D.C. United kicks off season with Curt Onalfo leading many new faces
For a moment, Curt Onalfo thought he had gotten away with saying that D.C. United's season opener Saturday night against the Kansas City Wizards was just another match on the seven-month calendar.
He kept a straight face in front of a collection of skeptical reporters at RFK Stadium's training field this week before admitting with a smile, "My nose is growing like Pinocchio's."
Indeed, there will be an intriguing subtext at play. Onalfo, a former D.C. player and assistant, makes his debut as United's head coach against the team that fired him last summer after 2 1/2 seasons. His coaching counterpart on the opposing sideline is Peter Vermes, the executive who played a role in Onalfo's dismissal and became the interim coach before inheriting the full-time job.
"It's all about our group and continuing to get better every day," Onalfo said, shifting the subject to a broader theme. "It's been really rewarding and it's been really good progress. Having said that, we know we have a long way to go."
The opening game offers a fresh start for both Onalfo and United, which missed the MLS playoffs the past two years and spent another winter recalibrating the roster.
Christian Gómez and Luciano Emilio, who won league MVP awards in 2006 and '07, respectively, are no longer with the club. Fred was traded to Philadelphia and Ben Olsen retired. Ten others were not retained.
Goalkeeper Troy Perkins returned after two years in Oslo and defender Carey Talley is back after being away for nine years with four other MLS clubs. Onalfo acquired two of his former Kansas City players -- forward Adam Cristman (Virginia) and midfielder Kurt Morsink (James Madison) -- and the front office imported Salvadoran midfielder Cristian Castillo, Australian forward Danny Allsopp and Bolivian defender Juan Manuel Peña, who at 37 is just three years younger than the coach.
Onalfo's tasks are to ensure that all the pieces fit properly and to build chemistry on a squad that, at times, lacked passion and commitment and became terribly predictable.
Despite the issues, United wasn't eliminated from playoff contention until the final weekend in each of the past two years.
"Our goal is to not put ourselves in that position again, and it starts by picking up wins early in the season and getting our confidence up," said forward Chris Pontius, a rookie of the year finalist in 2009 who had eight goals and six assists in all competitions (40 appearances). "If the confidence is high, we are going to win games even when the soccer isn't good."
Pontius will have to help compensate for the loss of Emilio, who, despite technical flaws, scored 41 goals in 83 league matches over three years. Called to fill various roles last year, Pontius is likely to spend the majority of his time on the front line.