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What Has Gone Wrong with DC United? : League Staple in the Cellar

DcUnited 300x300 What Has Gone Wrong with DC United? : League Staple in the CellarThe question “What’s going on in DC?” has become a recurring one among the fan circles of Major League Soccer. It’s a question that seems to be important to any fan of the game in this country. Whether it be rabidly passionate supporters from the DC, Maryland and Virginia area or just general MLS enthusiasts … in fact even rivals (aka Daniel Feuerstein) are showing their concern.

The bottom line is that DC United is a team that means something in MLS. This has been a cornerstone franchise, the most decorated club and one of the most recognizable. People are used to seeing this team succeed and they have often been a measuring stick that other clubs lined themselves up against. These days are clearly behind United.

There is something disconcerting about seeing a traditional power in any league fall off. It almost seems to somehow take away from the richness of a league. For instance, the Major League Baseball playoffs certainly seem to miss something when there are no Yankees or Red Sox to talk about.

Clearly the thought of a league without DC United is unthinkable to most MLS supporters. Having United basically stink, while not as bad, is also something that has been met with trepidation.

Besides the fact that United is in the worst position of all MLS teams on the stadium front, they are also not helping matters by essentially laying egss in their first four contests this season. The supporters are still showing up, but attendance has been slowly dropping the last several years. Despite this, the club still owns one of the better and more consistent attendance figures in the league.

United’s difficulties with getting a stadium are hardly related to the product on the pitch, but still it certainly isn’t helping. With that being said, let’s focus on the club’s play and not on their gamut of problems regarding where to play.

We’ll start with the back, then work our way up to the front.  DC United’s goalkeeping situation is one that has been in flux since the man currently minding the net left after the 2007 MLS season.

Troy Perkins was far from perfect when he first stepped in between the posts for United. However, he slowly began to develop into one of the elite keepers in the league and in the country. Perkins grew with United and eventually found himself awarded the Goalkeeper of the Year honor in 2006.

His subsequent departure following the 2007 campaign, left a void that was filled by various, ultimately unsuccessful experiments for the following two seasons. First was the complete failure with Zach Wells. United traded for Houston Dynamo’s backup to Pat Onstad in a deal that handed over former MLS Defender of the Year Bobby Boswell. It’s clear now who got the better end of that deal.

Wells just flat out never seemed comfortable in goal. In fact, it was very uncomfortable and always nerve wrenching for any DCU supporter to watch him. Needless to say, soon after, the club was on the lookout for a new keeper.

Louis Crayton was brought in from the Swiss First Division and the Liberian international keeper went through his fair share of growing pains early on, but eventually settled in for a relatively solid finish to the year. One thing about Crayton that was apparent from the get go was that he was a bit wild and quick to come off his line, a trait that hurt both him and the team on more than one occasion.

Still, he also offered some magnificent performances for the club, flinging his body to make acrobatic saves on several occasions. However, any momentum that he might have gathered at the end of the 2008 campaign quickly faded away in the 2009 season, which he began on the injury list. Once healthy, Crayton’s starts were horribly inconsistent and this led to some playing time for journeyman Josh Wicks and rookie Milos Kocic.

Wicks ended up stringing together several solid efforts and the club allowed Crayton’s contract to expire midseason. While Wicks was far from a pillar of consistency, he still faired much better than his two predecessors. One problem that really came back to bite him though, was his temper.

Wicks had several altercations as a result of an inability to control his anger. Included in this were not only incidents with the opposing team, but also his own teammates. Wicks famously, or should I say infamously, stepped on Freddy Montero’s groin region during last year’s US Open Cup Final at RFK Stadium. This resulted of course in a red card and an essential gutting of United’s chances at a rally.

Also, during a home match with Chicago Fire, Wicks engaged in a shouting match with left back, Marc Burch. If not for Ben Olsen and others gettting between the two, fisticuffs might have been exchanged. In fact, there was some shoving before the two were seperated.

Occurrences such as this and a nagging shoulder injury led to Wicks being released early this year. Perkins’ return was supposed to stabilize this chaotic situation. While we can’t pin all the blame for 11 goals in four games conceded on the keeper, even Perkins has acknowledged displeasure with his play.

It seems that he is definitely readjusting to life in Major League Soccer and it also may be a sign of the growing quality of the league. Let’s not forget that Perkins was playing in Norway, which while a respectable league, it’s certainly not in the upper echelon of Europe.  MLS isn’t inferior to any league that happens to be situated on the European continent.

It might not be long before Perkins is reacclimated to MLS play.  In the end, I think he will be more part of the solution than part of continuing problems.  Now the backline is a very different story.

For starters, the backline has also shown no sign of stability in the past couple of years. Besides the fact that there is a formation shift, going from three defenders at the back to four, injuries and disciplinary suspensions have kept the line in constant flux. Not only are we seeing a group of different players, we are also seeing said players in different spots along the backline. Almost like a Mr. Potato head of interchangeable pieces.

For instance, we’ve seen Carey Talley, Devon McTavish and even Clyde Simms at right back. Talley has also appeared in the center, next to a variety of partners, including Dejan Jakovic, Juan Manuel Pena and Julius James. Rodney Wallace has been the one constant at left back. While versatility is always a nice trait to have in your players, you’d still like to see a bit more stability in the lineup from week to week.

Injuries were mentioned as a key part in DCU’s current dilemma. Perhaps the one that hurts the most is the loss of right back, Bryan Namoff. Namoff was playing the soccer of his career last season before missing the end because of concussion problems. It’s a new season and he still hasn’t returned to the pitch for United and who knows, he may not this year.

Dejan Jakovic hasn’t helped matters by accumulating cards and being suspended for a match. Carey Talley and Juan Manuel Pena have been brought in, but it appears that their best days have passed them.

In Pena’s case, the La Liga veteran has shown solid knowledge and positioning, however his speed is definitely lacking a bit. We’ve seen him struggle to get back to defend opponents’ counterattacks. He is also injured.

Rodney Wallace may have played left back and done it well at the University of Maryland, but MLS is at a different level and pace of play. It seems as though the second year left – footer is going through an adjustsment period. He’s reacquainting himself with the position after playing as a left winger and holding mdfielder during his rookie campaign. I think eventually Wallace will come into his own at this spot.

While players are dealing with health issues and returning from suspension, it’s important to remember that previous coach Tom Soehn had the club start off the season in a 3-5-2. Then the club switched to a 4-4-2 later in the year. The club did this after acquiring Julius James from Houston Dynamo. James had some solid moments, especially in the CONCACAF Champions League.

It should be stated that DCU knew what they were getting when they made the move for the defender from Trinidad & Tobago. Houston fans had already witnessed it. James is one who has tremendous raw talent and skill. Yet, he is clearly an unpolished product. If James can ever reach his potential, then DC will have a formidable central defender.

One big key to the formation switch is noting how Ben Olsen (retirement) and Clyde Simms (injury) are severely missed. I’m sorry, but asking journeyman Kurt Morsink to cover the same ground as those two is not gonna happen. Morsink is someone who I would consider to be a serviceable reserve option. Granted also, Morsink isn’t technically being asked to cover the same ground as Olsen and Simms, as there is an extra center back now. However, I’d take Olsen and Simms any day over the combination of Morsink and whichever interchangeable part is available to line up next to Jakovic.

Clyde Simms is in my mind, one of the most underrated defensive midfielders in MLS. Until his recent injury problems, he was something of an iron man for DC United, appearing in nearly every fixture. He covers a lot of ground and is a workhorse in the midfield. He was also a key distribution point, building up from the back. Simms has a pretty good long range shot as well.

Ben Olsen is missed is so many ways. First and foremost, he was an inspirational leader on and off the pitch. Olsen for a long time had been an integral part of the club’s locker room chemistry.

On the pitch, age and severe ankle problems took away some of his pace and cutting ability, Olsen still had a lot offer. As mentioned, he no longer had the same speed. This forced a move from his spot on the wing to a role as a holding midfielder.

Olsen excelled at this new position. Playing inside now and alongside the roaming Clyde Simms, Olsen was able to use his intellgence and soccer IQ to help the team. The US National Team veteran played gritty and was key in breaking down opponent’s enterprising moves forward. He was also still very good in link up play.

Having these two in front of the backline helped clog up the midfield, limiting the space opposing teams had to work with. They also contributed to what was a very solid passing midfield.

Moving on to the attack minded players, United lost two of their more creative players this offseason, Fred and Christian Gomez.

Fred was an interesting talent. Personally, I think he had perhaps the best ball control on the team. He’s clearly skilled with the ball at his feet. However, he was plagued by poor finishing.

I can recall countless times when the Brazilian winger / playmaker completely missed a wide open net after being fed in nicely by teammates. With that being said, Fred did provide some of the better service on the team and he always had to be accounted for by the opposing team.

United were at their best the last several years when Gomez (or briefly Marcelo Gallardo) was at the top of his game. United had guys who could put the ball in the back of the net, but Gomez gave them someone who could find his teammate’s through a narrow window and unlock the defense.

One of the things that made Gomez so good at setting up teammates, was that he was not afraid to push forward and create his own shot. At times, it actually seemed as though he looked shot first. Needless to say, I feel he is a player who made others around him better by putting them on in the right positions.

This current United team lacks that. Yes, they have tried to play with a pair of two way players in the center of midfield, as opposed to using a more tradional playmaker. In either formation, you still want a key creative talent in the middle.

While Santino Quaranta is very capable at doing a decent job and perhaps eventually excelling there, I still think that the right wing is his best spot. It’s also clear that United misses something by his abscence there.  In fact, while the club has yet to find a solution to their problem, they have played more inspired since sliding Quaranta back out wide and inserting Jaime Moreno in the middle.

Moreno plays well in that creative role, essentially guiding the flow of the attack. The Bolivian MLS legend also seems to partner well with Aussiee striker, Danny Allsopp.  Having Moreno on the pitch instantly raises United’s soccer IQ on the pitch.  However, because of his age, it’s a delicate balancing act managing his minutes.   

Looking at the rest of the midfield and striking corps, I feel that last year’s rookie if the year contender, Chris Pontius, is better suited to playing on the wing as well. Last season, Pontius was sort of a jack of all trades, playing all over the midfield and as a striker.  This year, Curt Onalfo initially elected to start Pontius as the lead striker. The early returns seem to show it’s not the best place to deploy him.

It’s still open for debate whether it’s better to have him move around the pitch or stay at one position, both for the club and Pontius’s development as a player.  Does United and Pontius benefit more by having him polish the versatility he’s capable of or by having him really sharpen his skills at one spot.   Perhaps he will find some time on the wing with Salvadoran playmaker Cristian Castillo struggling with his form.

Castillo has incredible skill on the ball, yet has struggled to make an impact with United. His ball control even overshadows the ability of the aforementioned Fred.  Something that also might be a benefit to both him andhe club is his passing ability. Castillo has a tendency to rely on flashy moves and tries to make the razzle dazzle play, instead of making the simple passes that may be more needed.  When he’s focused on linking up fluidly with teammates rather than making the highlight reel, Castillo can be a deadly component to the attack.   

Castillo, who has brought large throngs of Salvadoran fans to RFK Stadium is simply too talented stay playing at this current level. He is also going through a period of adjustment.

All this midfield attacking talk leads us to the point of the spear, the players called upon to put on the (literally) finishing touches. DC United parted ways with their leading goal scorer over the past three seasons, Luciano Emilio.

Emilio had seen his productivity drop over each year and the club felt he was being overpaid for what he was producing. While that may be the case, they clearly have a void to fill. Emilio wasn’t a perfect finisher, but he wasn’t afraid to shoot when he had an opening.

That seems to be one of the key problems facing United so far this season. The offense has displayed an ability to get into the attacking third, (even in the 4 – 0 smashing by KC) but has not been able to get off quality shots on goal.

If you think about it, DC United has let go two recent MLS MVP’s, players who were crucial to the club’s ability to score goals. They lost a creative talent who had been with the team for several seasons in Fred and lost franchise staple Ben Olsen to retirement.

You throw in key injuries and you see a team that has a gutted core. A core that perhaps has needed some youthful change for a while.

All this while going through a coaching switch and a change in philosophy on the pitch. MLS does prescribe to a recipe for parity. However, even in this environment, such a vast amount of change doesn’t come without it’s rebuilding and adjustment time. The evidence is on the pitch.

DCU does have some good young talent developing, including 17 year old midfielder Andy Najar. The growth of players such as him, Pontius and Wallace is crucial to the club returning to their former glories.

11 Responses to What Has Gone Wrong with DC United? : League Staple in the Cellar

  1. F.F. says:

    Seldom have I read so much that said so little.

    Oh, and you never actually got to Onalfo (or for that matter Kaspar and Payne) — you know, the guys who, as you say, are supposed to put all these pieces together, but who have actually failed miserably to build an effective MLS team.

  2. Chris Riordan says:

    FF, I’m sorry that you feel this way. It took me a while to write this, so you can imagine how it feels to know it wasn’t appreciated.

    You’re entitled to your opinion. It’s good to have feedback either way.

    I tried to tell United’s recent story of core change, while leaving their problems between the lines. As for Onalfo, I’ll get to him later.

    I’ll try to make sure I stay on point more in the future.

  3. CTBlues says:

    Move to the Rent in Hartford!

  4. Charles says:

    You can call DC a cornerstone of MLS, but if it is MLS is in trouble. They have won four MLS Cups and still have average MLS support, which isn’t great and not growing at all. For those that support DC that is not a slam on you, but there is very little support in the city.

    There are four corners to every building and currently the pacific northwest seems to be the one that MLS will rely on to grow the building bigger.

    Secondly, this is a parity league, just because the team is named United doesn’t mean that MLS will be the joke of the EPL and have you win every year. Down years are part of the gig. Rebuild and come back strong.

  5. Charles says:

    BTW, appreciate the article. I do think there is an EPL attitude sometimes.

    DC will win, team x will always lose. However, this is the US, even the Saints win a SuperBowl sometimes.

    When DC lost in the US Open Cup last year, that was not some massive FA Cup upset, Seattle had a better team last year. Something you never would bother to say in the EPL…”better luck next year”

  6. Luis says:

    I think that also we need to remember the amount of teams that are in the MLS now compared to when DC was winning consistently. It is much more difficult in my opinion to stay competitive in a league of 16 teams than a league of 10 teams. With this logic, DC is going to have even a tougher time next year as the team expands to 18 teams.

  7. Cavan says:

    Solid roster analysis.

    United went through the wilderness back in the early 2000′s. They had a great core in the middle of the decade that won an MLS Cup and two Supporter Shields. They’ll be back. This year is about reconfiguring the core. They’ll start to look better in the last two months of the season but miss the playoffs. Next year you’ll see a more coherent team.

    It happens to every MLS team. The Revs are going through a similar process as are the Dynamo. The Galaxy went through the woods in 2006-2008. The fire wmet through the woods in 2004. United will be back. They’re finally cleaning up and restartim from the 2008 roster debacle.

  8. Chris Riordan says:

    Cavan, you’re feeling my sentiments exactly. Every team that recharges or replaces their core experiences this. This also wouldn’t be DCU’s first time going through such a process.

  9. Chris Webb says:

    Chris,

    Shoot me an e-mail. Want to see if you would like to come on the show this Sunday evening..

  10. Nice work on a thoughtful analysis of the interrelated elements that comprise success on the pitch. As a successful championship coach at the Mens amateur first division level here in the Metro Washington area I had the blessing of four players in the defense and two in the midfield that held the team together from 1988 to 1998. I learned that It required a beginning roster of 24 players to field 14 viable players by seasons end. So the vulnerabilities of these maturing athletes lead to constant shuffling in the positioning of players; yet we maintained a winning chemistry through having those core guys who new and loved each other.
    Your article demonstrated a keen eye for soccer reporting. Keep up the good work as you answered the central question I was looking to have answered when I Googled – DC United Problems?

  11. hey,this is one of the best posts that I’ve ever seen; you may include some more ideas in the same theme. I’m still waiting for some interesting thoughts from your side in your next post.

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