2016 MLS season preview: D.C. United

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With Perry Kitchen gone and Bill Hamid sidelined following knee surgery, Ben Olsen's ageing team face some big questions going into the new season.

2015 regular season: 4th Eastern Conference (8th overall)

2015 playoffs: Conference semi-finals; 2-0 aggregate loss to New York Red Bulls

MLS Cup odds: 25/1

Players in: Lamar Neagle (Seattle Sounders, trade), Patrick Nyarko (Chicago Fire, trade), Julian Buescher (SuperDraft), Paul Clowes (SuperDraft), Marcelo Sarvas (Colorado Rapids, trade), Luciano Acosta (Boca Juniors, loan), Rob Vincent (Pittsburgh Riverhounds, undisclosed)

Players out: Eddie Johnson (retired), Jairo Arrieta (option declined), Michael Farfan (option declined), Facundo Coria (waived), Perry Kitchen (out of contract), Chris Pontius (Philadelphia Union, trade), Conor Doyle (Colorado Rapids, trade)

After finishing atop the East in 2014, D.C. United put together another solid season last year with mostly the same veteran-filled roster. Ben Olsen’s men led their conference for over three months from May to August, despite never looking totally convincing, as their gritty but effective playing style continued to get results.

However, a late-season slump forced them to settle for the fourth playoff seed, and after a hardnosed victory over the England Revolution in the Knockout Round, they were beaten in the conference semi-finals for a second straight year, losing 2-0 on aggregate to the New York Red Bulls.

Perry Kitchen aside, the core of the squad has again been kept intact heading into this season, but there are obvious questions over whether Olsen’s “Benny-ball” brand of football has outstayed its welcome.

Reasons to be positive

D.C. don’t have many flashy names on their roster, but they do have plenty of MLS experience. Forwards Chris Rolfe, Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola are all tremendously battle-tested, and the backline of Sean Franklin, Bobby Boswell, Steve Birnbaum and Taylor Kemp should continue to prove a sturdy unit.

They’ve added even more proven commodities to mix as well with the acquisitions of wingers Patrick Nyarko and Lamar Neagle along with central midfielder Marcelo Sarvas, while Boca Juniors loanee Luciano Acosta’s playmaking qualities could add another dimension to the attack.

Trouble on the horizon?

United’s no-frills approach hasn’t won them many friends over the past two years, and it started to get found out over the second half of 2015 as referees began to clamp down on their “tactical” fouling. Olsen’s collection of wily veterans may well have another good season left in them, but it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise if this term was the one when everything started to unravel. Espindola and Saborio in particular aren’t getting any younger and, in an ideal world, another striker would have been brought in to carry the goalscoring burden.

On the defensive side, the club have also been hit by a couple of big blows. 2014 MLS goalkeeper of the Year Bill Hamid is expected to miss at least the first half of the season after undergoing knee surgery in January, while holding midfielder Kitchen opted to leave RFK Stadium when his contract expired in December to explore European opportunities. Former LA Galaxy stalwart Sarvas is now set to partner Markus Halsti in the centre of the park, but his underwhelming displays for the Colorado Rapids last term suggest that converted wide man Nick DeLeon or first-round draft pick Julian Buescher may ultimately end up starting over him in the near future.

Key man: Fabian Espindola

Espindola may be a notoriously streaky player, but when he’s on form he poses a serious problem for even the toughest defenders in MLS. The 30-year-old Argentine only managed 17 regular season appearances during an injury-hit 2015, recording five goals and seven assists in the process, but he goes into this term as the focal point of the D.C. attack over Saborio. If he can replicate the MVP-calibre performances he produced two seasons ago in helping the club top the East, their playoff chances will be much improved.

One to watch: Luciano Acosta

After going several seasons without a pure playmaker, D.C. finally have someone fitting that description in Acosta. Signed on a season-long loan from Boca, the 21-year-old Argentine has already made a positive impression in preseason with his skill and dynamism, and while it’s still early days, comparisons to FC Dallas compatriot Mauro Diaz are unavoidable. He may be short in stature at just 5ft 3in, but the diminutive attacker could be set to make a big impact in MLS.

Predicted regular season finish: 7th Eastern Conference

While it may be foolish to write off United given what they’ve done over the past two years, there’s no doubt that they’ve rode their luck at times when it comes to grinding out tight wins. Some of that good fortune is bound to evaporate in the absence of Hamid’s shot-stopping heroics and Kitchen’s strong presence in midfield, and unless someone who can consistently find the back of the net is brought on board, they could easily fall out of the playoff picture.

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