Fabian Espindola, above, is one of six DC United players to get high marks from UnitedMania’s team. Photo: Tony Quinn.
A season that had been shaping up as an exciting return to playoff glory for D.C. United ended prematurely, leaving fans with unrealized expectations. That disappointment should not take away from what was an exciting season, and a cause for optimism moving forward. After the abysmal 2013 campaign, many supporters were calling for heads to roll in the front office, specifically head coach Ben Olsen and general manager Dave Kasper.
Kasper and Olsen had failed to reach a meeting of the minds on the way to develop the team for years and it was difficult for even the most loyal supporters to endorse their continued presence. It’s not easy to be loyal to a coach in charge of a team that achieves team and league records for futility, nor is it easy to back a GM of a team that loses millions of dollars every year in the process. While there are valid reasons and excuses for this, sport remains a results oriented business and the type of patience and trust show by the team was astonishing and refreshing.
Olsen and Kasper responded by rebuilding the team with players that for the first time in their combined tenure both men could embrace. That as much as anything is something to be thankful for in the new ownership group, and what is suddenly a very solid coach/GM partnership (or “brain staff” as our friend Martin Fernandez would say on the podcast). After giving management and ownership good marks here is a look at how the UnitedMania.com staff graded the players for the 2014 season:
Bill Hamid (A) – Hamid demonstrated the necessary maturation to match his outstanding physical talents. His decision taking and positioning skills improved dramatically, allowing him to become one of those rare goalkeepers that can play as both a shot stopper and as a tactical leader.
If Bill can continue on this path, the sky is the limit for him. With the US National Team beckoning, can an overseas pursuit be far behind? Rumors abound on this, but don’t they always? As big a loss as that might be for the team looking ahead, its great press for the DC United Academy from which Hamid was developed within. If Hamid has a weakness it’s his distribution of the ball, and he’s made strides in improving that also this year. Bill should earn the league’s goalkeeper of the year award, although speculation has it that he may be edged out by a sentimental decision for Real Salt Lake’s Nick Rimando.
Steve Birnbaum (B+) After beginning the season on the bench behind the steady center back tandem of Bobby Boswell and Jeff Parke, Birnbaum quietly rose to become an MLS rookie of the year candidate with steady play marked by very few mistakes. Steve made the team look brilliant for selecting him with the second overall pick in the 2013 MLS SuperDraft. His size, mobility and organizational skills are good, and he’s being tutored by two of the best in the business in Boswell and Parke.
Bobby Boswell (A) The reacquisition of Bobby Boswell from the Houston Dynamo was initially perceived as a play on fan sympathies as many scoffed at his usefulness, citing Houton’s willingness to discard him so cheaply. Boswell exceeded all expectations delivering an MLS best X1 worthy season, but more importantly he captained the team expertly restoring leadership by example to the club’s core values. It’s one thing to wear the captain’s armband on match day, but what is truly inspiring about Boswell’s leadership is the way he allows for other to join him in that role without a clash of egos. Boswell is simply pure class.
Sean Franklin (A) Acquired in the offseason to shore up one of the most inept defense’s in league history many assumed that Franklin was more flash than value based off his past experiences in LA, which boasted of his attacking prowess and the cannon in his right leg. Yet what Sean brought to D.C. United was consistency at the right back position with a defense first mentality. In spite of the stay at home approach Franklin still added attacking threat on the right flanks without compromising his marking responsibilities. Sadly, injuries robbed the team of Franklin’s services for several games and that’s something that will need to improve. But he made excellent use of his time away from the field, and his charity work earned him the team’s humanitarian award.
Taylor Kemp (B) This year was a coming out party for the second-year defender. Kemp had failed to impress anyone in his first season after being drafted out of the University of Maryland with lofty expectations. Taylor began the season third on the depth chart at left back behind Cristian Fernandez and Chris Korb but rose to nail down a starting role after alleged homesickness and injuries paved the way for him. This year when Kemp got his chance he took it providing reasonable defending and very impressive attacking acumen. It’s amazing how effective a team can be with reliable crosses coming in from the left back.
Jeff Parke (B+) Many fans, including some of us here at UnitedMania.com, were left scratching their heads at the offseason pick up of Jeff Parke, a well-travelled journeyman defender cast off by more teams than one might be comfortable with in establishing new back line. Additionally it was well know that the team was high on Birnbaum, specifically because Steve was judged by consensus as ready to start immediately. Parke responded with the best play of his career, outperforming Boswell as the two of them forged a rock solid center back pairing. Undone by a freakish inner-ear injury, Parke was lost for the season but remained as an excellent mentor for Birnnbaum.
Chris Korb (C+) While no longer a starter or a leader in minutes played for the team Korbinho turned in his best season as a professional (I hope you understand how difficult this was to type for me!). He responded well to the new wave of experienced defenders brought in to overhaul the back line and contributed depth to the right and left back positions and stepped up his versatility with some capable play as a wing midfielder.
Davy Arnaud (B+) Davy Arnaud delivered a heroic performance in providing consistency in leadership in a central midfield partnership with Perry Kitchen. Some have criticized his offensive numbers with only two goals and two assists on the season, but he was asked to fill a vital role in the absence of a playmaking center midfielder on the team. Arnaud delivered solid two-way play and was a big part of the reason that D.C. United was difficult to break down.
Nick DeLeon (C-) One of the few players on the team who truly underperformed this year, DeLeon was capable of much better than he put out on the field each week. He was frequently culpable on defensive lapses in the midfield leading to scoring opportunities for opponents and frequently invisible on offense. He struggled to find any chemistry and linkage with the forwards, specifically with Fabian Espindola who expected much more from Nick as do we all. A few rare moments of brilliance reminded us of his potential and spare him from a failing grade while simultaneously they infuriate as you just know the guy has gallons of unapplied skill and passion.
David Estrada (B) After being label a “deckchair’ by the “talent” (M. Martin), Estrada provided the kind of depth you want in a reserve player after being acquired from Seattle in a midseason trade. Estrada stepped into an injury riddled line up and provided starting caliber performances. While fans would be right to expect more from a full-time starter than Estrada might be capable of, having a player of his caliber on the depth chart pushing for minutes is exactly what this team has needed for years.
Perry Kitchen (B+) Perry was asked to contribute a lot more than his typical defensive midfield responsibilities this season and responded with increased physical presence and previously unseen offensive production. As one of the truly essential an irreplaceable players on the team, Kitchen needs to manage his yellow cards better and could use some improvement about where on the field to avoid fouling. His postseason performances against Red Bull were glaringly subpar but he turned in a very good season again for United.
Lewis Neal (C+) The Englishman delivered another solid season as a utility midfielder. He performed adequately and gave what you’d expect off the bench from a reserve player/spot starter. There were no moments of heroism from Neal this year, but he’s still capable of delivering them now and then.
Chris Pontius (C) Perhaps the most cursed player in team history, although Brian Kamler might give him a him a close race. The injury demons plagued Pontius again this year as his hamstring injury from last year did not improve in the offseason and required surgery to correct. Pontius was lost for most of the season and was only a shell of his former self when he return to action late in the year. This team was only going to go as far as Chris Pontius could take them and average playoff performances gets you sent packing.
Chris Rolfe (A) An outstanding season from the experienced and dangerous (former United-killer) Rolfe who was miraculously obtained on the cheap from the Chicago Fire early in the year. His arrival produced immediate results in scoring and team dynamics. Rolfe found chemistry with Espindola where DeLeon could not and the two were absolutely brilliant to watch together. Undone by a broken arm late in the year, Rolfe was just a few weeks too late to be effective for the team’s playoff push.
Fabian Espindola (A) Fabian gave D.C. United a team and league worthy MVP season this year. Cast off as an expensive afterthought in New York, Espindola provided arguably the most complete play of any United player ever. Not only was he talismanic in attack, scoring and assisting with equal preference and frequency, but his work rate and passion was unmatched throughout the league. While his temper remains his Achilles heel, and he’s a red card magnet, it’s a tradeoff you take 100 times out of 100.
Luis Silva (A) The largely unheralded Silva was projected to be slotted into an attacking midfield role at the start of the season where he looked lost and inept. That earned him a trip to the bench and then injuries sidelined him further. Almost a forgotten man at one point Silva stepped up in the absence of the injured and suspended Eddie Johnson, formed a fantastic partnership with Espindola and delivered a team-high 12 goals and gave the team a legitimate free kick threat from inside 30 yards.
Eddie Johnson (C+) While his play was not as bad as the statistics suggest as a Designated Player, you’ve simply got to deliver more than seven goals. That’s only three more scored than 2013 striker “Own Goal” buried. It’s important to recognize that Johnson isn’t a pure goal scoring forward, but more of a tweener (winger/slasher+set up forward). And he also hauls in 10x less than other league designated players like Keane and Henry, but if Luis Silva can find the net a dozen times, you’ve got to be comparable to that. EJ does a lot of unheralded off the ball work and gives the team a solid aerial presence, but he’s got to get past bickering with fans and sulking when he doesn’t get proper service. This team has proven over the years that it will accept a hothead and EJ needs to channel his frustrations better. If he does that the goals will come.
2015 MLS Expansion Draft
The arrival of two new teams entering the league next season (New York City FC, and Orlando City SC) will result in another expansion draft. MLS teams may prepare a list of 11 players that they may protect from the expansion draft process, and leaving the remainder of their roster as fair game. As usual the league has an ever evolving and secret systems of rules and procedures that assure surprises and special exceptions, particularly for New York based teams.
The wrinkle this year appears to be that each team must protect at least one of their foreign players. D.C. United has two players on the roster that qualifier as foreign by league definition: Samuel Inkoon and Kyle Porter. Given that Inkoon played well in the 70 minutes that he saw in the 2014 season, and that Porter did not appear in few MLS matches, UnitedMania.com forecasts that the team will protect Inkoon rather than Porter. That leaves ten players from the roster that the team will be able to shield from New York and Orlando. Those ten players should almost certainly be: Bill Hamid, Steve Birnbaum, Bobby Boswell, Sean Franklin, Taylor Kemp, Perry Kitchen, Chris Pontius, Chris Rolfe, Luis Silva, and Fabian Espindola.
Players gaining consideration and sympathy, but not a consensus, from the UnitedMania.com panel are Davy Arnaud (M. Fernandez, M. Martin), DeLeon (C. Webb), and goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra (R.Ruff).
In accordance with the league rules teams can lose a total of only two players in the expansion draft. Once a player is selected from a team they may protect a previously unprotected player. Losing Arnaud or DeLeon would be painful, but it’s highly unlikely that they would lose either. Arnaud, while a complete professional and solid player, comes with a $200,000+ salary slot and a pair of aging knees. DeLeon, while talented, is coming off consecutive disappointing seasons (a sophomore slump followed by a junior jape).
The two expansion teams are unlikely to be looking for high priced (by MLS standards) players past their prime or underachieving slackers. What that means for D.C. United is that the team is likely to stay intact and will suffer minimal loss from the expansion draft.
Probable losses: Chris Korb/David Estrada – two versatile players that could start for an expansion team at relatively low cost and provide solid depth if they do not.
Possible losses: Jeff Parke/Eddie Johnson – while not cheap offer solid talent for their price tag.
Absolute Reach: Andrew Dykstra – a goalkeeper with a great upside that we hope no one has heard of.