Midfielder Luciano Acosta, right, led D.C. United with 11 assists last season. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

With a core of veterans and a few stars in their prime, D.C. United enters the MLS regular season expecting to contend for a playoff spot.

That’s the team’s floor, but its ceiling could be much higher. That all depends on a group of promising young players. The first test of the team’s potential is its season opener against Sporting K.C. on Saturday night.

If United is able to push beyond last season’s fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference, the progression will sprout from a youth movement. The challenge for coach Ben Olsen is to maintain opportunities for inexperienced players when growing pains threaten results.

“Development is about throwing them into the game and letting the game teach them,” Olsen said. “On top of throwing them into the game, it’s about giving them the trust to throw them back into the game after things didn’t go well.”

Ian Harkes, the 21-year-old rookie from Wake Forest, is Olsen’s most recognizable project. The homegrown midfielder from Fairfax will start the season as a substitute.

Luciano Acosta, 22, returns as the conductor in the midfield after leading United with 11 assists last season, his first with the team. The 5-foot-3 Argentinian will start underneath striker Patrick Mullins, 25, who is hoping to establish himself as a consistent front man after 39 starts in his first four MLS seasons.

Forward Jose Guillermo Ortiz, 24, joined the club in January from Liga Deportiva Alajuelense in his native Costa Rica.

All four young guns will enter the fray to varying degrees as Olsen searches for harmony.

“If you get too many young guys out there it can be problematic, so you just got to find the balance,” Olsen said. “I’m very excited about this young group we have here.”

Goalie Bill Hamid, 26, is a steady leader in his seventh year and is ready to start the opener after knee surgery in January.

“My role is going to remain the same with any changes in front of me,” Hamid said. “I’ve been a goalkeeper that tries to use this voice and presence to command and marshal the back line.”