Ben Olsen’s options at left back for D.C. United’s match at Sporting Kansas City on Saturday night are both abundant and imperfect.
Mike Chabala flew across the country Thursday to meet his new teammates and practice once before climbing back on a jet to accompany the club to the Midwest.
Chris Korb has played on the left but, in recent weeks, has settled in nicely on the right. Midfielder Lewis Neal has the experience to play almost anywhere; however, he is not a natural defender.
Olsen won’t reveal his decision until an hour before kickoff, but in a tight spot against one of MLS’s most diverse attacks, the smart money is on Chabala, a seventh-year pro acquired from the Portland Timbers for a 2014 supplemental draft pick.
United’s thinnest position was on the defensive corners, and that was before right back Robbie Russell (16 starts) hurt his left foot and left back Daniel Woolard (20) suffered a concussion. In urgent need of reinforcement, United completed a deal for Chabala this week that, according to Olsen, was “bound to happen.”
Chabala wanted out of Portland after starting just six times this year.
“He gets forward very well, he’s had a lot of games [in his career], he’s familiar with some of our guys, which always helps in the transition,” Olsen said, referring to Chabala’s five years in Houston when he served alongside current United players Dwayne De Rosario and Danny Cruz as well as D.C. goalkeepers coach Pat Onstad. “He will fit right in.”
Russell hasn’t resumed practicing yet and Woolard’s timetable is unclear.
Rejuvenated by a 1-0 victory over Columbus, United (11-7-3, 36 points) is seeking to end a six-game winless streak at Kansas City (12-7-4, 40), stop a three-game away slide and take another step forward in the congested top half of MLS’s Eastern Conference race.
United is in fourth place — the top five will make the playoffs — but has played between one and three fewer matches than the other contenders.
Olsen is likely to stick with Brandon McDonald and Emiliano Dudar in central defense, a choice that would leave Dejan Jakovic in reserve. On the right, he seems happy with Korb, who has started the past three matches, including a 1-1 friendly against Paris Saint-Germain.
If Olsen decides to move Korb to the other side, a position he played extensively in college and has filled on occasion for United, Andy Najar could play on the right. Najar is an attacking midfielder and, in his few assignments in the back, held his own.
“Usually we do a good job of adjusting and we have a week to figure things out,” said Korb, in his second season. “We have shuffled around in the back a lot this year, so it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. I think we’re fine either way.”
That, however, would mean one additional moving part and involve reintegrating Najar, who rejoined the club this week following Olympic duty for Honduras.
“I talked to Andy to make sure he understands it’s D.C. United time — put [the Olympics] behind you and take care of your job,” Olsen said. “The guys are happy to see him. He is everybody’s little brother and they were proud of him, but they’re ready for him to fight for us now.”
Regardless of the lineup, United faces a considerable task in trying to earn at least one point against the preseason conference favorite.
Sporting won the U.S. Open Cup title Wednesday, defeating the Seattle Sounders for its first trophy since 2004. The effort took a physical toll: The match went 120 minutes before it was settled on penalty kicks.
In league play, Sporting has stumbled at home in four recent games: two losses and two draws with just one goal scored.