There was only one thing DC United fans knew for sure going into the 2011 season, and that was this season couldn’t be any worse than the previous one. After setting the standard for futility, the team not only climbed its way back into respectability (through its play on the field and front office dealings) but even for a while was positioned for a potential top three finish in the Eastern Conference. However, a cold dose of reality doused those plans, and for the fourth consecutive season DC was outside the playoffs looking in.
For a team with a good fanbase and decorated history, where do they go from here? In a sense, the word “forward” will define this offseason in a few different ways. DC United, you are up next in our Three Questions offseason series:
1. Who will play forward for DC United?
This may be the easiest and hardest question to answer this offseason. Looking at the roster, the answer looks to be “some darn good options”. The defending MVP returns and looks to build on his amazing performance for half the season last year, and Chris Pontius also returns from injury after a first half of the season that helped him catch the U.S. Soccer Federation’s eye.
But De Rosario is arguably more effective as an attacking midfielder, and Pontius is definitely more valuable on the wing opposite Andy Najar. That leaves DC with two forwards under contract: an aging but useful Josh Wolff and young contributor Blake Brettschneider. With Charlie Davies’ seeming departure back to Europe, the team lacks a pure-forward scoring threat. The acquisition of one could potentially allow De Rosario to move back into a CAM role and make DC’s attack even more potent, or at least give them some options on offense. Will the team pursue another forward, or be content with what they have at that position?
2. Will the youngsters take the next step forward?
The Black-and-Red’s youth academy has done an excellent job of churning out talent, including rising star Andy Najar and starting keeper (and USMNT prospect) Bill Hamid. After the disastrous 2010 season, the team focused on adding more youth especially in the back and have been rewarded with one of the most promising, and up-and-coming, defenses in MLS.
Undoubtedly, players like Perry Kitchen and Hamid are the future of this team and the team has shed some of the veterans that these players had bypassed on the depth chart. At some point that youth has to realize the potential. Does Hamid continue to improve his quick thinking and cut down on the poor decisions? Can Kitchen play as a holding midfielder at the MLS level (he played primarily as a fullback/centerback last season)? Can the likes of Woolard, Korb, and White push for permanent starting roles? The success of DC depends on it, and not just in the short term.
3. Will the stadium situation move forward or stay in neutral?
Unfortunately for DC area soccer fans the off-the-field situation is overshadowing the on-the-field progress. Until the stadium situation is resolved in some way, and by resolved I mean there is at least a 5-10 year plan in place, it is harder to build this team. And management does need to decide is what kind of team this is. At the beginning of last year, it was a “youth revolution” both by choice and by necessity, but when the team saw there was a chance at the playoffs in the weak Eastern Conference it acquired Dwayne De Rosario. This offseason the team shed more of its older, more expensive salaries to free up roster and cap space.
So what does it do? Does it throw academy players like Conor Shanosky into the fire and give them significant minutes to see what they actually have in the academy and fast forward the youth movement? Or does management go “all in” and gamble by signing some expensive overseas designated players/high-salary players? That strategy backfired in the past but with the Eastern Conference still not dominated by a group of teams like the West, there is an argument to be made that it is the correct strategy. However, until the team knows what its revenue estimates and home location will be two years from now, these types of decisions are infinitely harder to make.