United Hopes That Changes Will Translate
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
For the last five weeks, D.C. United has served as an experiment in sociology, linguistics and diplomacy.
There are the two players with the same first name who play alongside each other in central defense, one an Argentine who speaks some English and the other a Colombian better versed in Italian.
There is the new playmaker, from the same Spanish-speaking country as the former playmaker but who offers a different attacking mentality. There are the two new goalkeepers from disparate backgrounds competing for the starting job while learning to trust their defenders.
There are the rookies adjusting to the demands of the pro game, the promising winger acquired in a trade who is eager to make an impression, and the returning veterans who have had to adapt after a winter of considerable upheaval.
"In my experience in these situations, the important thing is not to freak out," said midfielder Ben Olsen, in his 11th year with United. "If a lot of things aren't working, if the communication isn't there, you have got to give it time. You have cultural stuff, you have language stuff, all this stuff adds to the time for a team to jell."
Following stops in Florida and California, United has gone to Texas for one final week of preparation to get its diverse act together. Though the club will not open the MLS season until March 29, its first serious competition comes March 12 in Jamaica against Harbour View in the quarterfinal opener of the Champions' Cup, an eight-team international tournament that rewards the winner with a ticket to the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan in December.
To say United overhauled the team is probably an exaggeration, for most of the 2007 starters are back. But by the time Coach Tom Soehn finalizes his 28-man roster in the coming weeks, approximately a dozen players will be new to the squad.
Training camp has been defined by not only conditioning sessions and scrimmages, but communication drills and off-field bonding. When the team gathered for the first time in January, Olsen arranged an outing to Verizon Center to watch a Washington Wizards game.
"We knew it wasn't going to be easy," said team captain Jaime Moreno, a bilingual speaker from Bolivia who has spent all but one of his 13 MLS seasons in Washington. "These guys have a different way to see soccer, but they have adapted pretty quickly. Sometimes soccer doesn't work the way you want it, but we are working very hard to find that and hopefully it will come pretty soon."
Several of those new players will fill key roles. Zach Wells (trade with Houston) and Jose Carvallo (Peru) are the top goalies, and Gonzalo Mart¿nez (Colombia) and Gonzalo Peralta (Argentina) are likely to start in defense. Marcelo Gallardo, a two-time Argentine World Cup midfielder, will run the attack and compatriot Franco Niell is the best scoring option off the bench. Young newcomers, such as former Los Angeles midfielder Quavas Kirk and London-born rookie midfielder Dan Stratford, also could play key parts.
"Anytime you have new faces and new players anywhere in the world, it is a new process and a new beginning," Gallardo, who has played for clubs in the Argentine and French leagues, said through an interpreter. "You have to allow time to get to know each other, and it's no different here."
Clyde Simms, a returning defensive midfielder, has had to adjust to Gallardo, whose style differs from Christian G¿mez, the playmaker the previous three-plus seasons. "Gallardo likes to come back and receive the ball more so than Christian did," Simms said. "He likes to get as many touches on the ball as possible. It's a learning experience."