Revved Up United Head to NE

Fresh off a resounding season opening win, a rejuvenated DC United heads to New England to take on a battered, but effective Revolution side making their home debut in Gillette Stadium.

One thing is for certain in the way Ben Olsen has decided to bury DC’s dismal memories of the past few seasons, he’s injected speed and hard work into a team that has relied on aging or mercenary talent for far too long.

So, it will be interesting to see how this match plays out in front of hundreds braving the bitter cold in the Razor. DC is obviously looking to build on their opening game success, and Ben Olsen is no doubt looking to get some revenge after losing in NE in his coaching debut for DC last year. While NE on the other hand is dealing with their usual raft of early season injuries, but will have the hometown gaggle behind them as well as playing their usual brand of Nicolball, looking for the early Joseph goal and shutting down any attempts at actual soccer playing for the rest of the evening.

DC does have some absences that might be of concern, however. Rookie Perry Kitchen is off with the U-20’s, and right back Jed Zayner is a bit banged up and unlikely to play. In their place, it seems likely Olsen turns to Uruguayan signing, Rodrigo Brasesco to pair with Dejan Jakovic in central defense, while rookie Chris Korb seems likely to play the right side of defense with Devon McTavish still out with concussion symptoms.

Olsen will also have to decide whether to ride the Charlie Davis wave and possibly give last week’s hero the nod to start in this match. However, given the unforgiving field turf in the Razor, the expected freezing weather, and a Nicol coached team’s propensity for hard fouls, especially early on, it seems unlikely Olsen turns to Davies just yet when he clearly might have a much bigger impact coming off the bench when NE’s defense should be just that much more tired and unable to really wind up and deliver their signature crunching tackles.

Plus, Olsen simply has to reward the starter’s that got the ball rolling in turning around United’s fortunes. Josh Wolff had an amazing match and scored the opening goal for DC, while Joseph Ngwenya harried the Crew’s defenders, and danced along the back line keeping them honest all game long. Both earned their jobs well enough until someone comes along to take them away.

The Revs, on the other hand, might look quite a bit different than the team that stole a point in LA in their season opener. Marko Perovic, who set up NE’s early goal, seems unlikely to play after being injured in that game, and they lose his replacement, Gambian Kenny Mansally, who scored two heartbreaking goals in their win over DC in United’s home opener last year, to international duty.

Also, possibly returning to the lineup for the Revs will be Serb forward Illja Stolica as well as right back Kevin Alston, and maybe French defender Didier Domi, which would send Zack Shillawski and Darrius Barnes to the bench, while likely moving Chris Tierney to midfield.

So, it seems likely Nicol goes with his tried and true 4-4-2 and trots out Stolica and Zak Boggs at forward, Sainey Nyassi, Shalrie Joseph, Pat Phelan, and Chris Tierney in midfield going right to left. In defense, either Barnes or Alston at right back, then young Argentine Franco Coria and rookie A.J. Soares, both of whom Nicol raved about after the LA match, in central defense with the Domi taking the left back spot. Of course the assassin, Reis will be in goal.

United almost certainly will go with Wolff and Ngwenya at forward; Andy Najar, Dax McCarty, and Chris Pontius across the midfield; and Korb, Jakovic, Bresesco, and Marc Burch going right to left across the backline. Onstad in goal.

All of which means, DC should have some serious tactical and speed advantages in this match if Nicol’s thugs are off their game by even the slightest margin.

Starting in the attack for DC, Wolff and Ngwenya are fast and savvy enough to cause real problems for newcomers Coria and Soares. This won’t be like facing Magee and Barrett last week. If Wolff and Ngwenya replicate their efforts from last week, they will get chances for certain. Also, you’ve got to like Najar going against the creaky Frenchman on that right side. True, Pontius against Alston or Barnes is less enthusiastic even with Alston recently back from his semi-annual hamstring pull. Plus, McCarty and Simms would need to be just about perfect to outplay all-world Joseph and feisty Phelan (who scored the winning goal in Olsen’s coaching debut loss last year, btw). But, overall DC does have some tempting matchups going forward.

Defensively, things are not too frightening for DC either. Stolica is a big stiff who has pretty much disappointed since his arrival, and while Boggs is fast and has shown flashes of serious ability, neither should trouble Jakovic and Breseco too much as long as Joseph is kept honest in the middle of the field and not let drift too far forward. Nyassi too is fast, but incredibly inconsistent and a whiner to boot, so Burch should have a slight edge there. Tierney is exceedingly under-rated and the rookie Korb might have his hands full, but that’s about it on NE’s side of the ledger as long as everyone else does their job.

Now, looking at the recent trends is obviously not so promising. DC hasn’t won in NE since 2007, when Josh Gros scored the winner 22 minutes into the match, and hasn’t beaten NE at all since the last game of 2008, when Francis Doe got an improbable brace in RFK. In fact, after getting swept and shutout twice by NE last year, Olsen got the last second goal the last time DC even got a point against their hated Eastern conference rival back in 2009. So, it’s been tough sledding at 0-3-1 for DC in NE since those back to back Shields won in ’06 and ’07.

Interestingly Fred has two of the only four goals scored by DC in the Razor since 2007, and since he was pretty much traded back to DC by NE this pre-season for a bag of balls, he might seriously be by a wild card in this match coming off the bench with Charlie Davies in the second half if the game is undecided at that point.

As always, playing a Nicol coached team is a junkyard brawl and anything can happen no matter what the tactics or strategy, or even the level of talent on the field. NE can win handily with 10 stiffs surrounding Shalrie Joseph, or they can lose pitifully with a full roster. Even the match being their home opener is not that conclusive, NE can win big like they did last year trouncing TFC behind Shillawski’s improbable hat trick, or they can get dropped like a sack of dirt in one of their usual slow starts to the season.

Bottom line, DC has the edge in talent and tactics, but not by much. NE has the edge in history and utterly effective grinding anti-soccer efficiency, but has is clearly on the down side of that form. Perhaps a tie does justice to both sides in this one.

DC Hosts Crew in 2011 Season Opener

For the first time since 2006, DC United gets to open the season in RFK stadium, where they will be facing long time Eastern Conference rival, the Columbus Crew.

Looking to erase the worst season in team history, DC United begins the Ben Olsen era, in a rare season opener in the friendly confines of RFK stadium against the Columbus Crew, with a rebuilt roster full of new faces.

With at best only four starters from last year’s disastrous season opener in KC likely to start this weekend against the Crew, United’s almost complete transformation will be readily apparent starting with central midfielder Dax McCarty replacing the legendary Jaime Moreno as captain of the team, pretty much completely severing any ties to United’s glory years.

It seems pretty likely that from last year’s opening day roster, only young phenom, Andy Najar and midfield iron man Clyde Simms are guaranteed a starting spots for the new look DC United against the Crew. Maybe forward/midfielder Chris Pontius and center back Dejan Jakovic find the starting lineup as well, but each has stiff competition to beat out if they expect to make any starting job their own.

Based on the pre-season and news to date, it seems pretty likely United will start new forwards Josh Wolff and Joseph Ngwenya, both of whom had very effective pre-seasons, as it seems likely Olsen will choose to bring on the dynamic Charlie Davies off the bench in his first match in United colors as he works his way back to full fitness from his horrific crash late in 2009. Perhaps Pontius gets the nod over Wolff, but considering he’s played mostly midfield in the pre-season, that seems unlikely.

In the midfield, possibly Pontius starts on the left, but considering the financial commitment United has made to designated player Branko Boskovic, it seems more likely the Montenegran midfielder will claim that left side position. In the center will be Captain McCarty and Clyde Simms almost certainly, and it seems equally likely Najar claims the right side as well, all of which leaves long time United player Santino Quaranta on the outside looking in.

In defense, Olsen does have some interesting choices, Marc Burch is apparently healthy and clearly has some hold over the powers that be in United land as they see something that I don’t and he seems likely to start left back. Perhaps former Fire back, Daniel Woolard pips Burch at the post, and in my opinion, he’s the better overall player, but there you go.

In the center, third pick in the draft, Perry Kitchen is all but a lock to start having impressed everyone this pre-season. Next to him seems likely to be Jakovic, but possibly DC’s off season pickup, Uruguyan defender Rodrigo Bresesco edges out Jakovic although that seems unlikely. Or perhaps Bresesco snags the right back slot away from Jed Zayner, but that too seems unlikely since he’s played pretty much in the center all pre-season.

Finally in goal, United will have emergency signing, player coach Pat Onstad, in the nets. What will be interesting is to see who will be his backup. If it’s rookie Joe Willis, then Hamid is nowhere near fit enough yet coming back from his shoulder surgery. However, if Hamid is indeed the emergency keeper, then United’s impressive young keeper might be closer to re-acquiring his starting job sooner rather than later.

As for the Crew, it seems likely they will play their standard 4-4-2 with Emilio Renteria and Peruvian designated player, Andres Mendoza at forward. Perhaps the second leading scorer in MLS history, Jeff Cunningham takes over for Renteria, if the Venezuelan is not fully recovered from a knock, but Cunningham coming off the bench seems far more likely.

In midfield, gone is former MVP, Guillermo Barros Schelotto, but Robbie Rogers, Nigerian Olympian, Emmanuel Ekpo, and Eddie Gaven return going left to right across the formation. With Danny O’Rourke out and having just signed 31 year old Serb, Dejan Rusmir out of the Romanian first division, it seems likely he starts at defensive midfield.

United will welcome a familiar face starting in the defense, as Julius James is slated to start in central defense place of Andy Iro, who is coming off a groin injury. Rookie Rich Balchan is expected to start at left back, Chad Marshall in the center next to James, and 30 year old Sebastion Miranda from Chili will be starting on the right. In goal, Hesmer appears healthy coming back from shoulder problems, but if not quite ready former Dallas keeper, Ray Burse will be filling in as he has to date.

So, looking at the matchups, Andy Najar has the best chance going up against a rookie from Indiana on that side of the field. Ngwenya and Wolff, and certainly Davies, all have the speed and savvy to trouble Julius “red card” James, and even Chad Marshall can be troubled by speed as well if United is able to send their forwards repeatedly behind the defense as this team seems created to do. Even solid, effective pros, McCarty and Simms should have an advantage over the mercurial Ekpo and the new to MLS, Rusmir.

On the other side of the ball, the bull, Renteria and the brutally effective Mendoza could seriously trouble the casual Jakovic and certainly steamroll the rookie Kitchen, so that is a concern. As is the wily Gaven going against Burch or Woolard, and Robbie Rogers is a handful too, but then again, Zayner has played against him as often as anyone having spent two years in Columbus before coming to DC. Still, Columbus has had trouble finding the back of the net this pre-season, and perhaps that continues.

Looking at the trends, DC has certainly not done well against the Crew in RFK lately, having been swept by them to the tune of 3 losses last year including being knocked from the Open Cup semis. In fact, DC has lost 4 of the last 5 league matches against the Crew here in RFK since 2006, having only beaten them by an Emilio miracle late in 2009. However, the main architect of those recent losses, Schelotto, is gone, and historically DC has owned the Crew in RFK going 15-6-3 since 1996, and outscored them 49-33 even including their recent poor run.

Even better, for merely the 4th time in 15 years, DC United is hosting their season opening game and United hasn’t lost a home season opener since the debacle in 2000 against LA going 2-0-1 since then most recently tying NY in 2006 after beating SJ and KC in ‘04 and ‘01 respectively. In addition, United has lost only 4 home openers total since the loss to the Galaxy in the first ever United match in RFK. Prior to last year’s home opening loss to NE, DC was 6-2-5 in home openers since 1996.

So there you have it. Home openers are huge in MLS, and RFK is a tough place to find a victory under normal circumstances (excluding last year from the mind completely), and this team seems poised to reverse their fortune from last year too, and there’s no question the RFK faithful will explode with delight if United shows they have put last year behind them. Both teams seem likely to score, but United has to be a one goal favorite. Fingers crossed.

Charlie Davis. Photo: Tony Quinn.

Unitedmania’s 2011 MLS Preview

Once again, the Unitedmania brainstaff gives their predictions about the upcoming MLS season. Take these choices with a grain of salt though as much like Newman delivering mail, none of us has ever actually broken the 50% accuracy barrier.

The East:
Consensus reigns that the East is easily the lesser conference and the most difficult to predict. Outside of NY winning and DC being in range of the playoffs, there wasn’t much else anyone agreed on.
Mike Chris Martin
  1. NY
  2. Crew
  3. Fire
  4. DC
  5. Houston
  6. Philly
  7. SKC
  8. NE
  9. TFC
  1. NY
  2. Houston
  3. DC
  4. SKC
  5. Crew
  6. NE
  7. Philly
  8. Fire
  9. TFC
  1. NY
  2. NE
  3. SKC
  4. DC
  5. TFC
  6. Fire
  7. Crew
  8. Philly
  9. Houston
The West
Easily the stronger conference, and a clear pattern of agreement that LA, RSL, and FCD will be at the top, as well as the two expansion teams bringing up the rear.
Mike Chris Martin
  1. RSL
  2. LA
  3. FCD
  4. Seattle
  5. Colorado
  6. SJ
  7. Chivas
  8. Portland
  9. Vancouver
  1. RSL
  2. LA
  3. Colorado
  4. FCD
  5. Seattle
  6. Chivas
  7. SJ
  8. Portland
  9. Vancouver
  1. LA
  2. RSL
  3. FCD
  4. Seattle
  5. Colorado
  6. SJ
  7. Portland
  8. Chivas
  9. Vancouver

As for the end of the year awards, again clear consensus that the West will dominate the big awards, but of course being the homers that we are, DC United will sneak off with some hardware as well.

Golden Boot: Mike and Chris agree on RSL’s Saborio, while Martin holds out hope for Angel

Defender of the year: Mike and Martin agree on LA’s Gonzalez, while Chris goes out on a limb with NY’s Ream

Goalkeeper of the Year: Mike and Chris agree on RSL’s Rimando, Martin goes with FCD’s Hartman

Rookie of Year: Mike and Martin agree on DC’s Perry Kitchen, while Chris takes Portland’s Nagbe

Newcomer of Year: Clean sweep in giving the award to DC’s Charlie Davies

Coach of Year: Again clean sweep for DC’s Ben Olsen

MLS Cup Champion: Mike goes with LA, Chris with RSL, but Martin flirts with blasphemy in picking NY to win their first trophy ever.

Supporter’s Shield: Mike picks RSL, Martin thinks it will be LA, and this time it is Chris upsetting the natural order of the universe by picking NY

There you have it. As always, we will disavow any knowledge of these picks once it becomes obvious they don’t bear any resemblance to reality.

The State of United: Lowering the Bar

OK, last season DC United pretty much laid the bar on the ground (thanks to Ed the Red who perfectly captured my current mood so eloquently with his pithy thoughts), so improving on that hideous catastrophe last year is almost a guarantee. Well, unless they do in fact tunnel into the earth. However, apparently gone are the days of reloading the team to even try to get back to the top. Given the moves this off-season, DC United is clearly mired into slowly rebuilding for the future, while focusing on changing the culture of the team.

Ironically, all the moves made this off-season are virtually unassailable. Trading Wallace for McCarty and Perkins for Cronin, acquiring economical forwards Ngwenya and Wolff, drafting consensus best player available Perry Kitchen, picking up a young experienced South American in Bresesco, etc.. All sound moves most likely, but hardly moves that signal a team looking to turn around their fortunes immediately. For that to happen, United simply had to address make a big splash to address their epically bad offense by finding some speed and athleticism for their painfully slow attack as well as a securing a reasonably consistent scoring threat.

Well, United appears to have done that with the recent addition of US National team forward Charlie Davies. Davies is all speed and power who should be a reasonably consistent scorer in MLS. Well, that is if he actually is still the fast and effective player he was before his horrendous accident over a year ago. A crash that has kept him from top flight football for over a year, and it is disturbingly ominous that neither his French team nor Davies himself apparently couldn’t find any takers in Europe, so they and Davies are settling on MLS to revitalize his career.

United is apparently doing its due diligence in testing the recovering Davies down in Florida, but I’ll eat my hat if this is anything beyond a token trial. Davies will be on DC United this year, bet on it. Now, how effective he will be remains to be seen. For sure he could light up the league as the finisher on a team full of set up men, or he could struggle to return to form and never recapture that magic touch he once had. Chances are he will perform somewhere in between.

Which brings us back to the point of this article. DC United used to count on MLS Cups as their birthright, then of course they were humbled with the dark ages as the league steadily dismantled United’s dynastic tendencies. However, DC returned to the top of the league as strong as ever capturing Shields and making noise internationally, making the playoffs was a given even if capturing a trophy was not. Obviously, the Gallardo fiasco then hampered the team for years, but even last year, DC United put together a team that seemed likely on paper to at least challenge for a playoff spot. Of course they cratered out of the gate and never recovered, but they arguably were a solid team going into the season that was expected to be in the playoff race at least.

That’s not so anymore. Even rosy optimists are saying United, although a better team overall, are unlikely to make make the playoffs, even in a frightfully bad Eastern Conference. The team has gone from reloading every year to taking baby steps to rebuild the foundation of the team and more importantly change the attitude of the team and the culture of the front office. Hopefully, the arrogance and lazy sense of entitlement the front office exudes is long gone, but that remains to be seen.

However, it is clear the team itself is being rebuilt with youth and character as the central pillars rather than talent and expectations. It pains me to say, but jettisoning the legendary Jaime Moreno in favor of Josh Wolff as a team leader is an unquestioned shot across the bows of a team that recently has not scrapped to overachieve, but instead watched talent fester and underachieve. Lord knows, I love Jaime as much as anyone, but this team no longer can tolerate anyone who makes things look easy. They need mudders like McCarty and Wolff for now until young guys like Najar who combine blazing talent and scrappy determination take over the mantle.

Even United’s choice of Kitchen, instead of say trading the pick for an established MLS attacker that would be more likely to contribute right away for example, is a subtle fire lit under the easy going demeanors of United’s defensive leaders, Jakovic and Simms. Both are extremely classy players coming off sub-par years where they never showed the passion to demand better of themselves and others one would expect. Kitchen is described as a leader willing to do what it takes to succeed and inspire others to succeed. Remains to be seen if he succeeds, but almost all United’s defenders are on notice now that there is a replacements are in the pipeline.

Indeed United needs more of what Olsen exemplified as a player, that give it all scrap for every inch will to succeed, which is why I think Olsen has collected the kind of players he has. Even Davies himself exemplifies this now that he has a career to resurrect. He’s literally playing for his soccer life. All of this bodes well for the future of this team.

However, it’s inescapable when looking at this roster that United has anything but another losing season in the offing. United simply does not have enough talent overall, even with a healthy Davies. They have almost no one even in the top half of the league average players in any starting position. Certainly, a good team is more than the sum of their parts and United expects that team concept to give their current roster a boost, but even so, at the end of the day, players have to make plays.

Davies has to score at least 10-12 goals to be in the conversation of top class forwards in this league. It’s a toss-up whether or not he reaches that level or not. Najar could easily be among the top half of wing players in this league, McCartney is possibly the median central midfield player, but after that all the rest of United’s starters pale in comparison certainly by Western standards, but even just considering the East.

Obviously NY with Henry, Ibrahim and Aguadelo, the Crew with Cunnningham and Mendoza, KC with Bravo, Kamara and Bunbury, maybe even Houston with Ching and Weaver or Philly with Mwanga and LeToux probably have a more effective attacking corps than DC using any combination or Davies, Pontius, Quaranta, Wolff or Ngwenya. Charlie Davies is the key obviously, if he scores consistently, DC is competent, if he doesn’t no one else will score much either and DC will likely relive last year’s ineptitude again. Even TFC with a proven threat like DeRosario might be better off than United if Davies isn’t quite up to snuff. The Fire just signed a couple promising forwards too.

Not much better in midfield either. NY, Columbus, Houston with Cameron back, and arguably Chicago and KC all have better midfield personnel than any combination of McCarty, Boskovic, Simms, Najar, and Quaranta or Pontius based on their careers to date. McCarty does bring the grit this midfield needs, but Boskovic is truly the wild card. If equals say Pappa, Lindpere, Gaven, Davis, or even Perovic in effectiveness, than DC moves up the table a bit. If he doesn’t, than DC is in the dumps in the East. Simple as that.

Defensively, DC should be better overall. Bresesco is obviously a wild card, but seems a good bet, Kitchen will make Jakovic and James better or simply take their jobs eventually. Zayner is an upgrade, and DC has solid backups in Burch, McTavish and Woolard, even White adds some promise for the future. Unfortunately, almost every East team already has a good defense most of them with a proven keeper to boot. Defense is all about confidence and cohesion, so you never know how things will turn out, like Houston havin such a dismal year last year despite good talent on paper, but that said, NY, Columbus, Philly, NE, Houston and even Chicago with Gibbs, Robinson, Segares and their new Bosnian all probably have better defensive personnel.

Bottom line, DC is likely a better team overall, almost certainly has changed their culture to the point where hard work and effectiveness will be valued over talent for talent’s sake, and is developing a significant core of very good young players under the tutelage of a scrappy overachieving young coach in Ben Olsen, and the team took a good chance on an exciting attacking talent that could pay off huge if he comes back 100%, etc. et.. But, even so United just doesn’t seem likely to make the playoffs again this year barring a miracle.

That seems to me setting the bar too low.

United adds Uruguayan defender Rodrigo Brasesco on loan

D.C. United announced today the loan signing of 24-year-old defender Rodrigo Brasesco from Uruguayan club Racing Club for the 2011 season. Brasesco has seen first team action in both the Uruguayan Primera Division as well as the prestigious Copa Libertadores in the past year. The Montivedeo native will be available to the Black-and-Red once his P-1 Visa and International Transfer Certificate come through, which will only be a matter of days.

Brasesco can play either in the middle or on the right side of defense. With the signing of Brasesco as well Ethan White from the Academy Team and Daniel Woolard from the USL lower divisions, United has considerably bolstered their defensive depth from last season. With the Super Draft just days away and with the United brain trust on hand in Florida currently scouting for the MLS Player Combine, United could be set to add more defensive depth with quality players like Perry Kitchen, Zarek Valentin, Kofi Sarkodie and Jalil Anibaba all available for United at the #3 pick.

However, with United added a number of players to their defense in recent weeks and a dire need of offensive talent into the squad, look for United to most likely go for one of a number of attacking players such as Darlington Nagbe, Omar Salgado or Will Bruin. No matter, with the #3 pick United is poised to grab a player who can hopefully make an immediate impact with the squad.

United is preparing to begin their preseason training next week at RFK Stadium. After a one-week session in DC, United will head down to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida for an extended training session as well as a trip to the West Coast to Oxnard, California. United will round off their preseason with their inclusion in the Carolina Cup just a week before the start of the 2011 MLS season in late March.

United not standing Pat after disastrous 2010 season

Much like any other sport that one follows religiously, when a team has a season like D.C. United had in 2010, everyone is baying for the moon. They want heads chopped and throats cut from the top of the organization all the way down to the equipment manager. In short, they want wholesale changes.  Normally changes of the roster in massive quantities don’t always fix the problems (see MetroStars/Red Bull circa 2002-2009). In fact, in most cases it makes the problem worse. Be careful what you wish for.

Making Moves

Well, in this instance United is certainly taking that path with a number of moves already before the New Year to help the Black-and-Red pull out of their funk. The first move towards restoration was trading promising defender Rodney Wallace and a  2011 4th round MLS SuperDraft pick to the Portland Timbers for midfielder Dax McCarty and allocation money. McCarty, the first player selected in the Expansion Draft last month, is a two-way midfielder with good skill who can get forward to support the attack. Considering United played most of 2010 with a dual defensive midfielder setup, having a player that can score goals and set them up is a plus. Just imagine McCarty being in the scoring positions that Stephen King found himself in last season. I dare say McCarty would have converted more than one of the golden opportunities at the foot of King.

Olsen Named Coach

The next move was to install Ben Olsen as the full-time Head Coach of United. Just six weeks removed from being told that Olsen was “not a candidate” by team President Kevin Payne, Olsen was indeed the man named to move United forward. While most United fans look at this move as one that Olsen deserves, it’s not really looked upon in the same light outside of the United family. Most MLS fans look at this as another move by the front office in DC that will backfire and not bear fruit. Their reasoning being that Olsen is too inexperienced and this overhaul needed to be supervised by an experienced coach. While that may be true, you won’t find a person more dedicated to restoring United’s past glory than Ben Olsen.

More Help for United

Up next for the Black-and-Red was the complicated Re-Entry Draft held over the course of two weeks in early December. United, in need of any offensive help they can get, selected forwards Joseph Ngwenya and Josh Wolff in the first two rounds respectively. While I will spare you the dizzying details of how the Re-Entry Draft and their multitude of rules and stipulations work, essentially United got Ngwenya for about $75,000 and Wolff for slightly more (no details given on his salary, but if one had to guess, I would say it’s at least half of his reported $200,000 salary from 2010). While neither player will blow you away with their goal scoring prowess from 2010 (1 goal for Ngwenya, 3 from Wolff), they are infinitely better options than the departed Danny Allsopp and the let-loose Jaime Moreno. I realize that last part seems blasphemus on it’s face, but Jaime hit the wall with a major thud last season and the front office made the unpopluar but correct choice in cutting ties with the legendary Bolivian.

Most, if not all, of United’s attacking problems can be traced to their collective lack of pace from midfield to the forward line. I’m not just talking foot speed, but speed of thought and moving the ball from defense to the attack more quickly. Ngwenya and Wolff won’t be confused with Luciano Emilio (in goal scoring terms) or Christian Gomez (out and out attacking the goal) anytime soon, but their pace and ability to get behind defenses could be a welcome change for United and give them an option they haven’t had in years in DC. Hopefully their contributions can help make this team a more difficult team to defend rather than the one-dimensional team this club has been for the past 3 seasons.

Academy Stikes Again

United may have pulled off another great pick when they signed former Academy defender Ethan White from the University of Maryland. With Hamid, Conor Shanosky and 2010 Rookie of the Year Andy Najar already in tow, United bolsters their back line depth with the sophomore from Maryland. White, had he chosen not to sign with United and enter the MLS SuperDraft, most likely would have been a first-round pick. Thus United in essence will have two first-round picks (in combination with their #3 overall pick). White is a pacy and strong defender much in the mold of current teammate Julius James, but perhaps with a bit more skill. MLS rules stipulate that any player that has been developed in their academy for at least one year, has the opportunity to sign with that club straight onto the roster. If that player passes up signing with their affiliated team, they can go into the SuperDraft and be eligible to be selected by any team.

One and Done

Another key move made just this past week saw goalkeeper Troy Perkins moved to the Portland Timbers for their goalkeeper Steve Cronin and allocation money. Perkins did not have a grand return to DC this past year and seemed to epitomize United’s downtrodden play by alternating decent efforts in goal with some real stinkers. It got to a point that United made the move to put Academy player Bill Hamid in goal for a number of matches before his season came to an end with a shoulder injury that plagued him all season long. Hamid will now battle for the #1 spot with Cronin, who played very well in his brief spell with United at the end of the 2009 season. The trading of Perkins puts an end to one of the worst trades the club has made in their history in terms of what was given up to get him back to DC. Last January United traded Fred, allocation money and the #7 pick in the SuperDraft (which ended up being forward Jack McIllnerny) for Perkins. While United was desperate for a #1 goalkeeper, they simply gave up way too much to get him back. With the trade now of Perkins, they have at least gotten back allocation money (and also got allocation money from Portand for the McCarty deal) that they can apply to perhaps getting an international striker to come in and help United out next season. In essence, allocation money extends your salary cap for the season (said to be around 2.7 million this upcoming season).

Outsider Help

The team roster wasn’t the only place where United gained some new faces. Pat Onstad, the goalkeeper for years for the Houston Dynamo, announced his retirement and has come on board as the 2nd assistant to Olsen’s staff. Chad Ashton was retained as the #1 assistant while Mark Simpson and Kris Kelderman have left the club for other opportunities. Onstad will help with goalkeepers but won’t strictly be their coach. Getting a fresh perspective from someone “outside the United family” could be very beneficial for United as they look to get out of the cellar of MLS.

More Help On the Way

With the MLS SuperDraft coming up on Thursday, January 13th at the Baltimore Convention Center, United has a chance to add a real impact player to their team as they hold the #3 pick overall. Only United would be unlucky enough to finish bottom of the league in a year that see’s two expansion teams coming into the league (Vancouver #1 pick, Portland #2 pick) and keeping them from the #1 overall pick.

With a talented group of yet unnamed Generation Addidas underclassmen eligible for the draft, United will have some tough choices to make if some of the players expected to come out early do. One possible scenario could see United choosing between three talented playes such as Omar Salgado, Darlington Nagbe and Kofie Sarkodie. Salgado, a 6-foot 3 inch 18 year old striker oozing with skill and talent. Nagbe, an Akron forward who is equally comfortable running behind defenses as he is orchesrating in a withdrawn role and Sarkodie, the Akron defender who seems to be the most ready to play out of all three of them.

This will be a very difficult decision for United as they have needs offensively (as evident by their league record shattering 21 goals scored in 2010) as well as on the defensive line. Let’s just assume that the choice is between Nagbe and Sarkodie. I feel United really couldn’t go wrong with either player, but you have to ask yourself what is United’s greatest and most pressing need? To me it’s easy. It’s offense. While Sarkodie is a future National Team starter at right back (that’s right, I said it), Nagbe can really give this team some punch in the attacking third of the field. Salgado, if chosen, would be more of a project but we’ve already witnessed what a young attacking player can do when given the opportunity (Najar). So maybe they go with Salgado? Who knows but I do know they will be getting an impact player with that pick.

As for the rest of the draft, unless United makes a trade to move up from their late second-round selection, then it’s really a crapshoot in terms of what they can get. The scouting that Dave Kasper, Ben Olsen and Chad Ashton have been doing during the College Cup and will be doing during the upcoming Combine in January will tell us a lot about their philosiphy and what kind of player they want to pull on the United kit.

International Help

With United parting ways with Allsopp during the winter, United has a few spots to fill and none will be bigger than in the attacking half of the field. Most people seem to think that United will be shopping for a foward once the January transfer window opens up. With only Pablo Hernandez and Adam Cristman remaining from their forward corps (not including Chris Pontius or Santino Quaranta whom I consider tweener players) and the addition of Ngwenya and Wolff, that still is not enough to strike fear in MLS opponents. With rosters increasing to 30 players and reinstitution of the Reserve League, plenty of roster spots are up for grabs.

End Game

So what does all this movement mean? Who’s to say but I will concede that the personnel on and off the field brought in so far is a complete upgrade from last season. With a transfer window and a SuperDraft to mine, United is far from done making moves and while the the team still has a few core players left, it will look noticably different from last season. Will that be a good or a bad thing? In MLS just about anyone can go from worst to first and United feel that these moves along with more to come will put them back where they feel they belong, at the top of MLS.

So long Danny

D.C. United announced today that it has reached an agreement with Danny Allsopp to mutually terminate the forward’s contract. In his only season in Washington, Allsopp played in 23 Major League Soccer contests (18 starts), recording 5 goals, tied with ANdy Najar as teams leading scorer.

Allsopp will likely return to his native Australia to continue his professional career.

In storied career, Moreno painted us a picture of greatness

Jaime Moreno

El Capitan - Jaime Moreno: Photo: Martin Fernandez

If I found a picture—or the artist’s rendition of it to be given out to the first 10,000 faithful at RFK on Saturday—of Jaime Moreno in the dictionary, it would likely have a reference to the synonym, passion.

It’s evidenced even at the end of his career, as he recently served a one-game suspension for contact with a San Jose player. Ironically enough, reading Beau Dure’s book, Long Range Goals: The Success Story of Major League Soccer, reminded me of another on-field incident that got Moreno—then wearing one #9 instead of two—suspended.

Not long after Moreno had come to DC United from Middlesbrough in MLS’s inaugural 1995 season, he was ejected for retaliating after the MetroStars’ Nicola Caricola had swung at him. And though this season hasn’t gone as well for him and the team, it will largely be remembered in the same way his stint with the MetroStars was – an aberration.

But in between, the passion mostly manifested itself in many magnificent memories (He has brilliant soccer; I have alliteration.) throughout his 15-year MLS career.

He had an eloquence and a grace about him on the field, and was a kind and patient interview in the locker room after games – win or lose. And he has proven his passion to the Washington, D.C. community in his many off-field endeavors and his newly-announced 99 Dreams, 1 Heart Foundation.

But it was on the field where we commoners saw his passion manifest itself most. So rise up, make some noise and let him hear us one final time. Even though he won’t go out on top with an MLS Cup, as would be ideal, he’ll go out on top in our minds and in our hearts. And if he scores Saturday, all the better. But if he doesn’t, he’s still the greatest player to lace up in MLS.

It is a sad day, but it shouldn’t be one of mourning. It should be a day to recollect on some magnificent memories. I mean, after all, there were more than 100 goals and 100 assists, and many other magic moments in his 15 years. We all have our own memories, and perhaps we’ll have a few more after Saturday. His departure marks the end of an era – for him, for the team, for MLS, and for all of us.

Those of us privileged to call ourselves DC United fans should let him know what he’s meant to all of us. Rise up, make some noise – with our voices, with our drums, horns and with our hearts.

So whatever he decides to do after this, at least it’s on his terms, as it should be.

Jaime Moreno: thanks for the championships, thanks for the goals, the assists, the brilliance, the grace, the passion.

Thanks for the memories.

The State of United: Worst. Team. Ever?

DC United owns 12 major trophies, and incredibly could still garner lucky number 13 with a couple more Open Cup wins this year, which makes United the most successful franchise in MLS’ short history. And it appears very likely after this season you can add another superlative to DC United’s long list of league records, that of worst team in MLS history.

Currently, United sits at 3-14-3 for 12 points in 20 games, which extrapolates out to realistically about 4-22-6, or about 18 points in 30 games. Now, that’s well beyond the previous United record for futility at 8-18-6 for 30 points in 32 games, but it is well within the range of worst records and point totals in MLS history, and that’s assuming DC doesn’t crater completely and fails to win another league match this year in order to take the title outright.

So, first a look at the current candidates for worst team ever as there is some debate. To the stats, please! The ’99 Metros: 7-25 record, 15 points in 32 games, the ’01 Mutiny: 4-21-2, 14 points in 27 games, the ’05 ChivasUSA: 4-22-6, 18 points in 32 games. Now, purists would point out that least number of wins and least number of points over a season means that dreadful Tampa Bay team is the worst ever. But then again the Metros and Chivas have more losses, so what about the old shootout and overtime rules that have since been dropped, and the length of schedule disparity too? How do they affect the final determination, you might ask?

The Metros lived in the bad old shootout days and their record reflects an extra 3 wins and 5 losses that would be ties in the real world, making their record really 4-17-8 which would be 20 points in 32 games. The Mutiny had overtime to contend with as well as a shorter season made even shorter after 9-11. Tampa was 1-2 in OT, so their record should be 3-19-5 and ironically still 14 points, but in only 27 games, so slightly better than half a point a game. Extrapolated out to 32 games, that’s about 17 points and a record of about 4-23-5 for the worst record ever in my opinion. Less points, more losses and draws than the Metros and even Chivas barely, but right in the wheel house of the current DC United squad in you will cast your mind back a few paragraphs.

So, in order to avoid the worst record in MLS history, DC must score at least 6 more points in their final 10 games, either two wins or six draws or something in between. Looking at the remaining schedule that proposition seems a bit grim. DC has five home matches and five away, so normally you’d look to the home matches for hope, but DC is a pitiful 2-7-1 in RFK, so DC might only have one more win in them at home and it better be this weekend against Philly or the heads will go down permanently and the team will not win again anywhere this season.

Even if they beat Philly this weekend, it’s tough to find another chance for points, much less wins at home over the final death march to the blessed end of this nightmare. Maybe a slumping Houston in six weeks, or possibly SJ or TFC could be considered chances for a point or two, as the Crew match is almost a certain loss. But, that only brings DC about five points at best and more likely less since those teams, outside of Philly, are thinking playoffs, while DC has no chance for the postseason and could easily fall into a swoon for the rest of the year (not that indistinguishable from what’s been happening up to now, btw). As for road points, please. At Chivas, TFC, LA, Colorado, and the Fire? All losses, book it.

Which brings me to looking a bit deeper into deciding the worst team in MLS history. Overall wins and losses are one thing, but outright ineptitude has a place too. After all, Tampa and the Metros did score 32 goals apiece, while DC doesn’t even have half that total right now. So, DC is already looking at the worst offense in league history, and while its defense is nowhere near the league worst, the team’s overall goal differential is. Right now DC has a pitiful 13 goals and has given up 35 for a differential of -22. Extrapolated out, that’s maybe 20 goals scored and around 53 given up for a -33 differential (Adjusted up to 32 games makes it almost 21 and 57 for a staggering -36).

The league record for least goals in a season is 27 by the ’09 Metros (and they got 5 in the last game last year whacking TFC in the last game of the season, DC plays TFC in the last game this year, just saying). So, DC needs 15 goals in their last 10 matches to avoid that record, and that is virtually impossible considering the offensive production witnessed to date. Failing a goal burst here-to-for impossible to fathom by this team, the worst offense in MLS history seems a lock for this anemic DC United side this year.

The worst defense in history is safe though, as Colorado gave up a staggering 69 goals in ’98 (in 32 games, but their differential was only -7!). However, Chivas in ’05 scored 31 and gave up 67 for a, you guessed it, -36 in 32 games. TB is the winner though also with a -36 in 2001 (32 and 68) in 27 games, which would be about -43 adjusted to 32 games. So, DC needs to stay well away from giving up another 30 goals or so in the last 10 games (United’s current pace is a mere two goals a game, but they did lose 3-1 in Benny’s first ever home match as coach, and you wonder if the effort will be any better in any future match, so giving up three a game isn’t out of the question). If United do collapse, they will be threatening the differential record for sure, and maybe even the overall defense mark of 69 goals against if they also get poned a few times, like say by LA and the Crew.

DC also has a few more league records in their sights. The MLS shutout record, meaning the most times being shutout, is 15 by Toronto in 2007, and DC already has 13, so that’s virtually in the bag. RSL scored first in only 4 games in ’05 and DC has only scored first twice, so that record is well within sight. So is the lowest home goal scoring record at 15 by Chivas in ’05. DC currently has 7 in RFK and scoring 9 more in only 5 more games seems an impossibility. Adding to that, the home goal differential record is -15 by Toronto in ’07, and DC is sitting on -13 right now. The home losing streak is well within reach too, as RSL lost 6 in a row at home in ‘05, and DC is sitting on 3 straight right now.

Incredibly, the road futility records are totally out of reach though. RSL in ’05 not only went winless (0-14-2) but had a ridiculous -30 goal differential. DC already has a win and is a mere -13 so they can hold their heads up high there.

Bottom line, this DC is well within the conversation for worst team in MLS history unless it plays above itself over the remaining 10 games. It will almost certainly go down as the worst offensive team in MLS history barring a miracle, even if it does scrape itself above the Mutiny line established back in 2001 (right before they were disbanded, chillingly).

Which brings us to one other stat that is almost as chilling given DC’s precarious stadium situation. Attendance right now sits at about 14, 500 (once the Dallas game is added in) and that number is not likely to rise much, if indeed it doesn’t fall to something even worse. The team’s worst ever attendance year was 15,262 in 1996 and 15, 565 in 2003 for comparison. DC averaged almost 21,000 in 2007 and has been falling pretty steadily since then to 16,000 last year and now likely to be barely over 14K. That is gruesome.

Maybe that’s why the motto this year has been it takes more. It couldn’t be more appropriate for this historically bad year.

Onalfo Fired, Olsen Named Interim Coach

In a surprising move since it is the first time in DC United’s 14 year history United has fired a coach in mid-season, the team sacked Curt Onalfo barely 8 months after hiring him. Ironically, the firing comes nearly a year to the day when he was fired by Kansas City in his only other coaching stint.

Still, however surprising that the team that prides itself on being right all the time actually pulled the trigger on a move which could easily be interpreted as an admission of it being a mistake to hire Onalfo in the first place, there is certainly plenty of justification for his dimissal.

With Onalfo in charge and hired specifically to return the team back to the playoffs while continuing the tradition of playing attacking soccer, the team failed at both miserably. Sitting last in the entire league at 3-12-3, the playoffs are all but an impossible goal barely into August, even worse, the team’s pathetic offense is long past setting team records for futility and is boring on steadily toward league marks for ineptitude.

Both sides have gone to great pains to downplay the move as being simply the result of a bad situation. Onalfo has certainly taken the high road in this quote from the Insider where he says “I am extremely disappointed. It takes a long time to build something, and having had eight short months, it was a limited amount of time, but I understand the profession. This is what I signed up for. I wish nothing but the best for the organization.”

Payne was just as gracious in a release from the team “This was a difficult and painful decision,” said United President and CEO Kevin Payne. “Curt is an outstanding person and a fine coach. This has certainly been a trying season, made more so by a number of factors outside of anyone’s control. This decision is not about placing blame, but about looking forward. Recent performances have convinced us that we need to make a change at the top for the team to improve the remainder of this season, for 2011 and beyond. We wish Curt nothing but the best.”

It’s a good thing Payne backed away from scape-goating Onalfo or placing blame because there certainly is plenty of blame to go around from top to bottom in this organization. From the product on the field to poor roster building and management to building a stadium to finding investors, DC United is clearly a team in crisis that might finally be realizing big changes need to be made in order to get the team back to its former greatness.

Clearly, the path back is going to start small, though with getting back to square one and simply producing a good team on the field that has a hope of scoring goals, winning games, and maybe winning back fans who have shown their displeasure with DC United’s hideous season by simply staying home. Attendance at RFK has been anemic and trending down as the third year out of the playoffs has become inevitable.

Payne has made clear what he expects from interim coach Ben Olsen. “The first priority in appointing an interim coach was ensuring that he would understand the passion, pride and commitment expected from every player who wears a D.C. United uniform,” Payne said. “There is no one better suited for that task than Ben Olsen. We’ve asked Ben to focus on three objectives for the balance of this season: prepare to win the next game, demand of our players the same commitment to the shirt that he displayed and determine which players demonstrate that they want to play for United next season.”

Of course winning “the next game” has been a bit of a problem this year with only three wins in 18 games, but new signings Branko Boskovic and Pablo Hernandez, as well as the return to health of some key players like Chris Pontius and Dejan Jakovic, plus the outstanding debut of Andy Najar does seem to hold promise that United might be on the edge of becoming a competent team even if there’s little on the horizon this year outside the hope of winning the US Open Cup. But, that would be a huge accomplishment in this down year especially as it would help propel the team back into international competition next year.

For certain Olsen will bring the requisite passion back to the club. No disrespect to Onalfo, but his wishy-washy ever positive disposition clearly wasn’t exactly lighting a fire under United so far this season. The fiery Olsen has never been known to hide his emotions nor his opinions. It remains to be seen how the team responds to what is likely going to be some brutal honesty, or even if United has the talent and skill to get to a higher level, but no question Olsen will be pushing them.

As a player, Olsen was clearly talented, but he also never shied away from scrapping and grubbing for every advantage. Even to the point of completely reinventing himself as a player when his ankles betrayed him and undermined his natural athletic gifts. In some ways, DC United seems to feel themselves above scrapping and grubbing when push comes to shove and that lack of conviction is reflected in their record, while teams like NE for example, are still keeping themselves above water despite arguably less talent. If Olsen can change that mentality alone, it will be an enormous achievement in this dismal season.

Olsen is under no pretenses about what is expected either as his statement confirms. “It is with mixed emotions that I accept this position,” Olsen said. “Curt is a great friend and coach from whom I’ve learned a great deal. My job now is to get results for D.C. United.”

Teams often get a bump when a coach is fired since players now know they are next in line for the axe as Payne’s ominous last comment reinforces. How United responds this weekend in New England might go a long way to showing exactly how much ability and desire this team actually has and what Olsen has to work with the rest of this season.