D.C. United's playoff run provides hope

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Sports,D.C. United,Craig Stouffer

Majority of the roster is expected to be back

Ben Olsen finished up his final postgame news conference after D.C. United's season-ending draw with Houston on Sunday with a self-assured proclamation that next year's goal will be the same as this year's: reach the postseason.

"That's what you need to do in this league, make playoffs consistently every year," the United coach said.

When Olsen took over midway through 2010, that appeared to be a huge hurdle. But after overcoming obstacles of all types to piece together a deep playoff run in 2012, the challenge has turned to building on that momentum and transforming United from an up-and-coming team to a reliable contender.

Olsen cycled through 33 different lineups in 38 matches. Twenty-four players started at least one match and appeared in at least three. He said the feeling of flipping a coin going into games began to fade as the season progressed.

"I knew what I was getting out of my guys," he said. "I haven't had that feeling as a coach since I have been here. That's a nice feeling -- to be confident in the group you are putting out there."

United will have the bulk of its lineup back in 2013, but the biggest question marks were supposed to be the centerpieces in 2012. Midfielder Branko Boskovic signed a restructured one-year deal in July that lowered him from designated player status. But after the Dynamo game, Olsen said, "We don't know what's going on with Branko next year."

Hamdi Salihi, the team's second-highest paid player, also has another year on his contract after scoring six goals in 22 appearances -- but just 10 starts. Maicon Santos and Lionard Pajoy both lacked composure in front of goal.

The rest of United's roster is far more settled, starting with leading scorer Chris Pontius, who recently signed a long-term contract. Midfielder Nick DeLeon finished second in MLS rookie of the year voting. Outside back went from a weakness to a strength with the growth of Daniel Woolard, Chris Korb and Andy Najar. Dwayne De Rosario proved that even at age 34, a knee injury in September wasn't going to cost him the season when he returned for the final 30 minutes against the Dynamo.

"The guys got together and pulled together as a strong unit and brought me back," De Rosario said. "It was through them is why I got back healthy."

The franchise is also in continued discussions with the District about a new stadium, with hope that ground might be broken in 2013. Fans returned in droves to RFK Stadium late in the season after the team posted the worst attendance in its 17-year history, and United will carry into 2013 an 18-match unbeaten streak at home that extends back to the season opener.

"It's been pretty crazy and a pretty damn good experience to be honest," said journeyman midfielder Lewis Neal, a veteran among the group at age 31. "I can't praise everybody in here enough, the staff as well. I hope we can sort of keep the bulk of the group together and go again next year, you know?"

cstouffer@washingtonexaminer.com

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