Sneak Peek: Recent struggles tarnish D.C.'s glorious past

Watching a groundbreaking ceremony Monday for new D.C. United stadium served as a stark reminder of how long it’s been since the four-time champion played in an MLS Cup final.

A long time. Freddy Adu was a rookie and Peter Nowak was head coach. More than a decade has passed since D.C. beat Kansas City, 3-2, at Home Depot Center to win its fourth title in the 2004 final.

Only two teams (Columbus and the LA Galaxy) played in their own stadiums back then and in many ways United has fallen off the pace. Since then, a dozen different teams -- including several that came into existence after that match -- have played in the final.

Opening day …
Projected XI – Hamid; DeLeon, Franklin, Birnbaum, Kemp; Sarvas, Jeffrey; Nyarko, Acosta, Sam; Mullins. 

No significant losses occurred during the offseason and it’s telling that the biggest acquisition is Hermann Trophy winner Ian Harkes, son of club legend and former U.S. international John Harkes. He is destined to play a lot of minutes and could emerge as a lockdown starter sooner rather than later, but the key for United will be to get consistent, incisive flank play from Patrick Nyarko and Lloyd Sam to supplement the skills of Luciano Acosta and the finishing of Patrick Mullins.

United scored 33 goals in their final 13 games yet a 4-2 loss to Montreal in the Knockout Round was an all too typical example of their defensive porosity. Every season it seems head coach Ben Olsen bemoans an over-reliance on keeper Bill Hamid, whose ongoing injury problems might be a product of excessive usage in extreme circumstances. Only once since earning the starting job in 2011 has Hamid played as many as 30 games in a season and only a few of his absences were due to international callups.

In preseason Sean Franklin saw significant time at centerback and might be preferred to Bobby Boswell. Olsen also needs cover for the times Steve Birnbaum will be with the U.S., and so Kofi Opare is in the mix.

Olsen culled some depth and experience in the free-agent market by signing midfielder Maxim Tissot and forward Sebastian Le Toux. Both can add a bit of creative spark to that of Acosta, whose superb play at times last year convinced United to convert his loan into a transfer.

Acosta led United in assists with 11 while playing 31 games, and if he’s not the dynamo that is Sebastian Giovinco nor the craftsman that is Ignacio Piatti, he’s quite capable of slipping balls into good spots and jinking through challenges.

Loanee Jose Guillermo Ortiz is yet another player to join an MLS team after playing well against it in Concacaf competition. He scored two goals for Alajuelense in a 5-2 rout of United two years ago in the 2014-15 CCL quarterfinals. He will battle for time with Mullins, who signed a contract extension a week ago; his deal was set to expire at the end of the 2017 season.

United is one of many teams obviously good enough to make the playoffs but not necessarily regarded as a serious candidate to reach the final. Yet the same can be said of many recent champions, and with a new stadium soon to replace venerable and vulnerable RFK, motivation levels should be high to bid farewell in style.  

Who’s in …
: Eric Klenofsky (Monmouth Univ.). DEFENDERS: Chris Odoi-Atsem (Univ. of Maryland, SuperDraft). MIDFIELDERS: Ian Harkes (Wake Forest Univ., Homegrown), Maxim Tissot (Montreal Impact, Free Agent). FORWARDS: Sebastien Le Toux (Colorado Rapids, MLS Free Agent), Jose Guillermo Ortiz (Saprissa/CRC, Loan).  

Who’s out …
: Andrew Dykstra (Sporting KC, Re-Entry Draft). DEFENDERS: Chris Korb, Luke Mishu (Retired). MIDFIELDERS: Collin Martin (Minnesota United, Trade). FORWARDS: Miguel Aguilar, Kennedy Igboananike (Veria/GRE, Free Agent), Alvaro Saborio (Saprissa/CFC, Free Agent).

First five games …
March 4 --  Sporting KC
March 12 --
at New York City
March 18 -- Columbus Crew
April 1 -- Philadelphia Union
April 8 --– New York City    
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