As D.C. United’s practice concluded Thursday, sweat-sopped players stopped to sign autographs for a line of wide-eyed kids enrolled in the club’s summer camp. Shelter from the blistering heat would have to wait. In a season that has unfolded in wonderful ways, a few extra minutes under a raging sun were tolerable.
The good fortune continued Thursday with the announcements that Ben Olsen, in just his second full season as a head coach, had been selected to guide the MLS all-stars against European champion Chelsea next month and midfielder Andy Najar had been named to the Honduran Olympic squad.
Not all is perfect: Italian champion Juventus abruptly canceled its Washington visit, sending club officials scrambling for a replacement on the July 28 date.
But in the larger scheme, United (9-4-3) is in high spirits heading into Sunday’s away showdown against the New York Red Bulls — the midway mark of an uplifting campaign.
“I thought we had a good enough team to be in first place, but [did] I have any inclination we would be in first place at this point in time? No, I didn’t,” midfielder-forward Dwayne De Rosario said. “I’m very happy we are. We’re in a better place than we were last year.”
Or the past four years, for that matter, when MLS’s most decorated club was absent from the playoffs. United has already matched its 2011 win total.
After an 0-2-1 start this season, United has gone 9-2-2, its most prosperous run since a 9-0-4 surge in 2007. Regardless of Sunday’s result, United will boast the fifth-best record at the halfway point of the season in club history.
The team is half done but only half-satisfied.
“You know me: I’m not going to sit here and sing our praises,” Olsen said. “We have a long way to go.”
True. Difficult trips to New York, Houston, Kansas City and Real Salt Lake await. And history suggests that during a long MLS campaign, early- and mid-season favorites tend to lose their gusto.
But things are falling into place for United, even when the club isn’t playing. Ties and losses by its closest pursuers have allowed United to remain atop the conference. D.C. is a point ahead of Kansas City (which has two games in hand) and three in front of New York (one fewer game). Both of those teams played to draws during West Coast matches Wednesday.
The seven other Eastern clubs are between nine and 26 points back, increasing the likelihood United will finish in the top five and end its postseason drought.
Another factor working in its favor: health. Once afflicted by injuries, particularly to the back line, United will have every regular available Sunday. Midfielder Danny Cruz (hamstring) was the last to recover.
“When you saw the team we started putting together and the way the season was developing, you could see the growth,” defender Brandon McDonald said. “Our goals remain the same — to make the playoffs and win a championship — and we’ve got to keep moving forward.”
The primary difference this year, Olsen and the players agree, is the ability to secure points when performances are lacking. They did it last week at Philadelphia, earning a 1-0 victory despite a lackluster display.
“There were times where we played some great stuff against maybe lesser opponents, but we’ve also had the ability to grind out results,” Olsen said. “Last year we were in a bunch of games and we just didn’t have the experience to manage games and see them out.
“You don’t want to rely on grinding out results every weekend. You want to get to that point where you are dominating possession and the style is the right way. That needs to come.”
Said Cruz, who is in his first season in Washington: “It’s been fun to be a part of it, but we haven’t accomplished anything yet.”
United notes: Club officials said they are hopeful of finalizing a European replacement for Juventus in the next few days. Paris Saint-Germain is a prime candidate. Juventus also was scheduled to play Real Madrid in Las Vegas and PSG in Montreal. Mexico’s Santos Laguna will reportedly fill the Las Vegas slot. . . .
Olsen replaced Peter Nowak as the all-star boss after Nowak’s dismissal as the Philadelphia Union’s head coach last week. Aside from United’s record, Olsen was chosen because of geographic proximity and his Pennsylvania roots. . . .
Najar will report to Honduras training camp after United’s June 30 game against the Montreal Impact and probably miss at least three MLS matches.