“We’re closer but we’ve got a very, very long way to go,” United Coach Ben Olsen says of the club’s progress this season. (Jonathan Newton/WASHINGTON POST)

D.C. United goalkeeper Bill Hamid had not yet signed a professional contract and was still competing for the club’s youth academy team. Midfielder Andy Najar had just finished an All-Met sophomore season at Edison High.

United Coach Ben Olsen was United midfielder Ben Olsen.

It has been roughly three years since United had an opportunity to play for first place in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference this deep in the season. Not since a 2-1 win over the Chicago Fire on June 13, 2009, has D.C. moved atop the table at least 13 games into the year. Only two players on the roster, Chris Pontius and Dejan Jakovic, have played for a top-of-the-table United team.

With a win against the rival New England Revolution on Saturday night, D.C. has an opportunity to vault into that spot in the standings. Should it do so, 94 league games across four seasons will have passed since that game against Chicago.

The accomplishment, aided by United having played more games than its Eastern Conference rivals, would be reflective of a journey jump-started in November 2010, when Olsen was officially hired as head coach.

The former United star has since crafted the roster with a clear vision for the team’s mentality and style of play. And after a season and a half, it appears that overhaul has translated to an on-field product.

“We’re closer, but we’ve got a very, very long way to go,” Olsen said. “In a whole bunch of categories we have to get better. But I see signs of us getting back to where we need to be, or where we want to be as an organization.”

The most glaring of those positive indicators may be United’s depth.

Last season, D.C. fielded 10 lineups through its first 14 games, collecting 17 points, and sat in fifth in the conference. This year, because of injuries and national team call-ups, United (7-4-3) has fielded 12 lineups in 14 games, but has improved by seven points.

This season’s roster is a mix of veterans and young players.

Designated players Branko Boskovic and Hamdi Salihi are among the veterans; they yearn to take advantage of any opportunities off the bench.

Meantime, rookie Nick DeLeon and midfielder Danny Cruz play with a desire to prove themselves.

That, players said, has been the biggest difference.

“It feels different on the field,” said Hamid, who had to fight to earn his starting role back from goalkeeper Joe Willis. “Guys are performing in practice and working their hardest and doing well, so it’s only making the next guy work their hardest and do well. The competition is there and it’s very alive right now.”

There has been almost no drop-off no matter the lineup this season. When Salihi and reigning league MVP Dwayne De Rosario failed to score early in the season, Maicon Santos (six goals) and Pontius (five goals) stepped into those roles. But with Santos and Pontius nursing injuries in recent weeks, Salihi (four goals) and De Rosario (five goals, seven assists) have again been producing.

Similarly, Najar, Chris Korb, Robbie Russell, Daniel Woolard and Willis have played well when called upon on defense.

Despite the improvements, Olsen has continued to pound into his players the mentality he desired when he first envisioned the roster taking shape.

“We have to make sure that we keep getting better and make sure our mentality is still one of hunger and aggression along with a chip on our shoulder,” Olsen said. “Because it’s been a long time since we’ve had success on this club.”