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D.C. United’s Ben Olsen: ‘We’ve got some money and we’re looking to spend it’

D.C. United Coach Ben Olsen. (John McDonnell / The Washington Post)

It’s midseason for D.C. United: 17 league matches down, 17 to go. Halfway along an eight-month path, United is very much in the middle of the road: five victories, six defeats, six draws, 17 goals for, 17 goals against, no winning streaks, no losing streaks, fifth place in the 10-team Eastern Conference, 13th of 20 overall.

But with MLS’s summer transfer window now open — a four-week period when clubs can sign players from outside the league and resume trading within the league — United sees an opportunity to escape middling territory and make a move.

Supporters “can anticipate some additions,” Coach Ben Olsen said Tuesday. “We’ve got some money and we’re looking to spend it.”

Anyone holding out hope for a summer mega-signing to lift championship fortunes overnight (i.e. Didier Drogba to Montreal last year) is going to be sorely disappointed. From a financial standpoint, United will remain a small-market operation until the Buzzard Point stadium project – and the revenue streams that accompany it — reaches fruition.

“But that doesn’t mean we can’t make our team better,” Olsen said. “We can make this team better.”

MLS salary cap details are not for public consumption, but United cleared space last month through the mutual termination of Finnish midfielder Markus Halsti’s contract. His base salary was $275,000, sixth highest on the payroll, and the club will get back about half of that number. United was also carrying unspecified cap space and allocation money since preseason.

Olsen declined to identify targets or specific positions, but United’s need is clear: the attack. The club has scored the third-fewest goals in the league, gone scoreless seven times and, putting aside seven goals in back-to-back home matches early in the campaign, D.C. has posted multiple goals in only two other games.

United is ninth in shots but 17th in shots on goal, and 19th in corner kicks.

Personnel is an issue. Midfielder-forward Chris Rolfe, the team’s leading scorer and most valuable player last year, has been sidelined since late April with a concussion and won’t return anytime soon. Patrick Nyarko, an influential winger out six weeks with the same setback, is getting closer to returning.

Costa Rican striker Alvaro Saborio leads the team with four goals (plus three assists) but is not the full-time, long-term answer. United is high on newcomer Alhaji Kamara, who continues building match fitness and chemistry with new teammates after months without competitive games. He scored in his debut at Kansas City in late May but not since.

Luciano Acosta, a 21-year-old Argentine in his first MLS season, has exhibited wonderful technical ability in a hybrid central role and is seeking to make a consistent impact.

In Olsen’s new 4-1-4-1 formation, Fabian Espindola (three goals, one assist) and Lamar Neagle (three, four) are manning the wings. Nick DeLeon, a winger converted into a central figure, has yet to record a goal or assist despite starting all but one match. Marcelo Sarvas provides grit and support from a deep position.

Two weekends ago, United looked pretty good in the new arrangement during a 2-0 victory over New England at RFK Stadium. On Friday, opportunities were scarce until substitute Jared Jeffrey’s stoppage-time equalizer stole a point on the road against superior Real Salt Lake, 1-1.

“I think we can make this team better, and even if we didn’t, I think there is more to this group,” Olsen said. “We tweaked the lineup two weeks ago, so we will see where that heads. We’re finding out about ourselves through that process. If that continues to evolve, it could make us a better team.”

As the player search continues, United will continue hunting for points on the road the next three weekends: Philadelphia, Columbus and Toronto.

In eight away matches, United has won once and scored five times but also earned five draws. With only two road defeats, United has joined East-leading New York City FC and West-contending Colorado for the fewest away setbacks.

While the attack has sputtered, the defense has carried the club. Only Colorado has conceded fewer goals (11). Goalkeeper Bill Hamid has regained top form in five appearances since returning from a long-term knee injury, and Olsen can count on four center backs: Bobby Boswell, Steve Birnbaum, Kofi Opare and Jalen Robinson.

Outside backs Sean Franklin and Taylor Kemp have played every minute of every league match.

“If you look at the stats, we are a pretty good defensive team but could use a little help in the final third,” Olsen said. “I am happy with this group, I like this group, but if you have a chance to get better, it’s our job to do it.”

With United eliminated early from the U.S. Open Cup and not participating in the 2016-17 CONCACAF Champions League, the entire focus is on building toward the MLS playoffs.

“I am confident we will make the team better,” Olsen said. “I like our group, but bolstering it makes sense.”

United notes: Nyarko underwent further testing this week, Olsen said, but “it’s more of a clearance step. Hopefully he’ll get good results and start training this week. But he’s been out a while and we’ve got to bring him along slowly but he’s been progressing the last 10 days or so.”

Rolfe, however, has not made much progress. “He is in contact with trainers and doctors,” Olsen said, “and doing what he needs to do to get back to normal life.” …

Outside back Chris Korb, sidelined since tearing an ACL late last summer, is “inching along,” Olsen said. Because of setbacks, “we are way past the normal return to play after an ACL. Is he able to contribute this year? Hopefully.” …

Midfielder Miguel Aguilar (hamstring) is close to resuming training. Midfielder Julian Buescher (ankle) is out for a few days. …

Halsti debuted last week with Danish club Midtjylland. He entered during stoppage time of a 1-0 victory over Suduva (Lithuania) in the first leg of a Europa League qualifier.

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