Ahead of D.C. United (10-7-3) finally getting back into the MLS regular season this weekend with the first of six games in August, I focused mainly on Andy Najar. He actually won’t play any factor at all in Saturday’s match against Columbus (8-7-4) while he’s with Honduras, which will play Brazil in the Olympic quarterfinals Saturday at noon.
But there remains plenty of intrigue around United’s starting lineup as the team attempts to end a run of three losses in four games and improve its unbeaten stretch at home. D.C. is 7-0-2 at RFK Stadium since losing the season opener to Sporting Kansas City back in March.
Each part of United’s formation could be subject to change should practice this week serve as any indication.
At forward, Long Tan played with the starters on Thursday. The recent Chinese acquisition made his RFK debut against Paris Saint-Germain last weekend and had a quality outing, even if he didn’t quite finish. His decision-making in the box and overall communication can still improve, but his high work rate has impressed.
“Our forwards all have different qualities,” United coach Ben Olsen said. “I’m I’m trying to find the one that works best for us right now is the challenge. Hamdi [Salihi] is the guy in the box that is very clinical. Maicon [Santos] has got the brawn and can physically do special things, and Tan, he’s a runner, a slasher and he keeps defenders on their toes at all times.”
In the midfield, Branko Boskovic seems likely to return after missing the previous encounter at the Crew with a calf injury. His presence was certainly missed in that match.
Along the back line, Emiliano Dudar got a welcome 90 minutes against PSG and could be a frontrunner to make his first start since May. Again, if practice is any indication, it’ll be alongside Brandon McDonald. But Dejan Jakovic is also likely to see minutes during United’s stretch of six matches this month.
“Going forward now we have a lot of games, and we know that we can’t grind two of them out the whole time,” Olsen said. “I have faith in all three, and it’s a nice luxury to have.”
Bill Hamid and Joe Willis have looked strong in training, and each also played well against the French side. When Hamid last missed time, playing for the U.S. under-23s in Olympic qualifying, Olsen made him miss more time before letting reclaim the starting spot from Willis. We’ll have to see if the same thing occurs. Hamid has also been handling the rigors of his Islamic faith, as described by The Washington Post.
“It’s hard, but that’s life,” Hamid said. “You have your situations that you have to deal with, and I’m just living, working hard and trying to make myself better. I’m staying true to my faith and just being a good person.”
Lastly, I traded some insight with Crew beat writer Adam Jardy (@AdamJardy), who covers the team for the The Columbus Dispatch. See what he had to say in response to three questions that I posed:
1. In what ways has July MLS player of the month Jairo Arrieta showed that he’s growing in comfort with the Crew?
The most obvious answer is that he found the back of the net — twice. Three games into his Crew career, Arrieta showed nice poise with the ball and demonstrated an ability to finish, skills that have eluded the club for much of the season. The coaches like his ability to hold the ball, and they have adjusted to a one-forward formation to better take advantage of his skills. One game does not a career make, but his performance against Kansas City last weekend has at least helped energize the Crew’s attacking unit.
2. Is the three-game winning streak, including the friendly against Stoke, a legitimate sign that Columbus is rounding into form?
It’s a sign that they are at least playing better than they were a month ago while dropping three out of four matches. Last weekend’s win at Kansas City came with a bit of luck as the home side missed two open-net chances and dominated possession in the second half, but the defense held and goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum had another standout performance. I wouldn’t say they are rounding into form just yet, but a win this weekend would go a long way toward convincing me.
3. What has made Gruenebaum such a force in the net this season?
Simply put, he has just taken advantage of the opportunity that was presented. Gruenebaum has always been a confident goalkeeper waiting for his chance, and now that it is here the veteran is making the most of it. With so many injuries that have decimated the back line, he has been the one consistent presence in the lineup and that experience has helped carry the Crew through some tough spots already. The coaches have felt all along they have had two starting goalkeepers in Gruenebaum and the injured William Hesmer, and it looks like they have been right.