Coach Ben Olsen often noted this past offseason that D.C. United’s restructured roster, with substantially more depth and balance than in years past, sure looked good on paper. But in Saturday’s 2-1 win at the New England Revolution, those qualities paid dividends where it matters most — on the field.
Chris Pontius, the club’s third-leading scorer from a year ago, came off the bench to notch the late winner with a curling, far-post strike. Josh Wolff, a U.S. World Cup veteran who tied for the team lead in assists last season, added calmness to United’s attack in his role as a second-half substitute. And designated player Branko Boskovic and Andy Najar, the 2010 Rookie of the Year, weren’t even called upon.
“That’s one of the big things that our coaching staff and management addressed in the offseason was getting real depth within the group so you have competition at all positions,” Wolff said. “I think you’ve seen that utilized with guys who are coming in now and able to contribute and making it difficult for Benny.”
It’s depth Olsen will lean on in the coming days, with United (2-2-2) playing their first midweek match of the season Wednesday against the expansion Montreal Impact (1-5-1) at RFK Stadium before hosting the rival New York Red Bulls (3-2-1) on Sunday to make it three games in nine days.
“This is kind of the first time we’ve been really having to rely on a full team,” Olsen said. “I told the guys that everybody’s going to have to contribute over the next week or two, so keep your head in this and make sure you know what your job is when you come into these games.”
For Pontius, his reserve role has taken some getting used to. The midfielder-forward, who started all 25 of his appearances last season, lost his typical spot on the left flank to rookie Nick DeLeon after two games when it became evident he still wasn’t 100 percent after suffering a broken leg in September.
In four appearances as a substitute since then, he has averaged just 22 minutes.
“It’s tough because usually the pace of the game is very high and you kind of feel like you’re doing sprints the whole game,” Pontius said. “It’s weird, you come on as a sub and usually feel more out of breath than when I do when I start a game. It’s crazy to think about.”
Pontius‘ exquisite goal Saturday could make it difficult to keep him on the bench much longer, though DeLeon’s fine play means Pontius could be shifting to a more regular role up top if he does return to the starting 11.
It’s not the only such dilemma for Olsen. U.S. national team goalkeeper Bill Hamid on Saturday was the backup to Joe Willis, who had filled in admirably while Hamid was away for Olympic qualifying and later sidelined by an ankle injury.
The Honduran international Najar, another player who missed time because of Olympic qualifying, could have difficulty supplanting the hard-working Danny Cruz on the right flank. And Boskovic, the highly paid captain of Montenegro’s national team, has found himself stuck behind Dwayne De Rosario, the reigning league Most Valuable Player, at the playmaker spot.
So what is Olsen’s message to such established players who aren’t used to watching from the sideline?
“It’s about our group,” Olsen explained. “Everybody is going to play their part. On this team, you can go from not dressing to starting. We’ve got a lot of faith in a lot of guys. And you’ve got to be patient. Nobody is going to be happy when they’re not playing. But it’s how we are right now, and you’ve got to be a positive influence on this group or it’s not going to work.”
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