Washington, DC (Sports Network) - Back when Major League Soccer was in its infancy, D.C. United was the class of the league.
Fast-forward to 2012 and the club from the nation's capital appears to be on the road back to elite status.
After a three-game winless run to begin 2012, United earned its first victory at the end of March, then picked up momentum and went unbeaten in April. They spent a majority of the season on top of the Eastern Conference, but were eventually overtaken for first place by Sporting Kansas City.
United head coach Ben Olsen led his team to second place in the conference helping the club reach the playoffs for the first time since the 2007 season.
The team's most important player is midfielder Dwayne DeRosario. The Canadian international arrived in D.C. midseason in 2011 and instantly transformed what was a rather mediocre team into one with a lot of potential.
DeRosario bagged 15 goals with Red Bull New York and United and claimed the MLS MVP award in 2011 before following up with another exceptional season last term.
In 26 appearances last campaign, DeRosario scored seven goals, but more importantly, added 12 assists. He missed the final seven regular-season matches in 2012 due to an MCL sprain, but returned to play in one postseason match for the club. He will need to be fully healthy and ready to go when the season begins to lead the team to the playoffs again.
Joining DeRosario in the middle of the park will be budding field general Perry Kitchen and Nick DeLeon. Kitchen had an exceptional rookie season in 2011 when he was honored as a Rookie of the Year finalist, and backed it up in 2012 by starting 32 of the team's 34 matches.
Kitchen will be leaned on to direct traffic in the midfield and provide service to the forwards. DeLeon, meanwhile was a Rookie of the Year runner-up last term and made an immediate impact on the club, scoring six goals and adding four assists.
Kitchen and DeLeon will need to have significant impacts this season as a pair of steady midfielders from last term will not be back with the team in Branko Boskovic and Andy Najar.
Najar completed a move to Belgian side R.S.C. Anderlecht in January. Last season for United, he played in 25 regular-season matches, including 22 starts, while notching four assists.
The move to Belgium made him MLS's first homegrown player to complete a permanent transfer to a European club.
"It has been very rewarding to watch Andy grow and develop into becoming the special player that he is," said D.C. United general manager Dave Kasper. "This transfer is a testament to the hard work of our Academy staff, to Ben and his staff for their patience and vision, and to the MLS Homegrown Player initiative. We wish Andy all of the success in the world and we look forward to watching his career blossom."
United's longest-tenured player, winger Chris Pontius, returns for his fifth season at RFK Stadium. Pontius had the best season of his career last time out, bagging 12 goals to go with four assists. It's safe to say that he won't put up the kind of numbers he did last season, but United has plenty of attacking options going into 2013.
Colombian forward Lionard Pajoy arrived in a mid-season trade with Philadelphia last term and started all 12 of the remaining games for D.C. while scoring three goals. Pajoy will need to find the back of the net consistently, along with Albanian forward Hamdi Salihi, to keep the Black and Red near the top of the conference.
On the backline, United will run out veteran Brandon McDonald, who started 33 games last season and added a pair of goals, while newcomer James Riley should also slide into a starting spot. Riley came to D.C. this offseason in a trade from Chivas USA, where he was a mainstay on the Goats' defense, starting 32 games last term.
Dejan Jakovic and Robbie Russell are good bets to fill the final two starting spots along D.C.'s backline, which was solid last term in finishing with a plus-10 goal differential. If there are cracks along the way, U.S. international goalkeeper Bill Hamid will be there to clean up the mistakes.
2012 IN REVIEW: D.C. United won 17 matches last season and finished second in the Eastern Conference with 58 points, putting an end to a four-year playoff drought in the process. They knocked off Red Bull New York, 2-1, in the conference semifinals before falling to the Houston Dynamo in the conference title round.
ACQUISITIONS:John Thorrington (M), Rafael (F), Michael Seaton (F), Syamsir Alam (M/F), Casey Townsend (F), James Riley (D).
LOSSES:Branko Boskovic (M), Maicon Santos (F), Long Tan (F), Andy Najar (M/D), Mike Chabala (D).
OUTLOOK: If DeRosario can remain healthy for all or most of the regular season, United can challenge Sporting Kansas City for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Pontius will likely not replicate his numbers from 2012, so Salihi and Pajoy will need to score regularly. United's season will largely come down DeRosario's ability to carry the team should they hit some rough spots, but another appearances in the conference championship round is not out of the question.