The Carolina Challenge Cup is far from a foreign experience for D.C. United. The club that has taken part in the annual preseason tournament in six of the last eight years.
The familiar setting at Blackbaud Stadium in Charleston, S.C., will provide a chance for a number of players to get to know each other after a frenzied few weeks of personnel movement. Seven players officially on the senior roster were not with D.C. last season, and a few of the trialists with the club are closing in on deals as well.
"This next two to three weeks is very crucial for us as a group to get on the same page," D.C. head coach Ben Olsen said.
The next step in that process is at the Carolina Challenge Cup, where D.C. will play against the Chicago Fire, Columbus Crew and USL Pro side and host Charleston Battery over the course of eight days, kicking things off against the Fire Saturday night.
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"There were good things that were occurring out [in preseason camp in Arizona]," new D.C. winger Danny Cruz said. "Charleston is to continue that, to get better every single practice obviously, which is something [Olsen] is stressing, and to get to know each other more. We’re still jelling, a lot of new guys, but the football is good."
Along with continuing to jell and taking a longer look at on-trial Brazilian left back Guilherme, one of D.C.'s main objectives are to work Designated Player Hamdi Salihi into the rotation while increasing his fitness level. Salihi said that he had been training with former club Rapid Vienna while his transfer to MLS got worked out, but he still enters United camp with some catching up to do.
"You can tell he’s played at a very high level for both club and country, and he’ll have no trouble fitting in," Olsen said. "We need to be patient as well. His strike rate is pretty remarkable over his career, but it does take time. We need to integrate him over the next couple weeks and make sure he's ready to go."
Beyond the new additions, D.C. won't be at full strength for the duration of the tournament. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid and midfielder Perry Kitchen are training with the US Under-23 national team ahead of next week's friendly against the Mexico U-23s. They won't meet up with the club until next Thursday, which means likely expanded roles for second-year goalkeeper Joe Willis and veteran defensive midfielder Marcelo Saragosa in the first two matches in Carolina.
"Charleston is a great trip for [gauging our progress]," midfielder Chris Pontius said. "It’s not just practices down there. It’s real games with people in the stands, so I think we’ll get a great understanding for where our team is after that."
D.C. United open the season at home to Sporting Kansas City on March 10. CLICK HERE to get tickets.