Photo: Jennifer Pottheiser / NBAE via Getty Images

Dribbling The District: Mystics’ Kristi Toliver Goes In-Depth On Coaching Wizards

The NBA has included famous females on coaching staffs such as Becky Hammon (San Antonio Spurs), Jenny Boucek (Dallas Mavericks) and now Lindsey Harding (Philadelphia 76ers). Women assistant coaches are slowly gaining residence in men’s sports, including Washington Mystics point guard Kristi Toliver, who is now the first active WNBA player on an NBA coaching staff as an assistant coach for the Washington Wizards.

“I think it’s cool, special and important,” Toliver says. “I’d like to see more options or openings if women want to coach college basketball. Just the idea of them being open to the idea – we should be past that. It’s just about who can do that job the best. It’s good men are finally realizing that women can bring a whole lot to the table, including a new perspective and mentality they haven’t been exposed to before.”

Fresh off the Mystics’ championship loss to the Seattle Storm in the 2018 WNBA finals and hungry for more basketball, Toliver (a former champion herself) spent her summer assisting the Wizards’ coaching staff during summer league and training camp. Toliver was drafted to the WNBA in 2009 by Chicago, enjoyed a stint in Los Angeles and finally joined the Mystics in 2017 during free agency. Continuing her storied basketball journey, her coaching role with the District’s men’s team while active carries great significance.

At first, I didn’t think a whole lot of it because from my perspective, I was just pursuing two things that I’m passionate about and love to do,” she says. 

It wasn’t until head coaches started approaching her and telling her about the impact she was making, especially on their daughters, that it dawned on her this was something big.

“It gave me a new perspective. I’m proud of what I’m doing, but I’m also a person pursuing what I love and that’s the biggest message for other people: there are no limits. I don’t believe in limits. I think you’re capable of anything as long as you’re passionate and care about it and put in the work.”

Toliver’s 10-year career in the WNBA has prepared her for how to handle the highs and lows. Though no one truly gets over a championship loss, Toliver stayed open to learning and growing from the 2018 WNBA finals in the offseason.

“I think that playing overseas and for a championship helps [to get over it], but for me being on the sidelines in an assistant coach position, all I could think about every day was getting back to the finals and wishing we had those three games back against Seattle,” she says. “It’s been my motivation throughout: preparing and getting myself better in different ways because I know you have to be better than you were the year before [to succeed].”

Coaching is something that’s always been in the back of Toliver’s mind – it’s her way of staying in the sport even after her playing career ends.

“Basketball is my passion. I enjoy teaching. I love talking about the game and preparing for games, game planning and other things like that. It kind of just naturally happened and I was presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I wanted to see if I enjoyed it and wanted to get my feet wet.”

Last summer, a familiar face that Toliver knew from her four-year college career at the University of Maryland, Ryan Richman, asked her to be his assistant for the NBA G League Capital City Go-Go. It was a perfect fit for Toliver because she knew she was taking a year off from playing overseas.

However, inside the Wizards organization, assistant coaching positions became available, vaulting Richman to a position at the front of the bench. Toliver was able to talk with head coach Scott Brooks and nab an assistant spot with the Wizards after prepping the team for summer league and joining them in Vegas.

“We had a nice conversation and things just kind of developed from there,” she says. “He asked what I wanted, what my vision was, if I could have anything, what would it be? I went through my checklist and [we] talked through it. Timing is everything; it’s wild how it all turned out.”

During Wizards training camp in September 2018, Toliver was addressed more and more as “Coach,” replacing the normal “Panda,” which is what her Mystics teammates call her.

“It’s funny. All I’ve head for the past eight, nine months was ‘Coach.’ It was different, but I embraced it. [Panda] is the nickname I had from my team in L.A. and here [in DC], we already had a KT on the team, so I just brought Panda over from the West Coast to the East Coast.”

Though she’s known some of the Wizards’ players for a long time, Toliver has embraced the guys on the team and vice versa. She’s been able to learn and gain experience in ways she might not have without this coaching opportunity.

“I don’t know if I’m lucky, but I’ve just been around a great group of guys from top to bottom – guys we still have, guys that were traded away. And [my] relationships with John Wall and Brad Beal, those are two of the guys I’ve been around that my position. All these guys have taught me a whole lot just about the game itself. They’re not only extremely talented in what they do, but also in how they prepare and [in] their leadership qualities – things that I can do better for my team this summer.”

Something new Toliver was charged with as an assistant coach was presenting the scouting report to the team and coaching staff, which turned out to be one of her most memorable moments from the season because it’s a big responsibility.

“That’s what I knew I was going to love the most about coaching – just the preparation aspect and getting the guys ready and presenting to them with my voice and them engaging with me. It’s a little nerve-wracking and the way they responded made me feel comfortable. They gave me positive feedback, and it just shows the kind of guys that they are.”

Coming off her 2018 season averaging 13.9 points and 4.4 assists, Toliver plans to stay linked with her Wizards’ players during the Mystics’ season so you’ll probably see Beal and Wall cheer her on from the stands at  the Entertainment and Sports Arena at St. Elizabeths East.

“It’s going to be cool. They’re going to watch us play and stay connected with what we’re doing because they’ve been around me for so many months now, so we do have that connection and that relationship.”

As for the upcoming WNBA season, you can expect Toliver and the Mystics to keep the same mentality they displayed last year with new faces and even stronger team comraderies.

“Our team will look different in our make-up, but we’ll continue to get better every single day and grow with one another and build on that team chemistry that we had last year. We’re looking forward to getting back to the finals, just getting over that hump. It’s not easy and we understand the challenges that are ahead of us.”

Coaching instead of playing this past offseason hasn’t hindered Toliver’s mindset and game plan for her third season with the Mystics – it’s only made her more focused and hungrier.

“I didn’t know before I did this whether I’d actually enjoy it or if it was something I’d be passionate about. It clicked right away, and I’m really thankful that I was given that opportunity.”

The Washington Mystics will tip off for the 2019 WNBA season on Saturday, May 25, opening the season on the road versus the Connecticut Sun. Their first game in DC is on Saturday, June 1 versus the Atlanta Dream. For more information about their upcoming season, visit https://mystics.wnba.com.

Expat Polo DC at The Congressional Polo Club

The Congressional Country Club hosted a polo cup in Maryland between Georgetown and G.W. Photos: John Gervasi PhotoArts LLC

Nationals Opening Day 2019

As the Nationals warmed up to play the Mets at Nationals Park for opening day, fans enjoyed a pregame show with live music from Lloyd Dobler Effect and ice cold beer on the Budweiser Terrace. Photos: Mark Raker Photography

Public school playground at Sedona, Arizona // Photo: Bill Bamberger

HOOPS Depicts International Connection

Basketball has always held the hearts of people from all over the world. Need proof? Just turn on your TV until you find an NBA game. Hell, you can look at just this past year’s all-star roster featuring players from Germany, Greece, Australia, Cameroon, Serbia and Switzerland all sharing the same court.

Since the 1992 Summer Olympics and the formation of the Dream Team, basketball reached a fever pitch internationally. And though it’s unlikely that most kids who pick up the ball and head to a court will make it to the professional level, the game is nonetheless celebrated and played everywhere.

“It shows how we’re all connected around this common game,” photographer Bill Bamberger says. “It’s played worldwide. You can come upon [courts] in Italy and South Africa, and you can step up and play. It’s open to anyone willing to step on the court.”

Bamberger grew up hooping when he was a child, and in 2004, the established photographer began shooting courts near his home in North Carolina. Over the next 15 years, he traveled the country – and the world – collecting a diverse set of images depicting places people shoot, dribble and ultimately connect through this game. From now until next January, 75 large-format photographs from his massive collection are on display in his exhibition HOOPS at the National Building Museum.

“It was completely unintended,” he says. “I often start my projects close to home, and you expect to find courts everywhere. I love to explore the middle of nowhere, and I’d see these courts in cotton fields and in barns. I like some of the early ones that speak toward different times; not all of them are active and some are relics.”

Though the photographs are creatively captured through a series of environmental portraits, a majority of the 22,000 pictures feature basketball courts that aren’t what you’d expect to see at your local park. Some feature murals on bordering walls and a vibrant blacktop with a plexiglass backboard, while others are made up of a dirt surface with beat-up pieces of metal acting as rims.

“You take that basic design and it becomes interpreted in different ways,” Bamberger says. “The permutations are virtually endless, and each court reflects the design and influence of the host community.”

The courts are tremendously varied and display a certain amount of ingenuity on the part of the people who put them in place, while the backdrops for the photographs shed light on the communities they serve. From Italy and South Africa to New Hampshire and Philadelphia, each portrait displays a unique sense of place.

“I drove through Colorado and Utah and South Dakota just looking for hoops, and they were everywhere,” he says. “One of my favorites is a campsite in Utah. There was a hoop in the middle of these grassy fields and I photographed them in the distance, making the point that even in really remote places like this, you’ll find a court for young people.”

Bamberger didn’t just focus on public places; he often found extremely intimate settings worth immortalizing. There are a number of selections featuring courts in abandoned areas and others in family backyards.

“[For] some of the private places, I would stop and knock on the door. In every instance, I would ask. The same is true internationally. I remember I was on a court in Naples, Italy and there was a lot of ballers playing on the court. There was one who spoke some English, and I just asked them to clear the court.”

If nothing else, Bamberger set out to show how connected we are as a society through this one universal game. Whether your court is regulation-size in the middle of a city or involves a tree, a hubcap and a block of crooked wood, you can still pick up the ball and hoop.

“It’s been one of the truly fun projects to work on,” the photographer says, reflecting on the past decade. “I work on long-term projects, and as an artist, it’s been a joy to have something I can take worldwide. It represents the full range of the work. It’s probably time to let go, but it’s going to be hard. This exhibition represents a stopping point and opportunity to reflect on the project.”

HOOPS will be at the National Building Museum through January 5. Admission to the museum is $10. For more of Bamberger’s work, visit www.billbamberger.com.

National Building Museum: 401 F St. NW, DC; 202-272-2448; www.nbm.org

Photo: Courtesy of the Washington Nationals

Pitching Expected to Take Nats Far in 2019

You can’t talk about the 2019 outlook for the Washington Nationals without first addressing the elephant on the field – mainly that franchise icon Bryce Harper has departed to Philadelphia thanks to a record-setting, 13-year, $330 million contract. But even without the former MVP at Nats Park, the team is still flush with outstanding talent and has made some of the savviest moves of the offseason.

The team signed Patrick Corbin, the top pitcher on the free agent market, to a six-year, $140 million contract in early December. Coming off a season in which he went 11-7 with a 3.15 ERA, striking out 246 batters in 200 innings pitched, the former Arizona Diamondback immediately made the already formidable rotation arguably the best in baseball.

“I think [the Nationals] have won the most games in regular season baseball in the last five [or] six years,” Corbin says. “And knowing how deep of a team they are, I saw this as a place that I could live for a long time and be part of this rotation. Honestly, I feel like I just stepped right in, and I can’t think of one thing that hasn’t been great. Between all the players, all the things that we’re doing on and off the field together, the coaching staff [and] the training staff, everyone has been awesome. Being a new guy here, it seems like it’s been easy to join and be part of it.”

Staff ace Max Scherzer struck out 300 batters in 220 innings on his way to a league-leading 18 wins and 2.53 ERA. While Stephen Strasburg had some injury concerns last year, he still managed 10 wins and 156 Ks in just 130 innings; he’s looked healthy all spring and should be poised for a top season. The rest of the rotation includes veterans Aníbal Sánchez and Jeremy Hellickson – both recent free agent signees – and 25-year-old Joe Ross, who has been a dependable arm for the Nats since 2015 as insurance against injury.

Sean Doolittle established himself nicely at the closer in 2018, as the lefty recorded 25 saves and an anemic 1.60 ERA. This year, he’s joined in a revamped pen by veteran Trevor Rosenthal, who will serve as his primary setup man, as well as young fireballers Kyle Barraclough, Koda Glover and Justin Miller. The new additions reinforce a bullpen that should improve on its overall 4.05 ERA.

Even without Harper, the Nats shouldn’t have any problems scoring runs. A breakout season by rookie Juan Soto last year is just the tip of the iceberg of what MLB experts expect from the left fielder. Expect plenty of tape measure home runs to go along with an impressive eye at the plate.

Soto’s joined in the outfield this year by Adam Eaton in right and top prospect Victor Robles, whose speed rivals anyone in the game, manning center. Michael A. Taylor injured himself near the end of spring and until he’s fully recovered, power hitter Matt Adams will see some time in the outfield as will veteran Howie Kendrick.

“It’s exciting to know that you’re on a team that wants to win and tries to put the best team on the field,” Corbin says.

Anthony Rendon is the true star of this team to many, and even though he’s entering the final year of his contract, it’s a good bet that he’ll be reupping on a long-term deal sometime soon. The third baseman hit .308 last year, with 24 homers and 92 knocks, and was exceptional as always at manning his position. Longtime Nats first baseman Ryan Zimmerman will try to rebound from another injury-plagued season, and hopefully provide more than the 85 games he played last year. He’s only a year removed from a 36-homer season, though three of the past five seasons, he’s seen action in less than 95 games.

Adams will most likely find some ample time as his backup. Veteran Brian Dozier was signed to play the keystone and forms a new double-play combo with speedster Trea Turner, who led the league with 43 steals in 2018. In fact, speed is going to be a major weapon for the Nats this season.

Between Turner, Robles, Dozier and Eaton, this team can run, and manager Dave Martinez is not afraid to send his guys or call on the hit-and-run. The team brought in two longtime backstops this off-season to handle catching duties, with Yan Gomes coming over in a trade with Cleveland and Kurt Suzuki signing a two-year deal to return to the club after seven years. Both offer solid framing skills and are above average with the bat for the catcher position.

The NL East is expected to be one of the toughest divisions in baseball this year, with the Phillies adding Harper plus four other former all-stars in shortstop Jean Segura, outfielder Andrew McCutchen, catcher J.T. Realmuto and closer David Robertson. The Mets are making a splash adding Edwin Diaz, last year’s AL saves leader, in a deal that also netted them offensive-minded second baseman Robinson Canó, not to mention signing catcher Wilson Ramos and infielder Jed Lowrie. And the Braves brought in former MVP Josh Donaldson to man third for the team that won the division in 2018.

The Nationals seem to have put together a team that is a perfect balance of pitching, offense and defense, and should be able to ride the strength of their arms all the way to the postseason.   

“I think we’re as good as any team in baseball from top to bottom,” Corbin says. “Everyone’s goal is to win a World Series. That’s going to be ours. Our job now is to get better each and every day.”

For more information on Corbin and the Nats’ 2019 season, visit www.mlb.com/nationals.

Nationals Park: 1500 South Capitol St. SE, DC; 202-675-6287; www.mlb.com/nationals

Artistic Rendering Courtesy of www.rfkcampus.com

Breaking Ground: Local Community Pushes for Sports Fields at RFK Campus

What do you do when there’s 40 acres of asphalt not being used for anything? Most would have no idea why or how to address the situation, but to a group of neighborhood parents in Southeast DC eight years ago, the answer was obvious: build a sports park.

This group eventually became Friends of Capitol Riverside Youth Sports Park (CRYSP), and since forming in 2010, CRYSP has engaged with the community around RFK Stadium to develop a joint vision of how this unused parcel of asphalt could be activated for community use.  

“More and more families are having kids and staying in the area, but there’s less and less space to do it,” says Mike Godec, CRYSP president.

Godec spearheaded the vision into motion and presented ideas to the National Capital Planning Commission, Commission of Fine Arts, National Park Service and various city council representatives.

“Everyone wanted it to work and be valuable,” he continues. “It was just one of those things that’s a kind of no-brainer.”

While awaiting feedback, this determined group of parents started the CRYSP coalition to keep it local, focused and simple. Eventually they were able to nab a meeting with Mayor Bowser, who said their idea was consistent with her vision of promoting youth sports and activity in the city. Soon, the coalition was joining forces with EventsDC. According to Godec and other CRYSP members, the original proposal looked “nice and flashy,” but not totally functional.

“Based on our experience as parents, coaches and members of the community, we made a variety of suggestions [to EventsDC] for the [field] design to make it more [accessible] to kids and more useful to organizations, including what kinds of turf to use,” Godec says.

EventsDC took those suggestions and incorporated most of that feedback into their specs for building the revised proposal. The fields are just the first part of a multiphase, multicomponent plan for the RFK Campus project, which will dramatically increase access to youth and adult sports and take demand off other facilities and the National Mall.

“Is it enough?” Godec asks. “No, this is just the beginning. It’s exciting that EventsDC is valuing it [because] it’s valuable to the city and their mission as an organization.”  

The RFK Campus site is expected to open next month and will have three major artificial turf fields, several grass lawn areas, an events pavilion, a plaza and more. One of the many ways this no-man’s-land-turned-recreation-wonderland will benefit the city is its location at the intersection between Wards 5, 6 and 7.

“By creating this fantastic green space, those wards will get together, mingle and became less distinctive,” Godec says.

The new campus also has the potential to be one of the top spots to host sports tournaments in the region, bringing in more visitors and generating more revenue for the District. Godec mentions that DC is one of the largest cities in the country in terms of green space per capita, but that green space is organized and managed by several different agencies; there’s not just one park service. He hopes DC will be recognized as a community, and not just as the nation’s capital.

“We at CRYSP don’t want this to be the end. We succeeded. We know this means more [and] better access to fields, but we need the federal government and park service not to restrict uses of the Mall just because they want the grass to be green. We need to provide those kinds of assets to the city itself.”

Godec commends EventsDC for having this vision to pursue this opportunity in an aggressive way.

“I hope [EventsDC] sets an example for other things that the DC and federal governments could do, such as how to turn valuable green space into something that’s really truly a community benefit.”  

For more on CRYSP, visit www.capitolriverside.org. For updates on EventsDC’s plans for the RFK Campus, visit www.rfkcampus.com.

Light It UP! Scores Funding For Alexandria Basketball Courts

It’s truly amazing what a group of citizens can do when they partner up on something they care about – even if it’s something as simple as installing lights at outdoor basketball courts.

Started by Alexandria, Virginia natives Chris Denby, Bruce Falk and Mike Porterfield, community group Light It UP! (LIU) has gained enough support to partner with the City of Alexandria to provide lights at the basketball courts at Potomac Yard Park. Through fundraising efforts in the area, the group’s connections with Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson and councilman John Taylor Chapman, and sheer patience and determination, this $150,000 project has become a reality.

In 2016, the trio noticed there was inequity at the brand-new facilities at Potomac Yard, whether they were just passing by or in Porterfield’s case, picking up his son from the park just after dusk. There were lights on the tennis courts but not on the basketball courts. His son was shooting baskets in pitch black, but light was coming from the tennis courts, which didn’t seem right to him.

“As I’m waiting for him, I’m texting [Mayor] Wilson because we all know he’s dialed in,” Porterfield says. “He responded saying, ‘You’re a little late to the party; there’s already two guys [Falk and Denby] who are on it.’”

Mayor Wilson, along with the Alexandria City Council, supported the creation of a public-private partnership to help fund the new project, giving the guys the freedom to really make it happen.

“From there, Mike was a huge help, spurring us along with connections, energy and fundraising expertise that Bruce and I didn’t have prior to this,” Denby says. “We also took advantage of a lot of the opportunities [nonprofit] ACT for Alexandria provided to get well-known in the community. Their fundraising efforts were great and gave us some more clout.”

ACT for Alexandria’s annual Spring2ACTion event aims to strengthen the local community as a “giving day” to support all the nonprofits doing incredible work locally, which benefited LIU’s progress as well.

“We got some camera time, and experienced good camaraderie with people organizing Alexandria-specific events,” Falk says. “John and Justin came out to dunk on our mini-hoop; those things also lead to productive, positive photo ops that we can leverage on Facebook and elsewhere – things that are individually small but amplify one another.”

LIU is all about extending the use of the basketball courts and their overall time availability, but there’s also increased opportunities for local rec leagues and others that might be able to take advantage of the courts in a structured way “that’s beneficial to specific organizations and the city in terms of revenue and maintenance,” Falk says. “We think of it as a positive feedback loop.”

Of course, only time will tell the long-term impact LIU will make, but it’s clear the project is creating opportunities for the overall community.

“The legacy of what this could be [includes] more kids who are staying occupied, doing healthy activities and not hanging out playing video games when the weather is good,” Denby says. “You’ll get adults that are staying fit, staying happy and they’re outside being good citizens for good health. There’s no measure for that, but you know that it’s going to be the result.”

Falk touches on an invisible benefit for people that have been going by Potomac Yard, seeing lights from the tennis courts and darkness on the basketball courts.

“For people inclined to make use of the basketball courts, there was an implicit message that they are somehow less important, or their needs are somehow less important,” he says. “Now that the lights are going up, we are showing the city values everybody equally.”

Not only that, the usage of the courts will increase significantly, raising an excellent point about the numbers of the sport.

“In basketball, you’re going to get at least 10 people playing and sometimes more,” Falk says.

Denby adds, “There’s always someone saying, ‘I got next game.’ The force multiplier is huge. You’re rotating through [players] on a good day.”

The lights have been ordered by the City of Alexandria and the LIU team is waiting eagerly for the installation date. Signage is being finalized and funds are completely transferred. Now all that’s left to do is host the unveiling later this spring.

“The unveiling should be awesome,” Falk says. “[We’ll] have two rec kids’ teams, and we’ll have them play under the lights. We’re excited be able to recognize all our donors and major supporters.”

Light It UP! is successfully bringing lights to the community basketball courts at Potomac Yard Park thanks to PARKnerships with the Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities (RPCA).


To learn more and receive updates about the LIU project, visit www.fb.com/pg/lightituppotomacyards.

DC Fray’s Late Night Glow Snow Tubing Trip

DC Fray, the champion of things to do in DC, were at it again with their Late Night Glow Snow Tubing that kicked off during happy hour at Kelly’s Irish Times for the pre-game, the continued with the BYOB #Fraylife Bus ride all the way to the slopes at Avalanche Express. Photos: Cristina O’Connell

Photo: Moultrie Tisdale

Fray’s Britt Rheault Promotes Inclusivity

Britt Rheault is taking the social sports world by storm one city at a time. The born and bred Boston sports fan turned DMV lady boss has spent nearly five years lending her passion, experience and knowledge to United Fray, where she currently oversees leagues in Phoenix, Jacksonville, New Orleans and the District from the company’s home office in Northeast DC’s Brentwood neighborhood.

When Fray’s director of sports operations first participated in the Sport & Social Industry Association’s annual conference for all social sports companies in the U.S. and Canada, only 10 percent of attendees were women. Last month, she went to the conference for the fifth time and the number of industry females in attendance had risen to 40 percent.

“The sports industry has always been a male-dominated world, but it keeps growing and women’s involvement keeps increasing by the day,” she says.

Rheault credits Fray’s founder and CEO Robert Kinsler with embracing female empowerment, noting that the company has more women in leadership roles than men.

“I feel like we have a pretty solid split on the women-to-men ratio. It keeps increasing. In the sports industry, you don’t always have that, so I’m very appreciative.”

Fray has offered participation in women’s leagues throughout the years, and the numbers have always fluctuated. To try and meet in the middle, Fray offers open divisions so there’s no gender requirements.

“It can be a team of all women or all men, or half women [and] half men. It’s to bridge that gap so we can get that opportunity of all women who want to play together.”

Rheault went to Worcester State University where she played softball and basketball. To stay active, she now plays in several Fray leagues including kickball and Skee-Ball, and occasionally cornhole and softball.

“[The leagues] are definitely just for fun, for the social and the drinking [aspects]. I could care less if we win.”

She’s helped come up with more creative ways of getting female players involved, including river tubing, speed dating and yoga.

“We’re trying to offer as many options as possible to get as many different females and males involved with what we have going on,” she explains. “The goal is to keep increasing those opportunities so we can be as inclusive as possible. Bringing as many people in to join the Fray family is what we want.”

After receiving her master’s in sports management at Northeastern University, Rheault joined DC Fray as a sports coordinator for permitting. Now, she has a total of nine direct reports at the rapidly expanding company.

“I’ve been on such a journey with this company. When I started, it was me and two other guys who were doing everything. We’ve gone from that to now [having] 20 full-time employees with Fray and [expansion to] three other cities.”

She’s seen immense growth among the sports leagues too, with the number of players rising from 25,000 to more than 60,000 among Fray’s four markets. But the expansion hasn’t stopped there.

“Embracing those other avenues in events and media – and growing us to be more than just a sports company [and] offering something to everyone – that’s probably been one of the most incredible things to see.”

Spring registration for team sports is open through March 26 and for bar sports through April 2. Find your league at www.dcfray.com/leagues.

Photo: Courtesy of D.C. United

D.C. United Forges a Distinct Identity

“Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades” is an axiom my seventh grade science teacher once taught me. It was basically a grim way of saying, “Close don’t cut it,” and it’s a refrain that D.C. United may hear in 2019.

After a demoralizing loss in penalty kicks to Columbus Crew SC left D.C. United short of the MLS Cup semifinals in 2018, one has to consider whether or not to look at the season on the whole as a success.

“Our run ended a little bit short, but that’s playoffs,” midfielder Russell Canouse says. “You lose in penalty kicks – it’s frustrating. I felt, and I know everyone else felt, that we could’ve went to the MLS Cup last year. It just didn’t feel right when the season ended against Columbus that early. I don’t think anyone was thinking that was going to be our exit.”

Canouse’s faith in his team has plenty of merit. The club went undefeated in its final 10 games, lifting them to a winning regular season record and securing them a fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference. Even in the playoff loss, the team seemed to pull yet another rabbit out of their hat when they tied the game at 2-2 in the 116th minute to force the fateful penalties.

Granted, a favorable string of home games at the end of the year – 16 of the final 21 games were played at Audi Field – likely provided an unusual advantage amid the stunning comeback. But one could argue that over the course of the season, D.C. United’s absurd, lopsided schedule represented a negative sum.

“Being able to open up at home with a similar core group that we had to finish last season is going to be great for us,” says center back Steve Birnbaum, highlighting a welcome return to normalcy in the team’s schedule. “We have that confidence or swagger leading into the season because we know we have the pieces to succeed.”

Canouse is an important one of those pieces, and his ability to stay on the pitch will be vital. In 2018, he only appeared in 20 games because of a knee injury. This followed an abbreviated 2017 season in which he only appeared in the second half as a late-season addition from Germany.

“2017 was obviously a little flawed,” Canouse says. “I came in in August. There were only 10 games left to play and I started all 10. The ideal situation would be to play all 34 games.”

His presence will be even more magnified after his experience with the U.S. National team during its training camp this winter. A full season from Canouse could pay dividends for D.C. United while boosting his chances of being considered for a spot on the 2022 U.S. Men’s World Cup team.

But to make a run at the MLS Cup, it will take a concerted team effort. Part of unifying a team and optimizing its skills is to administer a sound strategy; following a season that ended in heartbreak, changes to the club’s strategy were inevitable.

“We’re going to play a little bit more out of the back this year,” Birnbaum says. “I think we want to be a more possession-based team. We did that toward the tail end of the season last year. We’re building upon that, and kind of creating a new style of play.”

He adds that box defending, a strength of the team in 2018, will be crucial to repeat this season.

“I think that’s a major factor in creating shutouts and making us hard to score on,” Birnbaum continues. “That’s one of the things that I try and focus on a lot throughout the year. We have a motto: to be the first contact to the ball in the box. The most important thing for us is getting the ball out of the box and away from danger.”

Though Birnbaum’s comments suggest a more defensive approach, Canouse expects an aggressive identity to characterize the group’s play on the field.

“Play a little more aggressive out of the back,” he says. “But also manage it the same way.”

Birnbaum says the game management aspect of D.C. United’s strategy looks promising.

“The preseason has been encouraging so far,” Birnbaum says. “When we played against Cincinnati, we kind of dictated the game. We’re controlling the game with our possession, which is encouraging for us because it makes us not have to defend as much, and that makes my job easier.”

Although possession will be a heavy emphasis, the job could be made even easier by the attacking unit’s resurgence, which again features the legendary Wayne Rooney, who led the team with 12 goals last year despite only starting 18 games. D.C. United finished the season sixth in the league in goals scored with 60, and they were efficient with their attempts. The team attempted the fourth fewest shots of any team in MLS with 396. That’s the sort of quality that will attract fans to every game and fill Audi Field during its first full season.

“I think they can expect some exciting soccer from us,” Birnbaum says of the fans. “I think that we’ve got a lot of guys who can do a lot of creative stuff. Our front, attacking guys are really special.”

If the team as a whole can prove to be on target too, they might not have to settle for a game of horseshoes come late November.

D.C. United opens its 2019 season on Sunday, March 3 at 6 p.m. against Atlanta United FC. For ticket information, visit www.dcunited.com.

Audi Field: 100 Potomac Ave. SW, DC; 202-587-5000; www.audifielddc.com