United still jelling as season gets under way

When coach Ben Olsen trotted out the starting 11 for D.C. United’s season opener Saturday, it marked the first time his preferred lineup had played together outside the practice field. And it showed.

The touches seemed a bit off, and many a pass went awry. Attempts to break down Sporting Kansas City’s 4-3-3 formation went for naught. When the game’s first goal finally came in second-half stoppage time, it was the visitors to the nation’s capital who claimed the tally and a 1-0 win.

“We obviously saw some things that we need to work on,” Olsen said. “That’s one of the good parts of having a game like that. You finally see the team against another real team in a real game, and you can start to evaluate who you are and what you need to fix.”

Many factors led to United not getting an opportunity to test Olsen’s first-choice lineup before then.

Several players weren’t signed until after camp had opened, and striker Hamdi Salihi, the team’s new designated player, joined his teammates less than three weeks before the opener. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid and midfielder Perry Kitchen spent much of the preseason on U.S. under-23 national team duty. Even Mother Nature seemed at odds with United’s preparations, as their final tuneup, an exhibition against the Columbus Crew in Charleston, S.C., was rained out.

As a result, the sense of understanding among the D.C. players simply isn’t there yet.

“We’ve just got to get on the same page as a whole team,” midfielder Chris Pontius said. “We have to move better off the ball and create more chances.”

Unfortunately for Olsen, it’ll be a while before he has a full disposal of players to choose from. Hamid and Kitchen have rejoined the U-23 national team ahead of the Olympic qualifying tournament, which will begin Thursday in Nashville, Tenn., and conclude April 2 in Kansas City, Kan.

The loss of Hamid is a simple dilemma to remedy, with Olsen poised to plug capable second-year player Joe Willis between the posts. But Kitchen’s absence is more problematic, as it will stunt the fledgling rapport between the 20-year-old, who’s adjusting to his holding midfield position after playing in the back most of last year, and Branko Boskovic, a playmaker just returning to action after tearing a knee ligament last April.

That goes without mentioning the imposing matchup looming, as Kitchen’s replacement will likely mark prolific English star David Beckham (15 assists last season) when United visit the MLS Cup champion Los Angeles Galaxy on Sunday.

The leading candidates for that task are veteran Marcelo Saragosa and rookie Lance Rozeboom, two players the front office acquired in anticipation of Kitchen’s international absences this season.

“[Kitchen] is a big part of our group and we’re going to miss him, but this year we have a group of 25 players,” Boskovic said. “Any moment, somebody can play.”

On the other hand, the new forward combination of Dwayne De Rosario, the reigning league Most Valuable Player, and Salihi will get another chance to develop Sunday. To Salihi, it’s only a matter of time before the chemistry he sees growing in training every day translates to United’s matches.

“I saw this team, I saw these guys every day and I know we can play much, much better,” Salihi said. “We have to be more passionate, play the ball a little bit more and go into the attack to create chances with a clear idea.”

NOTE: United on Thursday formally announced a lease extension with Events DC that will keep the club at RFK Stadium through the 2013 season. Under the agreement, capacity will be capped at 19,647 for league matches.

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