- - Thursday, March 1, 2018

One would be hard-pressed to unearth a D.C. United fan who doesn’t have July 14 circled on their calendar. For the storied MLS franchise, that date has been 22 years in the making.

When Audi Field, the club’s long-awaited soccer-specific stadium, opens this summer, it will mark the culmination of a prolonged process that cycled through multiple ownership groups, countless stops and starts, and a seemingly endless maze of red tape.

But as construction continues at the Southwest Washington site in the shadow of Nationals Park, United has an MLS season to play. Having said farewell to RFK Stadium last fall, United plays 12 of their first 14 matches on the road to kick off the campaign, with the two “home” games set for March 17 at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds and April 14 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis.

The silver lining? Once United christens Audi Field, the team will make up for lost time with 15 of 20 matches at home from mid-July through the end of the regular season in October.

“You can look at it the way of it being a daunting road trip,” United goalkeeper Steve Clark said. “But you can also look at it how if we perform in the first half of the year, we have a great advantage in the second half of the year. If you follow the league, that’s when the playoff situation gets sorted out — in August and September.”

How United handles that unconventional schedule, which kicks off with a trip to face Orlando City on Saturday, depends on the cohesion of a new-look squad. Coming off a last-place finish in the Eastern Conference, United acquired five players expected to serve as regular starters in 2018: goalkeeper David Ousted, defender Frederic Brillant, midfielders Junior Moreno and Yamil Asad, and forward Darren Mattocks. The 2018 campaign also will represent the first full season for midfielders Paul Arriola, Russell Canouse and Zoltan Stieber, who signed with the club in August ahead of the summer transfer deadline.

“We have a lot of guys here that have been around but really haven’t put their stake down in the game yet,” coach Ben Olsen said. “I think they also understand that the only way you do that and make an impact is together.”

Known for leaning on a direct style since Olsen took over as coach midway through the 2010 season, United hopes to play with more fluidity and possession this season. Defensive shape also has been a point of emphasis in preseason after United conceded the second-most goals in the East last year and saw star goalkeeper Bill Hamid depart for Danish side Midtjylland.

As clubs across the league try to carve out their identities and reach full fitness, United believes results will be up for grabs early in the MLS season.

“It is a good time to pick up points,” Olsen said. “No matter who they have and what adjustments [they’ve made], every team still has a ways to go. They’re not completely fit, they’re not going to be certainly at their top level. So it’s a great time to go away and try to take advantage of some teams that have a guy or two out or also just aren’t at their best.”

Arriola added: “We see it as an opportunity to really get in control of our own destiny. … I think the mentality is go in and get results, pick up as many points as we can. If we’re able to get in control of where we want to be going into the second part of the season, we should be good and really take advantage of the new stadium and the environment we’re going to have.”

That, ultimately, is the goal for United in 2018. In a league where just one of 22 teams finished with a winning record away from home last season, United knows that staying relevant until July is no easy task.

“Stay around the red [playoff] line until Audi Field is open,” Mattocks said. “We’ve just got to be in the mix, right around that line, a little bit above, a little bit below, because that’s going to be a hectic schedule. … If you can pick up a win here and there, a tie here and there, then the excitement is going to be there as soon as the stadium opens.”

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