At this time last year, D.C. United were mired in the lower half of the table. They had notched just 12 points in 10 games and were still feeling the effects of a three-match losing steak in which they were outscored 11-3.
Those days appear to be over.
Entering this weekend’s matchup against the New England Revolution (4-6-1), United (7-4-3) already have twice as many points (24) as they had this time last year. They are only two points out of first place in the Eastern Conference and can leapfrog the New York Red Bulls with a win Saturday.
“It was two different times,” captain Dwayne De Rosario said of the differences. “New players, new mentality, and I think everything is clicking right now.”
De Rosario is one of the major reasons why. Acquired last June in a trade with New York, the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player has been nothing short of spectacular in his past few matches. After being held scoreless in United’s first eight contests, he has scored five goals in six games since and was recently named the MLS Player of the Week.
De Rosario leads the league with seven assists but has been pressed into a scoring role of late with top scorers Maicon Santos and Chris Pontius nursing leg injuries. He responded by notching United’s first two goals against Toronto last weekend, the 97th and 98th of his MLS career.
“He’s just steadily great,” United coach Ben Olsen said. “From the day he came into this league, he’s set it on fire and he continues to do so. It’ll be a tribute to him when he reaches [100 career goals] and I’ll be excited to be a part of it.”
He is not the only player to step up, however. United haven’t missed a beat despite having nine players listed on the injury report before last Saturday’s game. Albanian forward Hamdi Salihi, an offseason acquisition, has recorded four goals in five games, and reserves such as Branko Boskovic and Chris Korb have transitioned seamlessly into starting roles.
United now have more players capable of starting than there are spots available. Olsen described it as “a wealth of talent.”
“Last year when we had some injuries, we really struggled. This year when we had injuries, we have guys who have come on and done the job, so I think that’s been a big part of it,” he said. “I also think we’ve got better players this year.”
After being unable to win consecutive games for almost three years dating back to June 2009, United have already done so on two separate occasions this season. It’s given them a newfound confidence, a belief that they deserve to be mentioned among the league’s best.
When asked if he felt like United now have a target on their back, De Rosario answered, “Definitely. 100 percent.”
“You have to deal with teams playing their best against you,” Olsen said. “It’s where you want to be, but it means you have to show up every week because people now prepare for you differently and you’re the team they get up for.”
With a three-week break for U.S. Open Cup and national team obligations following Saturday night’s game, Olsen said that his main priority is striking the right balance between rest and practice. He has to make sure that his players stay sharp and don’t get complacent while also giving them a much-needed and much-deserved break.
If all goes well and the team returns to better health, Olsen is preparing for a difficult challenge in the games ahead.