Strength in numbers leads United to first place
Davy Arnaud has played on many soccer teams as a 13-year MLS veteran who happens to be D.C. United’s oldest player. That is why it was particularly stunning that, after a sweltering practice session Friday at RFK Stadium, the 34-year-old Arnaud confessed that this edition of United may also be one of the deepest teams he’s ever been a part of.
“I don’t know how many teams could put out  different lineups and still be in first place,” Arnaud said.
United has used 13 lineups in 16 leagues games this season, and it could very well roll out another reshuffled look Sunday night when it visits Orlando City. The match will mark the halfway point of the season for United (8-4-4), which remains atop the Eastern Conference and looks as if its health is recuperating after a brutal five-game stretch.
Starting goalkeeper Bill Hamid
took part in Friday’s training session and could be ready Sunday after missing two games because of injury. Midfielder Chris Pontius and defender Chris Korb also practiced, two crucial pieces who could give Coach Ben Olsen more flexibility with his lineup against Orlando City (45-5).
Hamid wasn’t listed on the team’s injury report this past week, although Olsen remained tight-lipped on who would start in goal Sunday. Korb and defender Taylor Kemp, who has missed two games because of injury, are listed as probable, while Pontius remains questionable.
Olsen had said after United lost, 2-1, to Toronto FC at RFK Stadium on June 6 that he would have to make difficult decisions regarding his rotation for Sunday’s game, although he referred to that as a positive Friday.
Managing depth from season to season is difficult in MLS because of the structure of the league and how the salary cap often dictates roster turnover, but Olsen has excelled at patching up his lineups for the first half of the season in large part because of the quality personnel the organization has stockpiled. But he also noted Friday that a number of players had also “come into their own” as United has encountered attrition, including forward Conor Doyle and goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra, normally backups who have helped guide United as it has waded through injuries and suspension.
United will enter Sunday’s game as close to full strength as it has been weeks— Fabian Espindola returned from injury and helped lift United to a 3-1 win over Chicago on June 3, then showed no signs of regression after logging 90 minutes against Toronto FC. Starting midfielder Chris Rolfe returned from suspension, while forward Luis Silva entered the game late for his first action since May 17 because of injury. The team is also expecting defender Markus Halsti back after he completes his national team duty with Finland this weekend.
“We hoped that we would be able to just shuffle the lineup here and there, but due to injuries, we’ve been able to lean on that depth,” Rolfe said. “It’s been very impressive, I think, how well we’ve done over that 16-game stretch.”
United was undone by Toronto FC striker Sebastian Giovinco in last weekend’s loss, and it faces a similar challenge in Orlando City’s Kaka on Sunday. The Brazilian has scored six goals in 14gamesfor Orlando City, which is coming off a 3-2 victory over Chicago and hasn’t lost amatch since it last faced United, which earned a 2-1 decision at RFK on May 13.
“Like Giovinco, you can’t take somebody like [Kaka] completely out of the game. But as much as you can, you have to limit [him],” Arnaud said.
After surviving a grueling stretch in which it played five games in 15 days, the past week was largely devoted to recalibration for the entire team. That included a few days off that allowed players to rest their bodies and recharge mentally. Rolfe, who has four goals and three assists in 13 appearances this season, said he fully unplugged from soccer and treated it as a “minivacation.” It was an essential seven-day reboot for a team that is slowly returning to form as the second half of the season approaches.