Ben Olsen is eager to get to Florida, and not just to escape the cold.
With 13 new players in training camp and memories of a terrible season haunting the organization, D.C. United’s head coach has work to do.
“It’s been an interesting few weeks avoiding the polar vortex,” he said Monday after the first of two indoor training sessions ahead of Wednesday’s escape to Bradenton, Fla. “Certainly looking forward to getting into warm weather.”
Warmer weather, but also the heat of having to reverse United’s fortunes following a 3-24-7 MLS campaign — one of the worst in league history. Management granted him another chance, but as Olsen enters the final year of his contract, he grasps the importance of getting it right.
United took extreme steps to refurbish the roster. It replaced captain Dwayne De Rosario and several other regulars with a parade of newcomers, including U.S. national team forward Eddie Johnson.
“It’s a challenge, but I think we have the right mix of individuals — youth, experience, guys who have been around, guys who have held trophies,” said Olsen, who, in his fourth full season, is the longest-serving head coach in United’s 18-year history. “I’m excited about the talent of this team, but the trick is to make them a team.”
He has six weeks to figure it out. The process begins in earnest with a 15-day session in Bradenton and concludes in late February with the Carolina Challenge Cup, a preseason tournament in Charleston, S.C. The opener is March 8 against the Columbus Crew at RFK Stadium.
The pieces are promising, but will they mesh? Johnson arrives with both a scoring touch and a reputation for being difficult. He is under contract through 2014 but not happy about the terms, negotiated with his previous club, the Seattle Sounders. United is prepared to make him the highest-paid player on the squad. Talks will commence soon, General Manager Dave Kasper said.
Keeping Johnson happy would promote clubhouse harmony, everyone agrees.
Johnson will not meet his new teammates for at least another week: He and goalkeeper Bill Hamid are on U.S. national team duty through Saturday and will receive a break before joining United in Florida.
The lowest-scoring team in MLS last year, United also claimed the rights to Argentine forward Fabian Espindola, who starred at Real Salt Lake before serving with New York in 2013. In anticipation of finalizing a one-year pact, Espindola reported to camp over the weekend.
“I’m happy — and cold,” Espindola said with a grin after arriving from Argentina.
Olsen also will have to coordinate three new starting defenders — Bobby Boswell, Jeff Parke and Sean Franklin — and the No. 2 overall pick in the SuperDraft, Cal defender Steve Birnbaum.
“It’s not easy right away, but there is a good base of guys here who have played for Ben,” said midfielder Davy Arnaud, 33, acquired from Montreal and entering his 13th season. “The guys that have been brought in, we’ve been around a long time, so we shouldn’t have a problem getting to know each other fairly quickly.”
Arnaud, Boswell, Parke, Franklin, Johnson and Espindola have combined for 1,170 regular season starts. Additionally, Johnson and Espindola have played overseas.
Olsen’s challenge is mixing the new crew with primary holdovers Hamid, Chris Pontius, Nick DeLeon, Luis Silva and Perry Kitchen. He also will need Pontius and DeLeon to bounce back from subpar performances in 2013.
Aside from the 34-game regular season slate and defending its U.S. Open Cup title, United will enter international competition, the CONCACAF Champions League, for the first time in five years.
“Last year was obviously difficult in many ways. It wasn’t fun, by any means,” said Pontius, who, with six years’ service, is atop United’s seniority list. “It was nice to hit the refresh button and get going with a new group of guys and a new goal for the 2014 season. It’s nice to have all these fresh faces in here.”