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D.C. United looks for lineup clarity with packed preseason schedule

Ola Kamara will likely start at forward for D.C. United, but Ben Olsen is still trying to figure out where everyone else will fit in.

WASHINGTON — D.C. United wants to be a pressing team in 2020. Putting its previous defense-minded tactics to the side, United has spent the first half of preseason working on a more attacking style of play.

“We don’t want to be sitting back for the majority of the games, and that is what we did toward the second half of the season last year,” defender Steven Birnbaum said. “Even though it worked, it’s not the way we want to play this year.”

Acquiring Peruvian attacker Edison Flores and former Atlanta United midfielder Julian Gressel this offseason allowed United to practice a new go-for-goal attitude. While the team has an identity target clear, the positioning of players is still a work in progress.

“It’s still up in the air. You don’t want to hear that from your head coach, but we don’t know yet,” United head coach Ben Olsen said. “We are going to use this preseason, and we are going to look at a bunch of different ways to go about winning.”

Olsen and staff are asking players like Gressel and midfielder Russell Canouse to adapt to multiple positions as the rest of the lineup comes to fruition. While the first half of preseason was about getting players fit, the next three games will be crucial to finding the right formula for the current group.

Gressel, who was mostly deployed on the right flank in Atlanta, trained in multiple positions ranging from out wide to more centrally this preseason. During Atlanta United’s MLS Cup run in 2018, Gressel played as a central midfielder in Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s system for the playoffs. He reverted back to being a winger and fullback under Frank de Boer in 2019.

Olsen exaggerated that Gressel’s played in “six different positions” so far, calling versatility both a blessing and a curse.

“That is a good thing, but sometimes it halts them from mastering that spot or mastering some relationships,” Olsen said. “We are slowly narrowing down where [Gressel] will fit in for us.”

Meanwhile, Canouse played most of last season as a central midfielder but ended the season filling in at right back.

“For everybody, not just me individually, it is understanding not only the position you are training in but also the other positions in the team,” Canouse said. “From a tactical perspective, I am not only taking in my position but also the forward’s position and guys around me as well so I can understand and base my movements off my teammates’ movements.”

As United headed to Florida on Wednesday, one of the biggest issues was that key pieces like Flores and midfielder Yamil Asad are working back from injury and have yet to fully integrate into training. Asad’s injury will keep him out longer than Flores, but Flores has had less time to train with his new team because he only received visa clearance to train with United earlier this week.

“The goal is to get all of these guys back for the home opener,” Olsen said. “Ideally, it is to get these guys back before so they can see minutes in what is always a crucial preseason game.”

Estonian forward Erik Sorga — who is currently on a USL contract — played only a handful of minutes in United’s last preseason game against Louisville City FC, but Olsen said he has the potential to be both a viable option behind forward Ola Kamara or deployed in a two-forward formation alongside Kamara.

“The more we see him, the more we feel he is similar to Ola,” Olsen said. “There could be times that we play Ola and Erik together. He didn’t come here to hang out at the end of the bench and eat Sour Patch Kids.”

In addition to moving around the pieces already on the roster, United is looking for a few more signings. Former Minnesota United fullback Carter Manley and long-time MLS center back Aaron Maund are both on-trial.

“We would like to add a piece or two, whether that is outside of the trialists that are here, or picking up Aaron or Manley,” Olsen said. “They are in contention and we just want to look at them a little longer, but we also have to be fair to them if they are not in the cards to sign them, we have to get them to another place where they will have the opportunity to sign.”

This preseason, United purposefully scheduled more games against MLS-level teams than it has in the past. United has played three of six preseason games, with match-ups against Orlando City SC, Nashville SC and Philadelphia Union still in front of them.

United opens the season at home Feb. 29 against the Colorado Rapids.

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