It’s early in the MLS season, just the fourth match on a 34-date campaign that will pass through the muggy months of a Washington summer before crossing into autumn on what D.C. United Coach Ben Olsen hopes is a playoff pace.
Matches in April are largely forgotten by July, lost in the blur of league matches, domestic cup competition and international friendlies.
But on Saturday night, a United squad finding its way through a rebuilding season seeks to forge a lasting memory. With a glamorous opponent (the Los Angeles Galaxy) and fervent setting (about 25,000 at RFK Stadium), this is no ordinary spring occasion.
“It’s a special game,” United forward Charlie Davies said Friday. “It’s the stage you want to be on. All eyes are on the game.”
It’s special because the Galaxy, the best team in the regular season last year, employs MLS’s most famous player (David Beckham) and most dynamic player (Landon Donovan). It’s special because the entire Galaxy coaching staff, headed by Bruce Arena, once worked in Washington. United is 0-3-2 in the teams’ past five meetings.
The match will also serve to measure United’s growth after a stirring opener, a pair of troubling away losses and a taxing penalty kick victory Wednesday in the U.S. Open Cup.
“We’re a young team and we’ve already learned some lessons,” midfielder Clyde Simms said. “It’s going to be a big crowd, a lot of energy, but we’ve got to manage our energy. We can’t blow it all out in the beginning of the game. It’s going to be a tough test for us.”
After missing several players in recent games, United (1-2) is close to full strength. Davies, who had three goals in the first two games before missing a pair of matches with a strained groin, practiced the past two days and said he has no discomfort.
Center back Perry Kitchen returned from U.S. under-20 national team duty in Guatemala and seems likely to regain his starting job alongside Dejan Jakovic, who served a redcard suspension in the previous league match. Simms is expected to play after missing time with a calf injury.
Jed Zayner, whose hamstring ailment has sidelined him since the opener, is doubtful and fellow defender Rodrigo Brasesco is out with a groin injury suffered Wednesday.
Kitchen captained the U.S. squad for three matches at the U-20 World Cup qualifying tournament, culminating with a quarterfinal loss to Guatemala on Wednesday, and traveled all day Thursday to report for final preparations.
“He looks fine; he’s a young kid,” Olsen said. “Physically, if we would want to start him, I would have no problem doing it.”
Davies is eager to start for the first time, but after sitting out for a week, understands he might remain in reserve.
“I’ve been taking a couple of days off, so they probably want to ease me back into it in the beginning,” he said. “I am definitely ready to start. I’m looking forward to start. . . . The more minutes, the better because obviously that’s why I came to D.C. — to get back to where I want to be.”
The visit by the Galaxy (2-1-1) will reunite Davies with his former U.S. national teammate, Donovan. The two haven’t seen one another, Davies said, since October 2009, when Davies was seriously injured in a car accident while on U.S. duty in Washington.
Like Davies, Donovan is not certain to start after taking time off this week to recuperate from fatigue. His absence would be a relief for United, which has been burned by the three-time World Cup attacker for 14 goals and three assists in 18 regular season matches.
“He’s been great for me because he would always send me little motivational texts” during rehabilitation, Davies said of Donovan. “Now, it’s a little bit of: ‘I’ll see you Saturday. Don’t run away from me when you see me coming at you full speed.’ It’s been a lot of jokes.”
Olsen’s most intriguing decision is the goalkeeper. Bill Hamid looked good in his 2011 debut Wednesday, making two quality saves in regular play and stopping one attempt in the tiebreaker against the Philadelphia Union.
While Hamid (shoulder) and Steve Cronin (wrist) were recovering, goalkeepers coach Pat Onstad, 43, came out of retirement and started three league matches. Cronin is not ready yet, leaving Hamid and Onstad as the top options.
“I trust Bill or Pat,” Olsen said. “A lot of the stuff Pat does, your average fan doesn’t see — organizing defenses and keeping guys alert, giving information. Bill obviously is a little green in the area but more athletic. The other night, he pulled out some saves that remind you why he is such a special talent.”
Although Onstad is on a short-term playing contract and Hamid is the long-term starter, Olsen said he considers it a competition. “I have to make some tough decisions,” he said, “and that’s a good thing.”