CARSON, Calif. – It's worth remembering that the last time D.C. United plummeted to the bottom of the Eastern Conference – that horrific 3-24-7 campaign five years ago – they followed up with a top-of-the-table finish the next season.
That might be beyond the capital's club this year, with so young a roster and 12 of 14 games on the road before long-awaited Audi Field finally opens its doors in mid-July, but there's an optimism present that anything is possible. The additions last August of winger Paul Arriola and holding midfielder Russell Canouse, both 22, served as something of a transformation, the first step toward the glories that all on hand believe are ahead.
Arriola and Canouse, along with second-year midfielder Ian Harkes, will join United's preseason preparations following the US national team's friendly Sunday against Bosnia and Herzegovina at StubHub Center (9:30 pm ET | FS1, UniMás), and they can't wait to get going.
“I think it's an exciting time for the club, the fans and, obviously, the players,” Arriola told MLSsoccer.com this week. “I think we're all pretty optimistic about kind of a fresh start and hopefully a full year with the full squad.”
Arriola, a rising US national team standout who transferred from Club Tijuana, played in just 11 games last year and Canouse, who arrived from Bundesliga side Hoffenheim, in just 10. It was too late to change D.C.'s fortunes but enough to offer a glimpse of what could be.
D.C. limped to a last-in-the-East finish at 9-20-5, posting the most losses and worst goal difference (minus-29) in the league and finishing ahead of only the LA Galaxy in the overall standings on the wins tiebreaker. But successive 1-0 wins in August at Colorado and at RFK Stadium over New England and Atlanta, in Canouse's first three matches, signaled that the future was near and bright.
“It definitely lifted the energy of the whole group [with Arriola and Canouse joined the team],” said Harkes, also 22, the son of D.C. United original (and former USMNT captain) John Harkes. “Paul and Russell are definitely top-quality players that are going to change training sessions and push the guys around them, because they bring good energy and a good mentality. I saw that change a lot, and it gave us an extra lift going into some games towards the end of the season.”
United have gotten younger this year, with the departures of several veteran contributors, including goalkeeper Bill Hamid, defenders Sean Franklin and Chris Korb, and midfielders Patrick Nyarko, Marcelo Sarvas and Lloyd Sam – additions include defender Frederic Brillant from New York City FC, forward Darren Mattocks from Portland, goalkeeper David Ousted from Vancouver, Costa Rican midfielder Ulises Segura and Venezuelan midfielder Junior Moreno – and Arriola, Canouse and Harkes will shoulder more responsibility.
“One of my goals this year is to become a leader in the midfield,” said Canouse. “I tried to do that the last 10 games that I was involved. I think there needs to be that presence there within the midfield, and hopefully I can continue to do that this season.”
Arriola is also here for the additional responsibility, no longer just the "local kid" in Tijuana.
“Now I'm at a club where [there's] more pressure, more expectation," he said. "For me to grow as a player and get to where I want to be, I have to be in that environment where not only the club is asking me to produce numbers and to win games, but the fans as well, and my teammates are looking at me to do that stuff as well. The only way I'm going to be able to grow is if I'm able to accomplish these things. I think being in D.C. is going to be a great test, and it's a great step in my career leading to where I want to be.”
Harkes started 22 league games for D.C. as a rookie, primarily as a No. 8, and wants to be a bigger presence in year two.
“The next step for me is becoming more of a riskier player,” he said. “I like to be a box-to-box player, so I think that means being a little more dangerous. Adding more goals and assists."
Getting through the first 14 games will be difficult, but if D.C. can claim enough points to stay with the pack, Audi Field could provide the impetus to get the club into the playoffs and perhaps more.
Harkes understands well what the new stadium means.
“I'm one of the lucky ones,” he said. “[Audi Field] has been an idea that's been in the works for many years, and I think a lot of players that have played for D.C. before have been waiting for this. I come in my first year and get to play out the last season of RFK, which was really special. Now to move into Audi Field is really special, and I'm lucky to be a part of.”