Minutes after D.C. United wrapped up a league-worst 6-20-4 campaign in October, then-interim coach Ben Olsen paused during his postgame press conference to seemingly brace himself for the impending skepticism and declared, "We're not that far away."
Diplomatic coach-speak? Perhaps. But it turns out Olsen, who dropped the interim tag during the offseason, might have been on to something.
At the halfway point of D.C.'s 2011 season, United (5-5-7) already have matched their 22-point output from last year. Going into Saturday's match at FC Dallas (10-5-4), they are tied for the 10th and final playoff slot and just six points back of first-place Philadelphia and New York — both of whom have played more games.
For a team with just 13 holdovers from last year on its 27-man squad, the front office's revamping a roster through signings, trades and drafts has thus far been a successful endeavor.
"We had a whole offseason to build this team," Olsen said. "I just think we're a more talented group, frankly. I don't think it's anything necessarily that I'm doing — I just think we're a better group of players."
Although United are conceding goals at a clip similar to 2010, the D.C. attack is exponentially improved. After scoring just 21 goals last year in the worst offensive campaign in league history, United already have found the back of the net 24 times this season.
Eight of those tallies belong to striker Charlie Davies, on loan from French club Sochaux, who has brought pace and opportunism (along with a 4-for-4 mark from the penalty spot) while continuing his comeback from major injuries suffered in an October 2009 car accident. His partner up top, 34-year-old Josh Wolff, has enjoyed a resurgent season, notching four goals after coming to the nation's capital via the inaugural MLS re-entry draft.
Davies and Wolff have enjoyed a solid rapport with wingers Chris Pontius and Andy Najar, two free-flowing attacking talents who tend to drift inside and trigger an interchange of positions that can throw off opposing back lines. And recently acquired playmaker Dwayne De Rosario, who scored in United's 1-0 win at New York last weekend, is being smoothly integrated into the mix.
It's chemistry in the final third that wasn't shared last season when the team leaned on expensive signings Danny Allsopp and Pablo Hernandez, both whom struggled to adapt to the league's physical style of play and were let go at year's end.
"There's an understanding of where players are going to be," Pontius said. "We're more connected as a group."
Having Pontius on the field and healthy has been another factor in United's improved offensive prowess. Limited to 13 starts last year by a nagging hamstring injury, Pontius this season has recaptured the form that made him a 2009 Rookie of the Year finalist, playing all but 86 minutes while bagging five goals, good for second on the club.
"He looks to take guys on and get forward every time he gets the ball, and that's something that we've lacked," veteran midfielder Clyde Simms said. "When he does that, it opens up things for everyone. So it's great to have him back, and I think he's a big reason why we've kind of turned things around."
Recalling the team's 0-5 start in 2010, Pontius noted, "We dug ourselves in a hole we couldn't get out of."
As center back Dejan Jakovic bluntly put it, "Last year was miserable."
By recording some positive results early, United avoided the snowball effect that ultimately doomed them last season and, in the process, have developed confidence in the locker room that could come in handy as the playoff race heats up down the stretch.
"I definitely think the mentality has been better this year," Pontius said. "Give a lot of credit to the coaching staff for installing that in us. But it's also easier when you're winning games to have that better mentality."
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