In 2007, D.C. United striker Luciano Emilio was as pure a target forward as MLS had to offer, scoring 20 goals en route to earning league Golden Boot and Most Valuable Player honors — production from the field’s highest position the club has struggled to replicate ever since.
But with the acquisition earlier this month of Hamdi Salihi, an Albanian striker with a prolific European track record, coach Ben Olsen believes the team finally has found a solution to that roster quandary.
“We’ve been searching for the right No. 9 for this club for some time,” Olsen said, referencing the uniform number typically reserved for a goal-poaching striker. “We think we’ve found him.”
Monday was a banner day for the United front office, as Salihi joined the team for his first training session hours before the club announced MLS MVP Dwayne De Rosario had signed a new contract that will keep the 33-year-old in the nation’s capital beyond the 2012 season. (Per league policy, terms of the deal were not disclosed.)
“He thinks like a goal-scorer,” general manager Dave Kasper said of Salihi. “We have a lot of attacking pieces who can provide service for him. De Ro, as we know, pulls off many different types of plays. We certainly expect Hamdi to be in spots and make connections with him.”
United originally had hoped to sign Salihi, who scored 53 goals in 90 matches during his past three seasons with Austrian club Rapid Vienna, to a pre-contract this winter that would have seen him arrive in July after his deal with Vienna expired, Kasper said. But Salihi expressed a desire to move during the winter transfer window, leading United to send a transfer fee to Vienna for the 28-year-old’s immediate services.
“[MLS] is growing up,” said Salihi, who added he drew interest from Scottish powerhouses Celtic and Rangers, as well as clubs in Russia, Turkey and Germany, before he decided to go to the United States. “Now in Europe, they have more respect for MLS.”
Goals from Salihi’s position for United have been hard to come by in recent years. Emilio’s scoring rate decreased drastically after his standout campaign, as the Brazilian found net just 21 times in three subsequent seasons. His replacement, Australian forward Danny Allsopp, was an unmitigated bust, notching five goals in 23 games in 2010. While on-loan striker Charlie Davies did compile 11 tallies last season, the player fell out of favor down the stretch before returning to French club Sochaux in December.
On Monday, Salihi stepped right into the first 11 during a full-field scrimmage at the end of training. While Olsen was quick to point out Salihi still needs time to develop a rapport with his new teammates, De Rosario still developed a sense for the skill he brings up top.
“You can see his movement and you can see he knows the game,” De Rosario said. “It’s going to take time. It’s a different league, different mindset, different country, different language. … Our job is just to make him as comfortable as possible so he can play his game.”
Salihi will have ample opportunity to get acclimated in the coming weeks. United on Saturday will play the Chicago Fire in Charleston, S.C., in the opening match of the Carolina Challenge Cup, an eight-day preseason tournament that will also pit D.C. against the Charleston Battery, a United Soccer League side, and the Columbus Crew.
“Any time you’re a foreigner going to a new place, it takes a little bit to get your feet wet,” said forward Josh Wolff, an American who spent two seasons in Germany. “Certainly he’s got to get acquainted with us and us with him. But you look at his goal-scoring record and see some of the highlights, and there certainly is some real quality in and around the box.”
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