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|In players such as Andy Najar, D.C. United personified youth last season. Now, with more experience under their belt, they should end a four-year playoff drought.|
2011 record and finish: 9-13-12 (Seventh place in Eastern Conference)
Additions: D, Robbie Russell; M, Nick DeLeon; M, Lance Rozeboom; F, Maicon Santos; M, Danny Cruz; D, Emiliano Dudar; F, Hamdi Salihi; M, Marcelo Saragosa
Losses: M, Santino Quaranta; D, Marc Burch; M, Clyde Simms; M, Brandon Barklage; GK, Steve Cronin; F, Joseph Ngwenya; D, Jed Zayner; D, Devon McTavish; F, Blake Brettschneider
Key questions facing this team
1. Is the mix right?
Last season, United looked like a college team with a sprinkling of veterans. That was very much by design, according to Ben Olsen, who at 34 goes into his second season as full-time head coach. "We were very young last year and we knew we were going to have ups and downs that go along with having an inexperienced group," he explained. "We felt that's what last year was about, finding what young guys we were committed to and finding out what we need. This offseason we identified some of the things we needed, one was depth, one was more presence and leadership, and I felt we needed a little bit more bite, too. The team needed more experience and that's what we went out and got." Although United said goodbye to several long-serving players, they added seasoned players, as well, to complement 2011 MLS MVP Dwayne De Rosario, a midseason pickup. They hope they've now gotten the formula between talent and experience right after treading water for four consecutive playoff-less seasons.
2. Can United finally take the next step?
For much of last season, United looked playoff-bound. It wasn't until forward Chris Pontius and center back Dejan Jakovic went down injured that the campaign got derailed. The team went a horrid 1-6-2 down the stretch. Olsen is confident United are a little deeper this time around, making a late-summer swoon less likely. And he argues the late slide made the season look worse than it was. "It was a good year," he said. "As low as we finished, it's still a pretty promising group." The next step toward competing for titles is attaining a consistency and finishing the season strong.
3. Has the defense been shored up sufficiently?
During one 10-game stretch over July, August and September, United conceded six goals, -- three of which came in a 3-3 Aug. 6 tie with Toronto FC -- and took 1.6 points per game. Over the other 24 games, they gave up 46 and won just .95 points per game. Which is to say, when the defense is functioning, United are a contender. But for much of 2011, they weren't. "We've focused a lot on the defensive end and if things go better there, we could be a team that could make some real things happen," conceded Olsen. "Last year, offensively we were pretty good. We just let too many in." The addition of veteran defenders Robbie Russell and Emiliano Dudar should help, allowing Perry Kitchen to slide up a row, improving United in midfield, too.
|Branko Boskovic needs to raise his game to help add bite to United's attack.|
Biggest X-factor: Branko Boskovic
Because De Rosario can't be expected to do it all alone -- even if he did for much of the second half in 2011 -- United's investment in Montenegrin attacking midfielder Boskovic needs to yield better results. Since being brought in as a Designated Player in the summer of 2010, Boskovic has given the team very little bang for its buck, playing 17 games, hampered by poor conditioning and a torn ACL. If he can return to form, set the tempo and link up well with his fellow Rapid Wien import and DP, striker Hamdi Salihi, and De-Ro, United's attack could be a terror.
Breakout player to watch: Andy Najar
Wait a minute. Wasn't Najar the 2010 MLS Rookie of the Year? Yes, he was. Last year, however, he showed up to preseason out of shape, got off to a very slow start and was constantly distracted by his national team situation, finishing high school and his young family. He nevertheless rounded into form and matched his rookie year's tally of five goals, while taking his assist total from one to six. A lithe winger, Najar still has untapped potential and could come to dominate the league in the blink of an eye with all factors now aligned. "Hopefully he has a re-breakout year," said Olsen.
There's every reason to believe United will be better than last year, which, for the most part wasn't at all bad. Pontius will be back and healthy, forming a potent tandem of wingers with either Najar or Danny Cruz, rounding out a United squad that is looking solid through and through. If this team doesn't end its playoff drought, which at four years is the second-longest in the league behind Toronto FC's five years, it will have failed spectacularly.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderESPN.