In the final minutes of D.C. United’s practice on Thursday morning, its players went through a standard scoring drill. The routine itself is not uncommon, yet it stood out because of its importance in the days before Saturday’s season opener.
The faces running through the drills are all new to United’s roster this season. The team’s four forwards — Charlie Davies, Josh Wolff, Joseph Ngwenya and Blake Brettschneider — were added during the offseason. And after last season’s offensive performance, which set records for futility, United knows there must be a complete overhaul not just in personnel but also performance.
Entering Saturday night’s opener against the Columbus Crew at RFK Stadium, United has made clear that it hopes to begin what Coach Ben Olsen is calling a “new chapter” in franchise history. A key factor in returning the team to its past success will likely require at least one of those four acquisitions to become a true, consistent goal scorer.
United scored just 21 goals last season, setting a new MLS record low. The resumes of its forwards — other than Jaime Moreno, the league’s all-time leading scorer who played limited minutes in his final season with United — were unproven.
Danny Allsopp produced just five goals in his only MLS season. Adam Cristman had scored 10 career goals in three previous seasons and added just two in 2010. Third-year midfielder-forward Chris Pontius, who had a strong rookie campaign, was injured much of the season and a brief experiment with former MLS most valuable player Luciano Emilio was abandoned after four league games and no goals.
This offseason, Olsen clearly sought a mixture of youth and experience, but with one major qualifier — he wanted proven scorers.
Wolff, acquired in the MLS re-entry draft, is a two-time World Cup veteran who has 52 international caps and nine goals and has netted 75 goals and 41 assists in his 12-year MLS career. Ngwenya, also a re-entry draft pickup, has European experience and has scored 17 goals in 102 league games. Davies was once considered one of the country’s most promising young forwards and was a key part of the United States’ World Cup hopes before a car crash in October 2009 nearly ended his career.
How quickly those players develop and come together will be tied unmistakably to United’s success.
“We’re going to be the biggest part as far as offensively helping this team win games,” Davies said. “As far as that, we’re on the same page. But the part where you can depend on the [other] striker, know where he is going to be, and all that it is only going to come with time. We have a big group of strikers . . . whoever is playing up top I am sure there will be a good relationship developed.”
The depth up top may open things up for what is expected to be a quicker, more attacking-based midfield bolstered on the wings by Pontius and 2010 rookie of the year Andy Najar, who tied for the team lead with five goals last season. In the middle, captain Dax McCarty, acquired in a trade with Portland after leading Dallas to the MLS Cup game last season, is expected to provide more offensive production. Designated player Branko Boskovic and veteran Santino Quaranta will be in the mix for playing time, as well.
After an offseason searching for the right answers, Olsen must now choose the right combination.
“Last year is last year, you’ve got a completely new group now, you brought in a lot of new faces,” Wolff said. “Different personality, different characteristics on the field. I don’t think there is much concern about what happened last year. It’s done with, it’s put away and now you get to the fresh start . . . and it starts this Saturday.”