Change is needed, but is it wanted?
In 2008, coming into the team were a list of mostly unknown names, but with all with decent resumes’. With the failure to sign Veron, Marcelo Gallardo quickly became the symbol as the center piece for the team’s revival. Gallardo’s time in the French Ligue 1, with Paris St-Germain and Monoco, several years at River Plate in Argentina, and no less than 44 caps with the Argentinean National Team all led to high expectations of success and new leadership going forward. Although Gallardo’s inclusion came at the expense of team favorite Christian Gomez, most believed a new age of revival would lightly rest on such an experienced leader as Gallardo.
Likewise, tandem of defenders, the “Gonzalos”, Martinez from Colombia and Peralta from Argentina, were upgrades to an average defense in 2007. In the case of the former, said United’s General manager Dave Kasper, “We are very pleased to have signed a versatile defender with tremendous pace who we feel will add stability and leadership to our defense. (Martinez’) experiences at the club level in Italy and South America and with the Colombian national team will be a great asset to our club.” With Peralta, it was said, “Gonzalo will add both stability and experience to our defense. He is a big and strong central defender, and a player who will be an important organizer in our back line.” By the end of the 2007 season it was commonly thought that Bobby Boswell’s loss of form and Greg Vanney’s extreme price tag would not fulfill DC United’s desire to “get to the next level.” With the addition of the “Gonzalo” stalwarts, what fan or pundit could think DC United upgrades were legitimate?
Furthermore, other domestic and international moves seemed to only enhance the overall prospects of the team. South Americans, forward Franco Niell, and Goalkeeper Jose Carvallo, youngster Quavas Kirk, and Englishman Dan Stratford were all signed as back ups. Possibly the greatest change, forced on DC United, was the loss of Troy Perkins to Norwegian side Valerenga. However, there were only a few questions raised by his eventual replacement, Zach Wells. Even the roll-of-the-dice move by re-signing former youth standout Santino Quaranta was seen as a sound bet.
At every turn DC United looked to be revamped by the numerous changes between the end of 2007 and the start of 2008. The changes made the team stronger top to bottom and surely this team would lift DC United to the glory found in the past with at least one significant domestic trophy and a likely challenge for one of the CONCACAF Federation’s club trophies.
What went wrong?
Why did DC United’s defense go from third best defense in 2007, giving up only 34 goals, to second worst in goals against in the league defensively, allowing 51 goals against? Offensively the slide was not as significant, but the team netted 13 fewer goals during the regular season. Although the Black and Red did bring home hardware in 2008 in the form of the Open Cup, much like in all its previous attempts in the 21st Century achieving international notoriety was left wanting.
The answer is “change.”
Too much, too soon, with too many variables created a soup of team chemistry that could not work without the hand of God himself being the chef. While it does rarely happen, total reclamation of teams often only brings frustration and failure. Consistent winners, such as Houston Dynamo prove the point. As head coach Dominic Kinnear stated at the end of last season, “We have seen the emergence of some young players and we have seen the consistent play of the players that have been here for a long time.” MLS Cup runners-up, New York Head Coach Juan Carlos Osorio said of his team’s success, “At the end it was just a matter of playing organized football, effective football.” This comment came after his decision to start with Sinisa Ubiparipovic and rookie Luke Sassano over mid-season international acquisitions Jorge Rojas and Argentinean defensive midfielder Juan Pietravallo. Both younger and less experienced players, but both integrated within the team throughout the year.
Throughout history various members of DC United’s “braintrust” stated that consistency was a key to maintaining reaching the lofty heights of trophies and honors. Last year, when asked about the integration of the various new players into the team, Head Coach Tommy Soehn told UnitedMania.com’s Mike Martin:
“They’ve played for several different teams in several different countries. They know how to adapt. You saw today how fast it all came together. That’s why it was so important for us to get these deals done before training camp. To make sure these guys know what we’re about right from the start, and that these guys understand what’s expected of them.”
And while Soehn’s statement rings of the truth, you have to wonder how many of these same players were part of whole-sale integrations? And what looks good on paper and in pre-season or practices, rarely converts to the actual field of play.
Oddly enough, Soehn seems to have forgotten what he said six months earlier in August of 2007:
“The changes we’ve made we put a lot of thought into. You always looking to give yourself the best opportunity to be successful, whether its experience, or a type of player that compliments the other players you have . . . There are so many things you think about before you make a decision that will affect not only the guys you have here, but also the guys you’re bringing in. It doesn’t happen overnight (author’s emphasis). . . ”
There can be no doubt that DC United’s success in 2007 was largely in part to consistent play largely brought about through confidence built-up over the years.
Where does DC United go in 2009?
Noted pundit Ivan Galarcep said that DC United ended up with an “A” in the most recent draft, only behind Toronto’s universally acknowledged “A+” in overall ratings. He states, “All four of D.C.’s top picks have the ability to be long-term starters from the club once they develop.” One caveat only in that it assumes these players will be around long enough to reach starter status.
I maintain that DC United must not change! Even if the results of 2009 are dismal, the team must fight through the desire to bring on new players for sake of change.
Already there is talk of bringing in other international forwards and central defender to fill in the positions that are supposed weaknesses.
At forward the combination of Emilio and Moreno will likely be again one of the top scoring combinations in the league. Bringing in another player will not solve the problem. The problem came with the integration of Gallardo with these two players. Unfortunately, that integration only occurred in spurts from the simple fact that at one time or the other one of the three players was out due to injury. This vital trio only played a dozen regular season games together in 2008, hardly the definition to building consistency and confidence.
It is generally allowed that defenses are the most difficult to craft and maintain on any soccer club. Outside of Bryan Namoff’s performance, 2009 will likely go down as the season to be forgotten. Not since the nadir seasons between 2000 and 2003 did DC United find such inconsistency in their back line. Certainly a “big name” defender could be brought in to impose his will in this critical area. But, in the end, will it matter? The simple fact that either leaving the team as is, with a base back line combination of Martinez, Janicki, Namoff, Burch, McTavish, Zaher, Carroll, and Wallace is significantly better than bringing in another “Gonzalo.” Salary cap restrictions will not allow for a significant impact player.
It’s the devil you know, and not the devil you don’t know that you are more comfortable with in the end. . . . . Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, fire the coach and the general manager!
Finally, unlike the attacking half of the team’s situation, defensively all one looks for is consistency. Most of these players have now had at least a couple of seasons together; it is likely they will jell together quickly.
At this point the only question mark is, will Ben Olsen return or retire? That leaves one question to be answered. Already DC United is well positioned to address this with the full-time inclusion of a rejuvenated Santino Quaranta, or Ryan Cordeiro, who favorably impressed his rookie season, or the combination of Fred and Ivan Guerro, both extremely gifted and experienced midfielders.
In conclusion, the combination of current players and recent additions through the draft are more than enough change for DC United in 2009. Certainly as the season rolls along it is likely that one or two players will go down due to season ending injuries or failure to perform – either case does allow for changes in mid-season – but, for the most part this team is set for a decent year within the league. Although by virtue of its Open Cup Trophy in 2008 DC United will be included in the CONCACAF Club Championship competition, the focus should remain domestically, either MLS Cup of Supporters’ Shield. Only a very special team, built up over several years, will have the wherewithal to challenge in international play.
So, as this nation faces its critical challenges over the next couple of years, and the new administration looks for change to fix the problems, DC United should close its eyes. Instead, the Black and Red should take a deep breath and have confidence in those players that it pulled together over the last several successful seasons.
Certainly it might fail, but there would always be 2010 for change.