In Hamdi Salihi and Maicon Santos, D.C. United boast two accomplished strikers who have shown flashes of goal-scoring prowess this season, if not sustained success.
Coach Ben Olsen, therefore, has wavered on which player to start at that No. 9 position. Salihi is the composed finisher with technical ability and a poacher’s nose for the goal. Santos is the bruiser with ball-winning proficiency and a cannon of a left foot. Two forwards, two unique skill sets.
Recently, though, Olsen has found a novel solution: Sit ‘em both.
During United’s past two matches — a friendly with Paris Saint-Germain and a league game against the Columbus Crew — Olsen has gone with unheralded striker Long Tan. While Santos came off the bench in the 1-0 win over Columbus this past weekend, Salihi, the team’s second-highest-paid player, was left off the 18-man game-day roster.
“It’s always not good, but you have to accept this thing because he’s the coach,” Salihi said of the exclusion. “In another match, another opponent, he will choose other possibilities. It’s good when you have different possibilities. You don’t have to get angry. Just work and wait because everybody will have his minutes.”
In the season’s early stages, it was Santos grasping the starting job. The Brazilian journeyman, whose career also has taken him to Israel, Libya and Tunisia, scored six goals during a six-game unbeaten run. But he’s found net just once in his past 10 appearances.
When Santos initially went cold, Salihi heated up, as the Albanian national team veteran bagged four goals in a five-match stretch. In six appearances since, however, he has only one tally.
For the two 28-year-old offseason acquisitions, the challenge has been finding a rhythm while moving between the starting lineup and the bench.
“It’s kind of difficult because you don’t get enough time playing,” said Santos, who noted the difficulty of retaining full match fitness when not starting. “To be honest, I’m kind of frustrated a little bit. Everyone wants to be in the 11, everyone wants to start. But I understand I just need to keep focusing at practice every day.”
The wild card is Tan, a 24-year-old Chinese player acquired in late June from the Vancouver Whitecaps for a supplemental draft pick. In 19 career games, he has just one goal.
But after United were shut out in consecutive losses last month, Olsen took a gamble by inserting Tan. Although his touch in the final third still needs polish, Tan brings high energy pressuring opposing back lines.
“The forward crew all offer different things,” Olsen said. “Tan’s work off the ball has really helped us, I think. It’s something we need on the field right now. That’s not to say the other two don’t have qualities that I’m going to need for a different game or a different period of this season.”
On Saturday, United (11-7-3) go on the road to face a Sporting Kansas City squad (12-7-4) that Wednesday played 120 minutes before defeating the Seattle Sounders on penalty kicks in the U.S. Open Cup final.
Against such a fatigued adversary, Tan’s work rate could again be a key asset. It’s one of many factors Olsen will continue to weigh as he tries to concoct the right formula each contest.
“He has the same words for everybody,” Salihi said. “He’s every day watching how it’s going in training. When he thinks this guy or this guy is good for this system, and this is what he has in mind for this game or this game, he will choose the right guys, I think, always.”