With remade DC United, Ben Olsen acknowledges challenge is to build team chemistry for 2014
WASHINGTON – Scanning the pitch at D.C. United's training session on Monday morning, you'd have been hard-pressed to find a familiar face.
Gone are center backs Dejan Jakovic, Ethan White and Daniel Woolard, replaced by a pair of MLS veterans and a college standout – Bobby Boswell, Jeff Parke and Steve Birnbaum. Sean Franklin seems a lock to start at right back, a replacement for last year's solution, James Riley.
The list goes on. Davy Arnaud in midfield. Fabián Espíndola and Eddie Johnson at forward. Depth signings like Nana Attakora, Christiano François, Jalen Robinson and a slew of draft picks. All told, United have brought 13 new faces in – and there's still time for more.
"We still need a piece or two," head coach Ben Olsen told MLSsoccer.com on Monday.
United's roster overhaul may be extensive, but it shouldn't come as a surprise, following a 2013 season that was historically anemic on offense and equally as bad on the other side of the ball. However, with the task of gathering his pieces complete, Olsen now faces the far greater challenge of organizing them.
"Making the players a group, a team that’s ready to get results – that’s the challenge," said Olsen. "We have the right mix of individuals between youth, experience, guys that have been around and guys that have held trophies. I’m excited about the talent of this team. But the trick," continued Olsen, "is to make them a team. We have six weeks to do that, and we’ve got a lot of work to do."
Olsen, in a way, can take a bit of comfort in his ability to keep a team together through adversity. Even while trudging through what was arguably the worst season in MLS history, Olsen's 2013 squad remained tight-knit, free from the locker-room meltdowns and off-the-field antics that so often plague franchises during particularly trying times. With so many familiar faces gone, though, one wonders whether this year's squad will be a little less resilient.
"We take character into account with a lot of these players that we get," Olsen reflected. "When you get those guys that ultimately have the desire to win and compete for each other – I don’t worry about [locker room issues] too much. This stuff happens organically – I have no issues that from a team standpoint they’ll be ready to get each other’s back on opening day. "
Olsen's attitude was one shared by many players on Monday.
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"A lot of the guys we’ve brought in have played 200-plus games in MLS," said Chris Pontius, now United's longest-tenured player. "You're talking about guys like Bobby and Davy and Eddie. This is a good group that doesn’t lack MLS experience."
Franklin, in particular, has it harder than most of United's newcomers. He's stepping into a completely overhauled defensive line, after leaving an LA Galaxy side whose defensive corps remained relatively stable since 2009.
"Coming from a team where we've had the same back line for so long, this is going to be a challenge. But it's all about talking to each other, helping each other out and getting on the same page as quickly as possible. I'm optimistic we can do that," said Franklin.
United do have some time to jell, but not much. Tuesday brings their last local training session before visits to Florida and Charleston. Olsen, ever the optimist, says he has some tricks up his sleeve to accelerate the bonding process.
"I'll throw some hokey stuff in there," Olsen said, chuckling. "Maybe we’ll all go bowling or play mini golf."