- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 21, 2009

The pressure is on Tom Soehn, but he’s not letting it show.

Coming off a season in which his team failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2002, D.C. United’s third-year coach is confident his club can bounce back.

Soehn points to a cadre of young signees who should give his club the depth to weather the kind of trouble that overwhelmed the team last season, when it was blighted by injuries to key players.

“We have got some young guns who have established themselves and can play in this league both athletically and mentally,” Soehn said. “These guys will have a big impact on our year, and that depth will carry us through the hard times.”

Those new players include midfielders Andrew Jacobson and Chris Pontius and defenders Rodney Wallace and Dejan Jakovic.

United went 3-7 in its first 10 games last year and never recovered.

“I think this team has a depth we haven’t seen in recent seasons,” defender Bryan Namoff said. “Each week we will have players competing for starting positions, and you are going to see new faces in the starting lineup.”

United heads into the new campaign with a number of questions looming: The new-look defense is untested, the goalkeeping situation has improved but is not solved, and already the team has suffered injuries to key players. Starting midfielders Fred and Santino Quaranta will miss Sunday’s opener at the Los Angeles Galaxy because of hamstring injuries.

With his contract up in the summer, goalie Louis Crayton needs to stay injury-free and solidify his position. If Crayton stumbles, Josh Wicks, who has plenty of lower-division experience plus five starts with the Galaxy, will step in.

In a reverse from the previous year, United didn’t spend lavishly in the offseason. The club attempted to bolster its defense by signing Brazilian defender Roger, but he backed out at the last moment. United then nabbed Jakovic, a 6-foot-2 central defender with top-flight experience - albeit limited - with Serbian club Red Star Belgrade.

“He’s a real smart player,” defender Marc Burch said.

The back line was exposed last year, when the team allowed 51 goals, the second-most in MLS.

Soehn might choose to go with a 3-5-2 formation, using just three defenders behind five midfielders. But what is certain is the defensive pool is younger and bigger. Wallace, a versatile left-sided player, gives United speed on the flanks.

“I think we now have the ability to play behind defenses, which we haven’t done in the past,” Soehn said.

Veteran midfielder Ben Olsen, who managed just 15 minutes last year, is back, but his playing time will be limited because of his ailing ankles.

It will be interesting to see how Christian Gomez, 34, fits with United following a disappointing year at Colorado. Gomez’s return has lifted morale in the camp, according to Soehn.

Striker Luciano Emilio, the club’s designated player with a $750,000 salary, will need to produce more than his 11 goals in 27 games last year. How much the club will get out of veteran Jaime Moreno, now 34 and with weak knees, remains to be seen. Francis Doe and new signee Ange N’Silu are in the wings as reserve strikers.

How quickly Soehn can integrate the newcomers into the team could be the key to its fate. Don’t expect United to come out of the gates fast. This is a team that’s still rebuilding, at team that if managed wisely, could become a tight unit and surprise people.

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