three others played college soccer last fall and three more with U.S. experience remain in roster contention.

“We’ve had enough guys who have been around a long time so that, even if we are not having great spells, we understand how to get through tough moments and win games,” said Arnaud, entering his 13th MLS season.

Coach Ben Olsen’s preseason challenge has been assembling all the pieces into a cohesive gang. They are all familiar with one another. They have had varying degrees of success. But can they play together?

“We’ve got to sink or swim, and we want to swim,” said Boswell, in his second tour with United after playing in Houston for six years. “It’s exciting to play with guys you know and guys we’re trying to mold into a successful group.”

Predictably, the early results were not good. The defense bonded quicker than the offense and United failed to score in three preseason losses in Bradenton, Fla., prompting flashbacks to the 2013 campaign when it posted 22 goals in 34 league matches.

Here in Charleston, though, United seems to have made strides. In the opener of the Carolina Challenge Cup on Saturday, D.C. recorded a 2-0 victory over Houston. One score was an own goal, but a goal nonetheless. United will turn to several secondary players Wednesday night when it faces the Charleston Battery, the third-division tournament host.

Camp will culminate here Saturday against the Seattle Sounders. The season opener is March 8 against the Columbus Crew at RFK Stadium.

“We are understanding each other, relationships are being built,” Olsen said. “Last game, the shape has been as good as it’s been. Offensively, more ideas were being developed, more patterns and partnerships were being filled.”

United officials believe they are further along with several established MLS players than they would have been with a collection of imports. International players tend to offer potentially greater upside, but in United’s case, most have not panned out.

In the wake of a historically poor season, management took the safe route through trades and domestic signings.

“Guys who understand this league, who know the heavy travel schedule and the unique dynamics are better equipped from the start,” Kasper said.

Whether United selected the right players — and is able to forge a winner — remains to be seen. The entire starting backline is new: Franklin and Fernandez on the outside and Boswell and Parke in the middle. First-choice forwards Johnson and Espindola will need to form a partnership. Arnaud is slated to start in midfield, probably on the right flank.

They joined a club that retained just six field players from the 2012 squad, most notably Chris Pontius, Nick DeLeon and Perry Kitchen.

“It’s not going to be 100 percent perfect right away,” Arnaud said. “It takes time for so many players to understand each other’s tendencies. In terms of readiness, though, I don’t see why we won’t be successful.”

United notes: Pontius, who suffered a recent setback in his return from hamstring surgery, probably won’t be ready until the second match of the regular season, March 22 at Toronto FC. . . . United is awaiting word on whether Johnson will receive a U.S. national team call-up for next Wednesday’s friendly against Ukraine. . . . Abel “Shadow” Sebele, a midfielder from Episcopal High School and West Virginia University, has begun a tryout.

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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