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D.C. United has questions to answer as 2011 season opens

- The Washington Times - Friday, March 18, 2011

Questions abound for D.C. United in 2011.

How quickly will the club rebound from its worst season ever?

Who will score after the club notched a miserly 21 goals in 30 games in 2010?

Who will be United's starting goalie?

And the big question: Is Charlie Davies -- Major League Soccer's most talked-about signing this year -- the same player he was before suffering serious injures in a 2009 car crash?

Some of these questions will be answered when United hosts the Columbus Crew in its season opener Saturday night at RFK Stadium.

Last season was an embarrassment for United, still the most storied club in the 16-year history of MLS with a record four league titles. The team was dead last in the standings (6-20-2), scoring the least goals in its history and winning just three games at RFK in front of an average crowd of 14,532.

The task of restoring United's reputation falls on the shoulders of 33-year-old Ben Olsen, the youngest coach in MLS. Olsen was given the full-time job after acting as the interim coach for the latter part of last season.

"My job is to mix players into this talented team with guys who refuse to lose," said Olsen, a former midfielder with the team for 11 seasons.

The rebuilding began when the club signed up-and-coming midfielder Dax McCarty, destined to be Olsen's alter-ego on the field.

"No spot is guaranteed so I'll be fighting for a spot," said McCarty, who has been named the team's new captain. "Soccer is a team sport and we won't win a championship without players all on the same page."

McCarty is just one of a number of young faces on the roster hoping to have an impact. Midfielder Andy Najar, who won MLS Rookie of The Year honors in 2010, is expected to continue where he left off last year. The Honduran-born 18-year-old was the lone bright spot at the club last year.

There's also been plenty of buzz concerning central defender Perry Kitchen, the club's top draft pick (third overall) from NCAA champion Akron. Kitchen looks likely to start in a backline alongside Dejan Jakovic, Marc Burch and newcomer Rodrigo Brasesco, a 25-year-old Uruguayan on loan from Racing Club de Montevideo.

While Olsen needs to shore up a defense that leaked 49 goals, his main priority is to jump-start an offense that was a disaster in front of the net. To correct that, United has brought in MLS veteran strikers Joseph Ngwenya, 29, and Josh Wolff, 34. But all eyes will be on Davies, who joins the D.C. outfit on loan from French club FC Sochaux.

Davies' career was soaring in 2009. With his blistering speed he was impressive in the U.S. national team's win over Spain in the Confederations Cup and looked certain to be on the World Cup team in 2010. Then came the fatal car crash on the George Washington Memorial Parkway just days before a crucial U.S. team game at RFK which left Davies fighting for his life.

If, as expected, Davies takes the field against the Crew, it will be his first competitive league game since he recovered from numerous injuries suffered in the accident.

"I feel really good with my speed," Davies said. "I feel quick and I've taken the necessary strides. Of course you can always improve. I haven't played in a competitive game for a year. My goal now is to show that I'm ready to play on this team."

United is awash with midfielders. The team will expect more from its highly paid designated player, Branko Boskovic. The Montenegrin was impressive for his national team in the European Championship qualifiers last year, but did not shine for his club. There is good news concerning midfielder Chris Pontius, who appears to be finally fit again after an injury-plagued season last year. The inconsistent Fred has also returned to the team after a year at Philadelphia.

United's goalie situation still remains a problem. The team's two key keepers, Bill Hamid (shoulder), Steve Cronin (wrist) are both recovering from injuries, so in an unusual move, 43-year-old Pat Onstad, who retired at the end of last season to become United's goalie coach, looks set to start against the Crew. The eight-season MLS veteran and a two-time MLS goalkeeper of the year has signed a short-term playing contract.

"My primary focus remains the development of our goalkeepers, but I am also ready to help our team on the pitch if called upon," Onstad said.

United will play a 34-game season in the 18-team league which includes two expansion teams: the Vancouver Whitecaps and Portland Timbers.

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