D.C. United 2016 MLS season preview

WASHINGTON — D.C. United enter the 2016 MLS season aiming to secure a playoff spot for the third consecutive year, but will look to make a deeper postseason push after facing early elimination two years in a row at the hands of New York Red Bulls in the conference semifinals.

New reinforcements in the midfield and attack give a reason to be optimistic looking ahead to the MLS season.

Last season ended on a whimper for D.C., with the Red Bulls dominating possession home and away against United, who failed to score and lost both games to a late goal.

The 2016 MLS season sees United acquire exciting talents in Luciano Acosta, Patrick Nyarko, Lamar Neagle and Julian Büscher. If these new signings combine effectively with Fabian Espindola, Nick DeLeon and other United mainstays, United could be a formidable force in the Eastern Conference once again.

2015 Finish: 4th in Eastern Conference, eliminated in conference semifinals

Notable Squad Additions: F Lamar Neagle, M Patrick Nyarko, M Marcelo Sarvas, M Luciano Acosta, M Julian Büscher

Notable Squad Losses: M Perry Kitchen — Contract expired, F Chris Pontius — Traded to Philadelphia Union

Top Newcomer: M Lamar Neagle

The veteran forward scored 21 goals and assisted on 15 in his past three seasons with the Seattle Sounders. Besides experience, the Washington state native brings energy to an aging United attack. Espindola (30), Chris Rolfe (33), Álvaro Saborío (33) cannot be expected to put in the work rate they were capable of a couple years ago. Look for Neagle to play as a second striker trying to combine with United’s other forward.

Player to watch: GK Andrew Dykstra

United’s backup goalkeeper since 2013 has only notched 14 games guarding the goal. That will change this season, with Bill Hamid out for at least three months with a knee injury. Hamid has been solid for United, claiming the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award in 2014 and logging 22 shutouts and over 300 saves over the past three seasons.

However, Dykstra has not been gathering dust on the sidelines. United sent him on loan to USL sides Charleston Battery and Richmond Kickers, where he earned the USL goalie of the year award in 2013. United will be hopeful that USL experience will help him adapt to the starting spot in Hamid’s absence. Dykstra should not be expected to entirely fill Hamid’s huge shoes, but solid performances will help calm United defense and remove pressure to rush Hamid back onto the field.

2016 Season Outlook

Hamid’s injury leaves United in a fragile position before their season begins. Combined with the loss of veteran players like Kitchen and Pontius, United fans might be lowering their expectations this season.

However, strategic new signings could give new energy to United where they need it most. Sarvas (two MLS Cups in L.A.), Nyarko (eight seasons in Chicago) and Neagle have the experience needed to strengthen United’s midfield. Sarvas was effective against Mexican-side Queretaro F.C. in CONCACAF Champions’ League play, despite United’s quarterfinal loss. He looked confident in front of the defensive line where Kitchen would play, taking pressure off United’s defense and completing smart passes forward.

Argentinian Luciano Acosta is on-loan from Boca Juniors and could make an impact playing behind whatever striking combination Ben Olson decides to play. The 5-foot-3, 21-year-old attacking midfielder appeared in the second half of United’s second-leg game against Queretaro F.C., and made several quick, dazzling runs at the Mexican side’s defense.

The loss of several veterans leaves holes that need to be filled in United’s starting lineup. The success of United this season depends on how quickly the new faces adapt. Success early in the season may help United’s new pieces come together, but struggles might show that something more is needed to continue to compete at a high level.

Season Opener: Sunday, March 6 at LA Galaxy, 10 p.m. ET

Home Opener: Sunday, March 20 vs. Colorado Rapids, 5 p.m. ET

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