United looks to strike back

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United looks to strike back

Defensive midfielder is not one of soccers glamour positions. Traditional jersey numbers are not assigned to it like number 9 for striker and number 10 for playmaking midfielder. The importance of a defensive midfielder goes beyond the numbers and is a focus for D.C. United.

United is hoping to have Perry Kitchen still in the starting eleven when it begins a three-game home stretch Wednesday against the Colorado Rapids at R.F.K. Stadium. Kitchen was forced to leave the first half of Saturdays 1-0 loss in Houston with a hyper extended left knee. An MRI revealed no structural damage to Kitchens knee.

We had about four or five guys taking MRIs today, said United head coach Ben Olsen after Mondays training. We are trying to get through and we will see who can walk and who can run. But this year I do have options.

It is no slight to Stephen King, who replaced Kitchen on Saturday, but after the switch in defensive midfield United was not as fluid. Going all the way back to Richie Williams United fans have appreciated the role of the defensive midfielder. From allowing the attacking midfielder to create to helping with possession, the defensive midfielder is an important role that Kitchen has been growing into.

In addition to concern for Kitchen, his first choice replacement Marcelo Saragosa has been battling a calf strain that prevented him from being on the substitutes bench. Also in the defensive third Dejan Jakovic, Emilliano Dudar, and Ethan White continue to recover from injuries.

Up front is where Olsens options come into play and he will need them. Chris Pontius is slowed by tightness in his gluteal muscle and leading scorer Maicon Santos is feeling some wear and tear with a calf injury. The fitness of Pontius and Santos could determine where Dwayne De Rosario plays. De Rosario might be forced to move up to forward.

If De Rosario leaves the midfield then that will create an opening for Branko Boskovic to get his third start of the year. The health questions around Pontius and Santos could also lead to a start for Hamdi Salihi at forward. After a rocky start to his MLS career Salihi has scored two goals in the last three games.

On the outside of midfield Olsen has a choice of Danny Cruz, Andy Najar, and Lewis Neal. Najar seems to be set to stay in midfield after starting one game at right back. Neal was in the first eleven against Toronto FC and with over ten years of experience in the English leagues is an intriguing option on the left side.

He (Neal) is sharp on the ball, Olsen said. I would like to see him be more of a threat offensively. He can keep the ball for days. He is technically sound. He just needs to relax a little bit and get more crosses in.

Like United, the Colorado Rapids have found a way to play through early season injuries and still get results. On 15 points from 10 matches, the Rapids lost their defensive midfielder Pablo Mastroeni to a concussion in the second game of the season. At forward Omar Cummings suffered a sprained left ankle in their 2-0 win over FC Dallas and is out four weeks.

The Rapids have been able to spread the wealth. The teams 15 goals have been scored by eight different players and nine of the goals have been finished by newcomers. Leading the Rapids debutantes is Kamani Hill who has three goals and is back in the United States after playing in Germany and Portugal following his career at UCLA.

The Rapids are also hoping to get more minutes out of Conor Casey at forward. Casey ruptured his left Achilles tendon at Seattle lasts season and just returned two games ago after a ten-month absence. He has been used off the bench, but his return to full fitness will help a Rapids attack that is now being engineered from the center of midfield by Argentine Martin Rivero.

Rivero has a little Christian Gomez in him according to Olsen and sealed the win over Dallas with his first MLS goal. Riveros goal came off a Brian Mullan cross and he and left-sided midfielder Jamie Castrillon should keep Uniteds outside backs Robbie Russell and Chris Korb busy.

On defense the Rapids have recorded four shutouts. Their back five starts with defensive midfielder Jeff Laurentowicz who is one of the better players at the position in MLS. The back four has plenty of experience with Tyrone Marshall and Drew Moor anchoring the middle and Colombian Luis Zapata and Kosuke Kimura able to jump into the attack.

Yes I am concerned we have lost two of three games, Olsen added. I am confident we will respond. After giving up five goals in San Jose, we came back and shutout Toronto. We have a break coming up to heal up, but we need to take care of business in these next three home games.

With Heather O'Reilly set to retire, USWNT teammates honor all-time great

With Heather O'Reilly set to retire, USWNT teammates honor all-time great

As U.S. Women’s Soccer star Heather O’Reilly steps into international retirement Thursday night, her soon-to-be former teammates are jumping at the chance to honor O’Reilly one last time.

"She’s the best teammate I ever had,” said Ali Krieger, who has played alongside O’Reilly on the USWNT since 2008. “She’s such an inspiration for so many young athletes, but also for us – her current teammates and the players in the National Women’s Soccer League. She’s been a legend.”

O’Reilly will end her 15-year international career when the U.S. Women face Thailand in Columbus, Ohio on Thursday night.

“She’s motivated me and I know my teammates to want to better themselves every single day,” Krieger said of O’Reilly’s legacy on the national team. “That is something that she can leave us. I’m so happy for her, I’m really proud of her and she continued to inspire me every single day. I wish her all the best and I’m going to miss her like crazy.”

Of all O’Reilly’s teammates, few can appreciate the retiring legend quite like Krieger. The two often featured together on the right side of the U.S. formation, Krieger in defense and O’Reilly just ahead of her in midfield, resulting in a bond that will last beyond their playing days.

“We always say ‘right side – strong side’, so we’re going to hold on to that forever,” Krieger said with a smile. “She’s one of my best friends on the team and I support her decision.”

O’Reilly’s decision was likely made easier by the changing landscape of the national team. After seeing her minutes dwindle during last summer’s successful World Cup run, the 31-year-old veteran was left off the U.S. Olympic Team in August instead traveling to Brazil as an alternate.

Despite that, O’Reilly’s career compares favorably to pretty much every other U.S. international. O'Reilly made her senior international debut while still in high school, and her 230 appearances rank seventh all-time in U.S. Women’s National Team history. 

“It’s so much more than the player that she is and what she’s done for the national team,” said U.S. Women’s National Team forward Crystal Dunn. “It’s her – the person – that I’m going to miss seeing in camps and chatting it up.”

Though they didn’t overlap in Chapel Hill, both Dunn and O’Reilly played collegiately for North Carolina. Thanks to that Tar Heel connection, the duo trained together frequently even when not with the U.S. team.

“She was just one of those people that I looked up to,” Dunn added. “She would kick my butt every single day and I was so in awe that she would go out of her way to help make me better."

MORE SOCCER: STL: 'Tyrant'-like act by Spirit to stifle Rapinoe protest

Spirit players speak out against owner shutting down Rapinoe's protest

Spirit players speak out against owner shutting down Rapinoe's protest

Two days after the Washington Spirit organization changed the timing of their pregame routine in order to preempt Megan Rapinoe’s national anthem protest, Spirit players are speaking out against the team’s decision.

"We respect our owner’s freedom to share his views and we understand his intentions,” read a statement posted on the Spirit website. “But as a team we don’t necessarily agree with those opinions or the actions taken Wednesday evening.” 

The statement - signed ‘all of the players of the Washington Spirit’ - was also posted to Spirit captain, and longtime U.S. Women’s National Team star, Ali Krieger’s personal website. 

“As a team, we were disappointed we were not informed of the plans for the national anthem or given an opportunity to weigh in on the decision,” the statement continued.

The Washington Spirit and Rapinoe’s Seattle Reign FC were still in the locker rooms when the national anthem was played ahead of schedule at Wednesday’s National Women’s Soccer League match between the two teams. 

In an exclusive interview Tuesday afternoon, Rapinoe told CSN that she planned to kneel during the national anthem prior to Wednesday's game - as she did before Sunday's NWSL contest between Seattle and the Chicago Red Stars.