- - Thursday, May 19, 2016

At 34 years old, Alvaro Saborio has reached the age when many a striker makes the transition from regular starter to late-game specialist.

Float that notion to the D.C. United forward and he’s quick to interject.

“I’ve never been a sub,” Saborio said. “I have proved all of my career that I can score goals.”

Yet, Saborio found himself coming off the bench for United to kick off the season. Acquired in a July trade after six seasons with Real Salt Lake, the Costa Rican failed to crack coach Ben Olsen’s starting lineup for the first eight matches of the MLS campaign and didn’t play at all in three games.

Although United was slow out of the gate, scoring just three goals during an 0-2-3 start, Saborio continued to bide his time while Fabian Espindola, Chris Rolfe, Lamar Neagle and Luciano Acosta earned minutes over him up top.

“I tried to tell the coaches, ‘Here I am and I’m ready to play,’” Saborio said. “He told me he needed me for a new role — maybe I accept it, maybe not — but I just tried to focus on my level and try to be proactive for the team.”

Now, Saborio is getting his shot — and United has reaped the rewards. Having compiled a team-leading four goals and two assists over the past six matches, the veteran is expected to start his fourth consecutive game when United (3-4-4) visits the Philadelphia Union (4-3-3) on Friday.

“He was frustrated,” Olsen said. “These guys are grown men and this is what they do for a living. They want to be on the field on the weekend. I don’t have any problem with that. I have a problem when guys don’t have issues with not being on the field on the weekend.

“The more I do this, the more I realize those are the guys you want to rely on when the games hit — the guys that are [ticked] off because they’re not in the lineup.”

Saborio, who has scored 71 goals in his MLS career, has provided United with a different dynamic in recent weeks. While players such as Espindola and Neagle offer more mobility up top, Saborio provides a strong target forward who can get on the end of services into the box and help United maintain possession.

He put his full skill set on display in a 2-0 win over the rival New York Red Bulls last week, making a run to tap home the opener before creating the second goal with a timely defensive intervention.

“I feel good about my game right now, but I think I can do better,” Saborio said. “More goals, more running, more keeping the ball up top.”

It’s those little things that have most impressed Olsen, who never doubted Saborio’s ability to finish off chances but wanted to see his striker provide more defensive pressure and bring teammates into the attack.

“He’s working hard, he’s helping us defensively to shape up, he’s been physical and he’s connecting passes,” Olsen said. “We all know that Sabo knows how to score goals and he’s going to be in the right spot at the right time, but we’ve asked him to really push himself on the defensive end and really be a nuisance up there and be a steady outlet for us.”

Saborio’s recent exploits helped him earn a spot on Costa Rica’s 23-man squad for the Copa America Centenario, which will be hosted in the U.S. from June 3 through June 26. After a broken right foot forced Saborio to miss the Ticos’ remarkable run to the World Cup quarterfinals in 2014, he is relishing the opportunity to represent his country in a tournament crowning the champion of the Western Hemisphere.

“Right now, I don’t think about that moment anymore,” Saborio said of missing the World Cup. “I just think about the future and how we can do in this big tournament. You have the best generation ever in Costa Rica, so we have to enjoy that and try to win games.”

While Saborio will report Saturday for camp in Costa Rica and miss at least two MLS matches because of his Copa America obligations, Olsen was pleased to see a national team nod stem from the player’s renewed form on the club level.

“To his credit, he showed up and put his work in, knowing that his time will come,” Olsen said. “When it did, he has taken advantage of it.”


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