Team: D.C. United
Coach: Ben Olsen
Last Season: 9-13-12, 7th Eastern Conference, 13th Overall
There is a sense of anticipation around the DC United fan base this season, a sense of anticipation that fans have not had for a few years. After missing the playoffs four straight years, the team invested in some new talent to supplement a young core and on paper, this team is light years from the one that set records for futility in 2010. With the defending MLS MVP leading the attack and a defense fawned upon by national coaches, you can forgive Black and Red faithful for impatiently waiting for the beginning of the season.
However, behind that unbridled optimism is a sense of unease. In reality, the most decorated franchise in MLS history has entered a playoff dry spell which they have never experienced prior. In fact, this season is a critical juncture for the team. While there are certainly weaknesses in the squad, this is the strongest and deepest team on paper since their last MLS Cup run. In fact, it is not ridiculous to suggest that this team, if it lives up to its potential, could challenge for the Eastern Conference. But what if it doesn’t? For a franchise like DC United, five years without a playoff game is an eternity.
Head Coach and Front Office: For all of the criticism he has taken, Kevin Payne seemingly has earned his paycheck this offseason. The team president has built the team’s youth academy into one of the best in the league and this winter made some shrewd signings. In addition, he made the smart move last season to take Charlie Davies on loan, a move that while it did not live up to its entire promise was a good move at the time. Head coach Ben Olsen is a revered figure among the DCU faithful. As an all star defender, Olsen played with an attitude that won him the devotion of teammates and people in the stands. After a season and a half of mediocre play, this is the year where he can show if he can coach a talented team.
Additions: We will start with the youngsters. Draft pick Nick DeLeon received mixed reviews in the combine but is expected to add depth and a few goals to the DC midfield. In another midfield depth acquisition, the Black and Red sent allocation money to Houston in exchange for Danny Cruz. Expect Danny Cruz to get good minutes this season despite being a second-stringer, and how he performs could mirror how far this team goes. MLS veterans Marcelo Saragosa and Maicon Santos were both brought in for a veteran presence and to push the first string, as well as fill in when players in front of them are called up to their national teams.
The three big additions however are Robbie Russell, Emiliano Dudar, and Hamdi Salihi. Russell was brought over from Real Salt Lake to hold down the unsettled right back spot and
buy his fellow defenders beer give veteran leadership to the backline. Dudar comes over from Switzerland and provides an immediate aerial presence at 6’4″. Just two years ago he was named the Swiss league defender of the year but missed last season with a serious concussion. Reports are that he has won the starting centerback job in camp. The expectations for Salihi are slightly higher however. A prototypical #9 with a passport full of stamps, he has scored 142 goals in his professional career and will be expected to not only replace Charlie Davies, but exceed his goal output.
Subtractions: Let’s start with Davies, who returned to Sochaux after DC didn’t try to purchase his contract. After a blistering start, Davies slowed down toward the end of the MLS season and even failed to make an appearance in DC’s last game. His departure was, like his tenure, unfortunately rocky. To make room and cap space for the new signings, the team released a number of veteran depth players. Midfielder Clyde Simms went to New England via the Re-Entry draft while D Marc Burch was selected by the Sounders. Other familiar names like forwards Joseph Ngwenya and Blake Brettschneider were waved and have moved on to other clubs. Overall the losses may come back to haunt the team if their young players or acquisitions fail, but these were obvious moves for the team.
Starting Lineup: The min in net is potentially Jurgen Klinsmann’s choice to replace Tim Howard. Bill Hamid is a local guy who is one of a few success stories from the DC academy and is cemented as the starter. Hamid has a huge wingspan and is an aggressive keeper, but still has a ways to go before entering the elite level of MLS keepers. That said, don’t be surprised if he is one of the top keepers in MLS by September. When he gets called up by Caleb Porter or the national team, returning backup Joe Willis and former Fire starter Andrew Dykstra will battle for the starting minutes. Both are adequate but drop offs.
The defense in front of Hamid is more veteran and certainly more improved from last season. Russell will man the right well and Daniel Woolard is penciled in as a starter on the left. In the center are Dudar and 2011 midseason acquisition Brandon McDonald, who had his sights set on Europe but signed a long-term deal with DC this winter. Those two plus veteran backup Dejan Jakovic and experienced Ethan White makes this unit intriguing and potentially very good.
The beauty of this DC team is the number of starting combinations Ben Olsen can use game to game. If he sticks with a diamond 4-4-2 (instead of a 4-4-3 or 4-2-3-1), second year player Perry Kitchen will man the holding midfield spot. Kitchen, who also plays centerback, is an up-and-coming star that will be critical to the U-23 team’s chances at winning a medal in London. He is a future star in the league. On the left is a healthy Chris Pontius, who has taken his game to a higher level last season and even got a call-up before breaking his leg midway through 2011. If he continues his growth, watch out. On the right is Andy Najar who is still not 20 years old. The Honduran struggled in Ben Olsen’s system last year but, when he’s on, is incredibly fast and can thread a needle with a shot. In the attacking midfield spot is original DC designated player Branko Boskovic, a guy of whom much is expected and much is needed.
While Pontius can play as a forward, the starters on Saturday will likely be Salihi and Dwayne De Rosario. DeRo, the sometimes midfielder and constant threat to score, is finally getting DP money and needs to perform at the incredibly high level he did last year for DC. At some point his age will catch up with him, but DC hopes it will not be for a while longer. Off the bench will be Santos and Josh Wolff, the team leader who rarely scores but works hard and will live in team lore for his bare chested jump into the Bara Brava in last season’s home opener.
Player to Watch: While some players play more important positions, all eyes will be on Branko Boskovic. He has shown flashes of the incredible ability that led to DC signing him in 2010, but injuries have constantly derailed his momentum. Now he is healthy and needs to provide offense from the midfield, which allows DC to keep DeRo or Pontius up top. If he gets hurt again or fails to play well, this team could struggle to score consistently.
Best Case Scenario: This team will score loads of goals as DeRo picks up where he left off last season and Salihi is in the Golden Boot race all season. The defense, which for the past two years has been a cause of heartburn for fans, is actually pretty good and holds some high-scoring teams down. With a weak Eastern Conference and a schedule that isn’t too challenging, DC secures the top spot in the East and makes the MLS Cup. The team and DC come to an agreement to build a soccer stadium in the city near a Metro line within the next three years.
Worst Case Scenario: The problem with young players is that their expected development sometimes doesn’t, well, develop. Kitchen and Hamid have their flaws revealed by the competition and a shaky backline is again a sieve. De Rosario begins to show his age, Salihi doesn’t adjust to MLS well, and injuries ravage the midfield. The team misses the playoffs again and with their cap space taken by current players, it is up to the youth academy to provide hope for the future. The team makes no progress on a new stadium and MLS announces a relocation to Las Vegas in 2013.
Prediction: If the starting XI for this team was able to start 90% of the season, I would be very comfortable predicting a top three finish for DC. However, a number of starters will be spending extensive time this summer with their national teams and the back-ups are solid, but question marks. That plus youth and injury worries should put a damper on DCU fans dreaming of a fifth MLS Cup. It can happen, but I see a fourth place finish as a more likely scenario.