For starters, Olsen eyes more consistent lineups
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.