For starters, Olsen eyes more con­sis­tent line­ups

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY STEVEN GOFF steven.goff@wash­post.com

At 5 p.m. Sun­day, on the oc­ca­sion of D.C. United’s 23rd reg­u­lar sea­son match, Ben Olsen is al­most cer­tain to field his 22nd dif­fer­ent start­ing lineup. The latest change would come with good rea­son: An es­tab­lished goal scorer, Al­varo Sa­bo­rio, has joined a team la­bor­ing to score goals. The Costa Ri­can for­ward is slated to start against the Philadelphia Union at RFK Sta­dium in United’s first home ap­pear­ance in five weeks.

With the cam­paign round­ing the two-thirds mark and con­ti­nu­ity crit­i­cal to a play­off push, Olsen would like to dis­con­tinue shut­tling play­ers and set­tle on a pri­mary group of starters.

“To get the same group to­gether for a few games in a row is cru­cial for us to start to be­come a bet­ter team,” said Olsen, who has not sum­moned the same 11 play­ers since the first two games of the sea­son. “Hope­fully we can get the num­bers back and have those op­tions, get that best group out there, stay healthy and con­tinue to build rhythm and build part­ner­ships.”

In­juries, sus­pen­sions and a con­gested sum­mer sched­ule pre­vented Olsen from nar­row­ing the ro­ta­tion. Twenty-three of the 28 play­ers have started at least once, and 20 have made four or more starts.

Olsen has used play­ers out­side their com­fort zone, called on un­proven prospects to fill emer­gency voids and re­quested vet­er­ans to serve vary­ing roles from week to week. Through it all, United (107-5) has re­mained atop MLS’s Eastern Con­fer­ence since mid-May and in the hunt for the Sup­port­ers’ Shield, awarded to the over­all points leader.

The need for con­stant ad­just­ments, though, is be­gin­ning to sub­side.

Af­ter a rush of matches, the sched­ule is re­turn­ing to a nor­mal pace. “It’s good to be a lit­tle more reg­i­mented right now from a game stand­point,” Olsen said.

Af­ter a glut of in­juries, three reg­u­lars — Chris Pon­tius, Michael Far­fan and Sean Franklin — are backin train­ing, and a fourth (goal­keeper Bill Hamid) will re­turn in about a month.

And although, for com­pet­i­tive rea­sons, he won’t elab­o­rate, Olsen said he has a “gen­eral idea” who fits best in the lineup.

Vari­ables re­main, how­ever. United will play four mid­week CONCACAF Cham­pi­ons League matches be­tween mid-Au­gust and late Septem­ber. In­juries and sus­pen­sions are bound to oc­cur. And na­tional team call-ups are pos­si­ble.

For these rea­sons, Olsen will con­tinue lean­ing on depth and mix­ing and match­ing play­ers when nec­es­sary. The aim, though, is to iden­tify a core set.

“Be­cause so­many guys have got­ten play­ing time, you don’t re­ally ex­pect a drop-off,” cap­tain Bobby Boswell said. “But down the stretch, when you are gear­ing up for play­off soc­cer, it’s usu­ally the guys who are most fluid and work­ing on all cylin­ders who get you through the tough games.”

United be­lieves it has found the right front-line for­mula with Sa­bo­rio and Fabian Espin­dola, the club’s most in­flu­en­tial at­tacker. Although Sa­bo­rio is new to the team, ac­quired from Real Salt Lake for Luis Silva, he is fa­mil­iar and com­fort­able with Espin­dola, his at­tack­ing part­ner at Real Salt Lake from 2010 to2012.

Sa­bo­rio’s role as a pure striker prom­ises to pro­vide greater free­dom for Espin­dola to op­er­ate on the wings, in the chan­nels and be­hind the Costa Ri­can for­ward.

The duo got reac­quainted at the RFK train­ing grounds this past week.

“Some­times it takes years to de­velop a part­ner­ship up­front,” Olsen said, “and al­ready you can tell they have a head start.”

That said, “It’s ev­ery­body. It’s not go­ing to be on Fabi and Sabo” to pro­vide all of the scor­ing, Olsen added.

The op­por­tu­nity tore unite them prompted United to part with Silva, who formed an ef­fec­tive part­ner­ship with Espin­dola but was of­ten side­lined with in­juries this year.

United needs fresh fire­power. En­ter­ing the week­end, the club was ranked 17th among 20 clubs with an av­er­age of 1.09 goals per game. It has posted none or one in 15 of 22 matches and scored twice (one was an own goal by Dal­las) on the re­cent four-game away stretch.

United is av­er­ag­ing 3.55 shots on goal, third fewest in the league.

Espin­dola has not played in three weeks: He re­ceived a red card July 3 at Seat­tle and, af­ter the team’s off week, served a one-game sus­pen­sion at Dal­las.

“I am in­ter­ested to see how this will work,” Boswell said. “It’s early. I don’t think it’s fair to say we bet­ter con­nect right away and they bet­ter go out and score a lot of goals, but given their history, I wouldn’t be sur­prised if they did.”

Note: Right back Chris Korb, who left the Dal­las game at half­time with a hip in­jury, is avail­able for se­lec­tion, Olsen said.

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