In 2013, DC United won only 3 MLS games and won the US Open Cup. In 2014, they finished top of the Eastern conference, but bowed out in first round of the Playoffs to the Red Bulls. Where will they finish this year?
United mostly stood pat between 2012 and 2013, a move that in hindsight is considered a disaster. Following the roster overhaul between 2013 and 2014, United has kept its roster intact heading into the 2015 season. Although some additions have been made, it’s possible for United to roll out the same starting XI they played through most of last year. This has many positives for a small budget club like United, but also comes with several risks. I’ll go through the defense, midfield, and attack for United, followed by some predictions.
Last season, this was United’s bread and butter. The defense was tied for best in the league, only giving up 37 goals to the opposition. For the system we played last year, and will play this year, this defensive solidity is critical.
The defense that anchored the backline for DC United last season is all returning. Starters include Bill Hamid (GK), Taylor Kemp (LB), Bobby Boswell (CB), Steve Birnbaum (CB), and Sean Franklin (RB). On paper, this is a good thing. A defense consisting of MLS Goalkeeper of the year, finalists for defender of the year and rookie of the year, as well as an MLS all-star right back should be tough to score against. Speaking of that finalist for rookie of the year, Steve Birnbaum also gained valuable experience with the USMNT, starting against Chile. In what will be a wide-open Eastern Conference, good defense could be the key between a playoff spot and an early season exit.
In front of the back four will be the flat midfield engine of D.C. United’s 4-4-2 system. Last season, this consisted of Chris Rolfe on the left, Perry Kitchen and Davy Arnaud in the middle, and Nick Deleon on the right. The acquisition of Finnish International Markus Halsti should push Arnaud to the bench, giving United a stronger (and younger) middle while also have better depth should it be needed.
Chris Rolfe looks to have locked down the starting spot out on the left, and was the catalyst for a lot of United’s counter attacks last season. However, Rolfe is still recovering from a severely broken arm, and did not look at his best against Alajuelense while playing in a cast.
On the right, Nick Deleon will start. However, the acquisition of Michael Farfan and the signing of promising rookie Miguel Aguilar should push him for that role. DeLeon has looked great in stretches, especially in big games, but can be extremely frustrating running into dead ends or giving the ball away.
Here’s where things get interesting. Last season, Fabian Espindola lead United’s attack. Partnering with Luis Silva, they had a chemistry that lasted through much of the season and produced the majority of the goals for the Black and Red. However, Luis Silva is still recovering from a hamstring injury, and has had what is described as a “setback”in his recovery- having yet to appear in the preseason. His DP counterpart, Espindola, is suspended the first six games of the season. Additionally, DP Eddie Johnson is out for the foreseeable future with a serious health ailment that is rumored to be a heart condition.
In the meantime, who will lead the line for United? It appears the first answer is Chris Pontius. Pontius has seen a lot of time up front in the preseason alongside Fabian Espindola, but will be missing his partner during the suspension. Pontius is coming off of a serious injury, and has looked pretty rusty since his return. It seems like ages ago when Pontius was an MLS all star caliber player, and a return to that form would fill many holes on the frontline. We will most likely see Jairo Arrieta beside Pontius for the first six games.
In a word, continuity. The team took a few weeks to click last season, and hoped to avoid that by keeping its core intact. There’s a familiarity about the squad now, and they will be expected to both defend and execute the counter attack similarly to how they did last year- often to devastating effect.
United has also added depth in several positions. Last season, there was a serious drop-off (especially in the midfield) in talent from the starting XI. United did not win a game last season when Arnaud and Kitchen did not partner in the midfield. Now, with the acquisition of Halsti, United has upgraded the position, and dropping Arnaud to the bench gives a seasoned veteran to come in late in games or as rotation.
Also, if everyone is healthy, United has a lot of options at the striker position. Starting Espindola and Silva and still being able to bring in subs like Pontius, Arrieta, or hopefully Eddie Johnson provides a lot of different looks for United across many competitions.
I wish I had written this article before watching the 5-2 thrashing against Alajuelense, as it has clouded much of what I thought I knew about this team heading into the season. At the risk of a knee jerk reaction, I’m going to try to write it off as an unprepared side in preseason form losing against a good team in a tough environment. That being said, many of my concerns about this team were fairly obvious during that game.
I worry that United’s defense will not be as dominant as it was last year. Bobby Boswell is 31, and while he was outstanding last season he isn’t getting any younger. Also, despite his USMNT call-up, Birnbaum is only a second year player and needs to continue to improve. Sometimes, having a keeper as good as Hamid makes your defense seem better than it is- he made countless saves last season that saved a point or three. He will probably be missing a decent portion of the season for the Gold Cup, and has struggled with injuries. As we saw against Alajuelense, relying on a world class keeper to bail you out can backfire when he either doesn’t perform up to very high standards, or simply isn’t playing.
In the midfield, Davy Arnaud is 34 and will turn 35 during the middle of the season. At that age, a professional athlete can lose their “edge” fairly quickly. In the preseason, and against Alajuelense, he constantly looked behind the pace of the game. As a result, he picked up a lot of yellow cards in pre season friendlies, and Kitchen and Hamid were constantly being suspended for yellowcard accumulation last season. Although Arnaud is theoretically the third choice center mid, Halsti will miss the first few games of the season and United will be balancing MLS with this year’s and next year’s CCL, as well as the USOC.
Up top, I think the loss of Eddie Johnson will be massive. Although he was definitely a disappointment last year in terms of goals scored (and sometimes attitude) I think he contributed more to the team in holdup play and as a target man that he generally got credit for. He’s also in a contract year, and I don’t have to explain to long time MLS followers what that usually means for him as player. Bold prediction: he’s done playing. Any time a team is talking about a players “well being” instead of getting back on the training pitch is usually a sign that something serious is afoot. Should he return, he’s been purposefully deconditioned and would take a long time to get back into shape.
Fabi’s suspension doesn’t help issues along the frontline, because he looked to be one of the only bright spots for United against Alajuelense, and created many chances for players last season in addition to tallying his own goals. Luis Silva was great last season, but started and ended the season injured. It’s been an entire offseason, and he still hasn’t recovered from his hamstring injury. United will greatly suffer in the goal scoring department if he can’t get healthy.
Chris Pontius is finally healthy, but as I mentioned above, I fear he is a shadow of the player he used to be- and looked to have little chemistry with Fabian Espindola, regardless. United will need Jairo Arrieta and even Conor Doyle to step up. If the team struggles to score, and their defense isn’t as good as it was last year, we could see a serious drop-off from a team that won the Eastern Conference.
If this team fulfills its potential, they will be in the playoffs. They could even push for one of the top spots in the Eastern Conference. If injuries, age, and a lack of a solid plan B catch up with this side, they could seriously struggle to make the playoffs. In recent years, United has yo-yoed between playoff and non-playoff seasons as they continue to play moneyball on a shoestring budget. The addition of a 6th playoff spot could work in our favor.
The season is long, and I think that the return of Bill Hamid, Markus Halsti, Silva and Fabian Espindola to the lineup will ultimately lead to a playoff berth. I do think that age and injuries will be a bigger issue this year, and although United will make the playoffs they will not do it in the same stunning fashion as last season. I predict that this team will finish 4th in the East. Columbus, New England, and yes- even Toronto, will push for the top spots in the Eastern Conference. Other clubs such as Chicago, Philadelphia, and Montreal have made many signings over the offseason and it’s hard to predict where they will finish. This team’s greatest advantage over others is its chemistry from last season, and that will carry them to that fourth place finish.
Something that is also not to be overlooked is that there is a lot of positive energy around this club right now. Despite being embarrassed by Alajuelense, this team massively exceeded expectations last season. That brought a lot of fans back into the stadium following a dismal 2013, and anyone that’s been in RFK stadium at full go knows that it’s a great atmosphere for the players. Also, there’s that little thing of DC United’s new stadium at Buzzard Point finally being approved. The days of playing at RFK are coming to an end, and fans as well as players can sense that good things are on the horizon.
Last season Ben Olsen signed a contract extension, and Steve Goff from the Washington Post reported that Dave Kasper is also on the verge of signing a contract extension as the team’s general manager. A few year’s ago, this may have angered some fans who thought that, as a pair, they weren’t doing so well. However, after last season, I think that Kasper and Olsen have found the “goldilocks zone” of playing money ball and biding their time until they move into the new stadium. This strategy includes signing MLS veterans, largely using allocation money and league tools such as the reentry draft. This has proven a cheap way to acquire proven MLS, and usually American talent that will do two things: 1) avoiding a disaster like 2013 and 2) being competitive enough to consistently fight for a playoff spot.
This team may struggle this year, a lot more than they did last year. But they will find a way to make the playoffs, and they will.
Predicted Starting XI (Longterm)
Rolfe, Kitchen, Halsti, DeLeon
Kemp, Boswell, Birnbaum, Franklin
(image courtesy of USA Today)