Rising In the East: DC United

For the past several seasons Major League Soccer’s Western Conference has been markedly more competitive than its Eastern counterpart.

The last three league champions, and the last five MLS Cup finalists, have come from the Western conference—with the lone East representative in that span, Houston, being a transplanted Western team.

The top four teams in the West last season all had higher regular-season point totals than the 2011 Eastern Conference champion, Sporting Kansas City.

But as we ramp up toward opening day of the 2012 season, slightly more than a month away, the winds of change could be blowing through the East.

We’re not saying the Western dominance will be reversed, but don’t be surprised if there’s a noticeable shift in the power (im)balance in 2012.

We’ll start with last year’s seventh-place team in the East, DC United. They narrowly missed the 2011 playoffs, battling Chicago and New York for the final berth right down to the last week of the season (NY claimed it), and in the offseason they’ve both gotten healthier and made some significant acquisitions.

In the health department, talented young attacker Chris Pontius will be back after breaking his tibia down the stretch last season. Defender Dejan Jakovic, a Croatian-born Canadian international, should be fully fit after an injury marred 2011.

Finally, and probably most importantly, designated player Branko Boskovic (top right) will be 100% after a knee injury that caused him to miss most of last season and, apparently, he’s fully motivated. He’s a skillful, experienced midfielder who could form a lethal partnership with reigning league MVP Dwayne De Rosario (top left).

On the acquisitions front, DC did very well this offseason. They picked up steady veteran outside back Robbie Russell, who won an MLS Cup with Real Salt Lake in 2009. They acquired towering Argentine center-back Emiliano Dudar from the Swiss top flight, and added 30-year-old Brazilian defensive midfielder Marcelo Saragosa, who has played in MLS before and is a solid, proven commodity who’ll add depth behind Perry Kitchen.

The Black-and-Red also traded for athletic former Houston Dynamo winger Danny Cruz, and signed Brazilian forward Maicon Santos, who has shown flashes of brilliance in MLS. Speaking to the Washington Post about the former Chivas USA, FC Dallas, and Toronto FC man, DC coach Ben Olsen said, “I don’t think he’s been at the right team. I think he’s at the right team now.”

Lastly, and again, most crucially, DC nabbed Albanian striker Hamdi Salihi (top, center) as their second designated player. Salihi is a 28-year-old international with an incredible strike rate in several mid-tier European leagues (ie., leagues roughly equivalent to MLS). He bagged 36 goals in 67 appearances for Rapid Vienna of the Austrian top flight, including 11 in 15 matches this season.

He and Boskovic were teammates at Rapid Vienna.

Also studding DC’s 2012 roster are 2010 Rookie of the Year Andy Najar, and a pair of solid American defenders in Chris Korb and Daniel Woolard.

On paper, the Black-and-Red have made a solid bid to return to the glory years of the franchise. If they can translate it to the field, they’ll rise well above last year’s seventh-place finish.

Tomorrow: Chicago.

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