Washington, DC (SportsNetwork.com) - D. C. United were Major league soccer's first powerhouse team, and though the club has seen its share of ups and downs over the years, a strong season last year showed United could be on its way back to the top.
With four MLS Cup titles, United has had a tradition of winning and last season was no exception. Two seasons ago. United endured possibly the worst season in league history as the club managed just three wins in 34 matches.
Ben Olsen's team announced its winning intentions in the first game of 2014 with a 3-0 win over the Columbus Crew. United maintained that success all season and finished at the top of the Eastern Conference with 59 points.
Unfortunately things fell apart in the playoffs as the club suffered a 3-2 aggregate loss to the New York Red Bulls.
Despite the playoff defeat, the club had an outstanding regular season and many of the key cogs from 2014 will be in the mix this time around.
Along the back line, United's breakout star is second-year defender Steve Birnbaum. The 6-foot-1 defender anchored the defense and earned himself a U.S. National team call up in the process.
Joining Birnbaum in central defense will be former Houston Dynamo defender Bobby Boswell, who is back for his second season in the black and red of United, while Sean Franklin will occupy the right back spot and Taylor Kemp slots in at left back.
In midfield Perry Kitchen sits in his preferred holding midfield spot, while newcomer Markus Halsti could be next to Kitchen or in the back as the Finland international can play both positions.
Halsti, 30, comes to United after seven seasons with Malmo in the Swedish top flight. He brings plenty of European experience to United having led Malmo to three league titles in the last five seasons. He also has made 20 Champions League appearances with Malmo.
"We are pleased to be adding a player with solid European playing experience at the club, Champions League, and National Team levels," said D.C. United General Manager Dave Kasper. "Markus can play as both a central midfielder and central defender, and this was quite attractive to us. He is a tough competitor and another very good character piece for our club. We look forward to having him join our family."
In attacking midfield, United returns Nick DeLeon, Chris Rolfe and Chris Pontius, while former Philadelphia Union midfielder joins D.C. from Mexican league side Cruz Azul.
The club also added reinforcements in the forward ranks by acquiring former Columbus Crew striker Jairo Arrieta.
Arrieta scored 17 goals and added nine assists over the past three seasons with Columbus. He will pose a significant goal threat which is something United desperately needs in the early part of the season as Eddie Johnson is out indefinitely and Fabian Espindola will miss the first six games of the season due to suspension.
"Jairo will provide us with important depth this year at the forward position," said Kasper. "He is a smart player who finds great spots on the field, and we like his work ethic and commitment. We welcome him to the D.C. United family."
2014 In Review: United had a stellar campaign, racking up 59 points to finish in first place in the Eastern Conference. But that great regular was derailed by bitter rivals New York Red Bulls in the conference semifinals.
Acquisitions: Jairo Arrieta (F), Markus Halsti (M/D), Michael Farfan (M), Miguel Aguilar (M).
Losses: Jeff Parke (D), Joe Willis (GK), Nana Attakora (D), Lewis Neal (M), Kyle Porter (M).
Outlook: There's plenty to be said for continuity in professional sports, and United have opted to make only small tweaks to a roster that had plenty of success last season. Birnbaum has established himself as a future star, while Halsti will bring plenty of experience and veteran savvy. Forward could be a little dicey early in the season, but Arrieta is more than capable of leading the line. The playoffs are almost a sure thing, but Olsen's team will be aiming much higher than just making the playoffs. This team is a definite Supporters' Shield contender.