Ben Olsen is wise enough to appreciate that, even with a new cast, D.C. United’s reclamation project will require time and patience.
In the aftermath of a 3-24-7 campaign — the fewest victories in MLS history — United underwent a massive makeover. And while the acquisition of fresh pieces lends promise to a 2014 renaissance, the club remains in the early calibration stages.
United has built a team; now it has to become a team.
“It could hopefully take six weeks. It could take two months. It could take 21 / 2 months until we are really clicking,” Olsen said ahead of Saturday night’s opener against the Columbus Crew at RFK Stadium. “The trick is, early in the season, can you find ways to get results? Because it’s not going to be perfect.”
In time, United believes it’s on the right course.
“We are jelling and gaining rhythm,” goalkeeper Bill Hamid said of a six-week preseason that culminated with the Carolina Challenge Cup title in Charleston, S.C. “We see progression, and at some point, it is all going to come together into a masterpiece. We feel we have the tools to do some damage in the league this year.”
Olsen isn’t expecting any masterpieces right away. But working with a blank canvas this winter, he and the technical staff altered the landscape with broad strokes.
They dropped almost half the roster, including 2011 league MVP Dwayne De Rosario, defender Dejan Jakovic and several other pricey veterans.
The salary dump afforded them flexibility to rebuild. Finishing last afforded them the first choice on several league acquisition platforms. Overall, they added a dozen players.
The most notable came via a trade with Seattle, U.S. national team forward Eddie Johnson. United scored 22 goals in 34 league games last season; Johnson had 23 in 49 games the past two years with the Sounders. D.C. also welcomed Fabian Espindola, who has averaged almost 10 goals over the past three seasons.
In addition to Espindola, United also claimed veteran defenders whose contract options were not exercised. It executed two significant trades and leveraged the No. 1 overall pick in the SuperDraft to acquire both financial considerations from Philadelphia and the player they wanted all along with the second pick, California defender Steve Birnbaum.
In all, Olsen will probably start seven newcomers Saturday and have three others in uniform.
“We have a chip on our shoulders that someone let us go for whatever reason — we’re angry,” said defender Bobby Boswell, speaking on behalf of players who were no longer wanted elsewhere. “And then you have the guys who were here before and don’t want to have another season like last year. So you put all of those mentalities together, it’s a dangerous group. Our hope is it comes out right away.”
The chemistry began to show in the final stage of preseason, albeit in segments rather than over an entire match. “We’re starting to play some good football,” midfielder Nick DeLeon said. “It’s coming.”
If it does not come, Olsen and General Manager Dave Kasper will take the blame. Late last summer, as the season unraveled, they went before management and outlined a plan for the future. They were, in essence, granted a mulligan for 2013. Club leadership also weighed their success a year earlier, when United finished with the third-most points in the league and advanced to the Eastern Conference finals.
However, both Olsen and Kasper are in the final year of their contracts and have little room for error.
“A realistic goal for this team is the playoffs,” said Olsen, whose squad will also compete internationally in the CONCACAF Champions League. “Coming off last place in the league, we can’t get caught up in anything but making the playoffs. We have a whole new squad. We have such a long way to go to understand who we are, but I like the character, I like the experience, I like the balance. There are a lot of positives. If things go right, we can make the playoffs.”