New-look D.C. United, Olsen upbeat after closing out MLS preseason with 2-2 draw


United midfielder Nick DeLeon, above during a 2012 match, says the teams is “moving along quite nicely. Every game we have seen an improvement.” (Toni L. Sandys/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The big question for D.C. United Coach Ben Olsen following Saturday’s preseason finale was whether his new-look gang is ready for the MLS campaign.

Nobody is ready for the opener,” Olsen said of the league’s 19 clubs. “But can we find ways to win when it’s not perfect? That is the trick early in the season.”

It’s a particularly apt question for United, which will introduce seven new starters for the opener next Saturday night against the Columbus Crew at RFK Stadium.

At the very least, United will begin the season on a positive note. With a 2-2 draw against the Seattle Sounders (1-0-2) at Blackbaud Stadium, D.C. (1-0-2) claimed the Carolina Challenge Cup title on a goal difference tiebreaker.

A preseason trophy does not mean much, but after winning three of 34 regular season matches in 2013, United will depart the Lowcountry in a hopeful mood.

“Results matter to us. They always do,” Olsen said. “Coming off last season, results maybe matter even more in the preseason. But it’s a new group, so most of them don’t have any baggage. They are looking forward to writing their own history.”

United was at its best early in the second half, displaying energy and menace. Perry Kitchen scored on a scorching volley in the 53rd minute before the Sounders drew even on Marco Pappa’s goal in the 63rd. United played the final 15 minutes shorthanded after defender Cristian Fernandez was red-carded.

“We are moving along quite nicely,” midfielder Nick DeLeon said. “Every game we have seen an improvement. Today we saw good stretches of defense and we had our best offensive combinations.”

Eddie Johnson’s tight hamstring undermined a potentially spicy reunion with the Sounders, his previous club. In his place, Conor Doyle partnered with Fabian Espindola on the frontline.

Top-choice goalkeeper Bill Hamid (ankle) was also scratched, allowing Andrew Dykstra to play 90 minutes. With the opener near, Olsen said he was extra careful with Johnson and Hamid and expects both to play next weekend.

Otherwise on Saturday, Olsen utilized his probable starters for the opener: Sean Franklin, Bobby Boswell, Jeff Parke and Fernandez on the backline; and Davy Arnaud, Luis Silva, Kitchen and DeLeon in midfield.

Seattle was without Clint Dempsey, who will rejoin the club this coming week after concluding his winter loan to Fulham and serving U.S. national team duty in Europe.

A moment after referee Jorge Gonzalez ignored Seattle’s penalty kick pleas – Chad Marshall was knocked down – United was awarded a PK when Marshall handled DeLeon’s cross. Espindola converted in the eighth minute.

United dodged trouble when Kenny Cooper missed a clear opportunity, but a minute later, Cooper beat Dykstra to Dylan Remick’s high cross.

United buzzed with activity after the break, and Kitchen met Espindola’s corner kick for a one-timer from 10 yards.

Pappa answered, gathering Brad Evans’s cross and placing a 12-yarder into the right corner. Seattle continued to carry the play and, in the 76th minute, United’s duress deepened when Fernandez was sent off for disrupting DeAndre Yedlin’s surge.

In last year’s preseason finale, United’s Dwayne De Rosario was sent off for head-butting Philadelphia’s Danny Cruz, an action that resulted in a two-game regular season suspension. MLS will surely review Fernandez’s tackle, but he is probably safe from further penalty.

Despite the disadvantage, United did not break under heavy pressure.

“We are definitely moving in the right direction,” Kitchen said. “Today we advanced ourselves offensively: we had good sequences and good movement off the ball. We’re not where we want to be yet, but we are definitely getting there.”

Chelsea stays ahead of pack

In London, Chelsea recovered from a sluggish first-half performance to see off bottom-place Fulham, increasing its lead at the top of the English Premier League standings with a 3-1 win. In other action, Stoke defeated Arsenal, 1-0, while Liverpool beat Southampton, 3-0. Everton recovered from back-to-back league losses by beating West Ham, 1-0, and returning to sixth place. . . .

Newcastle Manager Alan Pardew was sent off for a head-butt on Hull midfielder David Meyler in his team’s 4-1 win. Pardew got a swift formal warning and $168,000 fine from his club, and faces the prospect of a lengthy suspension .

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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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