Ben Olsen’s bum ankles could barely keep up with the rest of him, the anticipation of a new season fueling a pacey trek onto the training grounds one morning this week.
The dawn of a fresh campaign triggers the endorphins — “you won’t find too many pessimistic coaches right now,” he said ahead of his eighth season as D.C. United’s guide and 21st in the organization.
But as United prepared for Saturday night’s opener at Orlando, Olsen also embraced the sense of renewal in an organization that had grown stale in a blooming soccer league.
It’s not just the opening of Audi Field this summer, which will end both a 14-year wait for a new venue and a 22-summer, love-hate relationship with creaky RFK Stadium. Olsen is also bullish on a set of newcomers and buoyant about his 24-man squad after six weeks of training camp.
“All in all, I think it was the best preseason I’ve been involved with,” he said. “The focus of the players, their willingness to adapt and learn, and just the overall spirit and freshness of the group was a lot of fun to be around. … I really enjoyed myself.”
To continue enjoying himself — and perhaps return to the MLS playoffs after a last-place finish in 2017 — Olsen will need to navigate perhaps the most peculiar schedule in league history.
With the stadium at Buzzard Point in Southwest D.C. not opening until July, United will play 12 of its first 14 matches on the road. The only interruptions are single home games at Maryland SoccerPlex in Montgomery County and Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis. The club will then pack 20 matches, including 15 at Audi Field, into the last 3 1/2 months.
In 2011, Sporting Kansas City started the season by playing a record 10 in a row on the road (1-6-3) and managed to make the playoffs.
“It is a very hard schedule,” said French defender Frederic Brillant, acquired in a trade with New York City FC. “If we manage to negotiate those games well, we have a good chance to do something. But it’s hard.”
The early slate will include four visits to Eastern Conference contenders, most notably reigning champion Toronto FC, followed by four separate western trips in 29 days. By the time it christens Audi Field on July 14 against the Vancouver Whitecaps, United might be either buried at the bottom of the conference or well positioned to take advantage of the favorable home stretch.
“It’s dangerous to get caught up dissecting the schedule,” Olsen said. “It’s healthy to get excited about the new stadium, but also keeping that in check and letting those emotions come when that moment is here. We have to keep our feet on the ground.
“Yes, we have sprinkled in some bigger conversations of what our responsibilities are collectively and individually to get results on the road, but other than that, I don’t have this grand plan of how many points we need each month. We’re mature enough, I think, to focus on each weekend.”
This weekend, Olsen will set forth with a lineup featuring as many as seven newcomers and nine players who have joined the team since last summer. The only probable starters with long tenures are defenders Steve Birnbaum and Nick DeLeon. (Holdovers Taylor Kemp and Luciano Acosta probably would’ve started as well, but aren’t available because of injury and suspension, respectively.)
For the first time since 2011, Bill Hamid is not the first-choice goalkeeper; he played out his contract and left for Danish club Midtjylland. Bobby Boswell, Sean Franklin, Lloyd Sam, Patrick Nyarko, Chris Rolfe and Chris Korb are long gone, as well.
The incoming class comprises Brillant, who will partner with Birnbaum in central defense; David Ousted, formerly with Vancouver, or Steve Clark, a late signing in 2017, in goal; left back Oniel Fisher, a Jamaican who arrived from Seattle last month; defensive midfielder Junior Moreno of the Venezuelan national team; central midfielder Ulises Segura of the Costa Rican national team; former Atlanta star attacker Yamil Asad; and Jamaican striker Darren Mattocks, previously with Portland.
Olsen’s preseason emphases were on building bonds, tightening a leaky defense, becoming more dangerous in transition and sustaining possession in an effort to boost a woeful attack (17 scoreless performances in 34 matches). In other words, almost everything.
“It was a two-headed monster last year,” Olsen said. “Both sides of the ball were pretty poor.”
The goalkeeping is in good hands and Brillant figures to strengthen the back line, but United did not recruit a proven goal scorer, instead turning to the fleet-footed Mattocks to augment an upgraded midfield energized by U.S. national team winger Paul Arriola.
With several new pieces, Olsen and the players are prepared for a learning curve, one that will take shape not only on their home practice fields but in a dozen away venues over four months.
“These road trips coming up are only going to make this team stronger,” Ousted said, “because we are going to need to stick together.”
United notes: Besides Acosta’s red-card ban, Olsen is suspended from the opener for berating the referee after the 2017 finale. He will watch from the team suite. Top assistant Chad Ashton will handle sideline duties. … Mattocks (calf strain) is listed as questionable but Olsen said he’s okay. … Orlando midfielder Sacha Kljestan is serving a two-game suspension for his role in a playoff ruckus at Toronto last fall while playing for the New York Red Bulls. … Orlando striker Dom Dwyer (quadriceps strain) is out.
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