The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. United opens training camp

Dawning of a 20th season. (By Steven Goff — The Washington Post)

As MLS teams snatched up top-profile players from overseas, raising the league’s global profile and stirring interest in local markets, Ben Olsen and D.C. United concentrated on holding the core of the roster together this winter. There were no glittery signings or blockbuster trades. Confident in a well-tested group that executed the greatest one-year turnaround in MLS history, United left the big moves — and big paychecks — to others.

“I think we can have success without the big names and the big splashes,” Olsen said. “Now you have got to prove that year in and year out.”

Without the fanfare of a world-class arrival, United initiated training camp Thursday at RFK Stadium with most of 2014’s key performers, plus a few newcomers, getting reacquainted. Olsen will oversee a workout at Long Bridge Park in Arlington on Friday before operations swing to Bradenton, Fla., this weekend.

Every starter and several reserves from a first-place squad have returned. So while New York City FC added Frank Lampard and David Villa, Orlando City inked Kaka, Los Angeles grabbed Steven Gerrard and Toronto signed Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco, United quietly went about the business of building off last year’s renaissance.

“There is a place for world-class players — everyone wants them on their team, everyone wants to play against them – but a lot of teams I’ve been on have proven you don’t need that to have success,” said United captain Bobby Boswell, whose no-frills Houston teams succeeded almost every year.

There are two forces at work: United liked last year’s group and, until new revenue streams open ahead of the new stadium at Buzzard Point, the club will not splurge on pricey talent.

“It’s not who we are,” Olsen said. “It’s not going to be who we are for several years, at least until the new stadium hits. That is clear. And that is okay. I don’t mind it.”

United was not completely inactive in the international market. It signed Markus Halsti, a Finnish national team veteran formerly with Swedish champion Malmo. He will provide depth in central midfield and, when necessary, on the backline.

The club also bolstered frontline depth by trading for Costa Rican forward Jairo Arrieta, who played three years with Columbus.

The most noteworthy departures were reserve goalkeeper Joe Willis, midfielder Lewis Neal and defender Jeff Parke, who started the first 13 matches before injuries ended his season.

With more MLS teams willing to spend on glamorous players — and the star-studded Los Angeles Galaxy having won three of the past four titles — is United falling behind? D.C.’s personnel does not think so.

“You can just look at us last year,” midfielder-forward Chris Pontius said. “Throughout the season, we didn’t need an international star. We didn’t need one in postseason either; we just needed to perform better as a team.

“All these players coming here, it’s great for the league. I look forward to playing against them and obviously it’s going to help those teams, but we have plenty of talent in our locker room.”

United will be tested well before the regular season opener March 7 against visiting Montreal. The CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals against Alajuelense (Costa Rica) are Feb. 26 and March 4, an early start that will accelerate preseason preparations.

“I anticipate it being as tough mentally as physically,” midfielder Chris Rolfe said. “Usually that time of year you are playing a college team and starting to play MLS teams. You don’t have to be completely checked in. You don’t have to be completely on the same page. But when you have a game like this coming up, we need to make sure everything is sharp going into that game.”

United will play three friendlies in Bradenton (against Orlando and two Swedish clubs) and two as part of an Austin tournament in mid-February before a final tune-up against FC Dallas ahead of the Champions League opening leg in Costa Rica.

During the brief offseason, the club issued workout programs to the players in order to maintain some level of fitness.

From early indications, they followed instruction. “We don’t put chips in their arms,” Olsen joked, “although I would like to.”

United will also need to gain fresh inspiration after being fueled by intangibles last year.

“We don’t have that automatic chip on our shoulder from last year, where we were last place [in 2013] and some guys were cut from their [previous] team,” Olsen said. “So there has to be different types of motivations for this group. It is a competitive bunch, but we need to have a group that is not comfortable in any way.”

United will begin formal workouts without defender Steve Birnbaum and midfielder Perry Kitchen, who are on U.S. national team duty until Feb. 8. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid was supposed to attend but withdrew because of a shoulder ailment. The club will limit his activity at the start of camp but expects the 2014 MLS goalkeeper of the year to be ready for the Champions League.

United notes: The club exercised the contract option on forward Fabian Espindola. Terms of the option make him a designated player, but very much on the low end of the DP scale compared to Altidore, Kaka, Michael Bradley and others. The threshold for designated player status is about $400,000. Specific terms were not disclosed. …

Asked how his left forearm, fractured last fall, is doing, Rolfe deadpanned: “It’s attached. Most of it.”

Rolfe returned for the playoffs but needed to undergo further treatment in the offseason. He has been cleared to begin strengthening the arm. He will wear a brace until the strength level is 85 percent of his right arm. …

Pontius is eager to regain full form after missing most of last season with a hamstring injury. He returned in the fall but only reached 75-80 percent capacity, he estimated.

“I don’t think it was lacking fitness. I think it was just sharpness and confidence of being on the ball and being in the game again, and that is something you gain throughout the whole year. I didn’t have that luxury. I know I can play a lot better. I was rusty and wasn’t exactly happy with how I played at the end of last year.” …

United plans to announce the full list of trialists Friday. The group will include former D.C. midfielder Rod Dyachenko and two candidates vying for the last goalkeeping slot. … The club is engaged in contract talks with first-round draft pick Miguel Aguilar, an early indication that he is in United’s long-term plans. Final roster decisions, however, are expected to stretch deep into February. … Conor Shanosky, a homegrown defender from Loudoun County who was waived last month after four seasons, signed with Louisville City FC in third-division USL Pro.

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