DC United and the Draft

To hear what I’m talking about, check out Tony Limarzi’s video on Behind the Badge speaking to Onalfo and Kasper about the upcoming draft. Given what each person said, there certainly doesn’t seem to be much chance those two key member s of the brainstaff are on the same page about their strategy for the upcoming draft.

Onalfo, who is an extremely forthright person as anyone who ever talked to him can attest, flat out said DC will be playing a four back system, probably four in the midfield too, and therefore his approach to the draft will be to assess needs and depth of the team and use their ranking of the players available as their picks come in order to choose the best player to fill those needs. Kasper, quite forthrightly for him considering his usual guarded words to the media, seemed to have a completely different idea. He pretty much said the team will take the best available player regardless of need as he has always done.

So how does that old saying go? Something about if you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’ll keep getting what you’ve been getting? Or is this more like the definition of insanity according to Einstein? Kasper and United have pretty much been going after the best player available since he got here and what has that gotten the team out of the draft? Besides last year, when you could apparently scoop fish out of that very deep draft well without much effort, how has Kasper really done in taking the best available player? Name one starter or even decent player that came out of any draft between 2002 when Kasper took over and 2008, I dare you. So you think more of that strategy will work this time, or was Einstein right?

Now, obviously I am reading between the lines a bit and some could argue the two men were actually saying the same thing just in a different way using different language. After all, the difference between best available, and best available for a particular position, especially considering the fact that MLS teams often have multiple needs, is often tough to parse. But I’m here to tell you, there’s another much less rosy way to look at those interviews if you take the dim view of the implications of what Kasper and Onalfo said.

It could very well be that Payne and Kasper continue to believe they know what’s best when it comes to roster building and Onalfo is simply being set up to fail. I’m not saying he should have total control of the roster, especially in the wacky word of MLS contracts, but if he’s not even going to have the final say on his draft picks, what does that say about the chances of his coaching talents being maximized? Apparently he’s the cook, not the chef. He’s being given the groceries, now go win Iron Chef. How did that work out for Soehn, for example?

To put this in perspective, let’s go back a bit in time to when Rongen was calling the shots and rang the bell with the greatest draft class in DC United history. (Kasper seems to believe last year was the best, but Pontius, Wallace, and Kocic have a long way before they make people forget about Quaranta, Nelsen, and Namoff!) Anyway, from 1996 to 2001, DC United selected based on needs for the most part, while since 2002, when Kasper was put in charge, the team has drafted based on best available player for the most part.

Obviously, that’s a debatable point, but I will say pretty confidently that prior to 2002, DC drafted based on needs more far more than just best available player for a lot of reasons, but easily the most important evidence is that those early teams all had a complete starting lineup! Those teams had starting players who were playing pretty exclusively in their preferred roles, and even when they did need a certain type of player, they drafted one as soon as possible. A quick glance at the past proves that.

Arena in ’96 needed a whole team so he drafted in order a forward (Arce), a right midfielder(Medved), a central defender (Imler), a defensive midfielder (Richie), another central defender (Thor Lee), a left midfielder (Kamler), a two way midfielder (Kelderman), and a goalkeeper (Milovac). No chance some of those were “the best available”, but he didn’t care about that, he was building a team. In ’97 after Imler and Peay crapped out he needed a central defender and drafted Danny Care in the first round. I can promise you he wasn’t the best available (United passed on Onalfo ironically, but they also left Ross Paule who was widely considered the best player in the draft on the table). Nor did it turn out that Care was any good anyway, but then again DC got Llamosa in the supplemental draft because Arena always covered his bases and that was that.

1998 was the same thing for Arena, DC needed a right back and he drafted Talley and then Aunger in the supplemental draft even though Billy Walsh and Tyrone Marshall were available (so was Caleb Porter and they passed on him too, maybe that’s why he passed on DC this time around).

Rongen in 1999 was a bit different in that the team needed nothing, literally. But they had the number one pick and took the best college player out there in Jason Moore. But even he fit a possible need for a left sided player (Kamler was good but not seen as definitive) and maybe Moore could be a future playmaker when Marco finally ascended to Olympus. Didn’t work out, but there you go. Rongen also combined need with best player in ’00 when the team needed left sided players after Moore crapped out. So he got SuperBobby to try and joust the Marco windmill, as well as Armstrong and Denton to replace Gori and ease Agoos into the middle.

Then of course ’01 was a bonanza. After the purge, they needed a replacement for Richie and got Nelsen and Namoff. They needed yet another possible replacement for Marco and got Lisi, as well as Quaranta to provide the spark off the bench lost when Maessner was traded away. Even Ziadie was a good stab at trying to replace Aunger when the baby faced assassin got traded away that off season too. But what’s telling is the talent left on the table. Rongen passed on the likes of Vaca, Ryan Suarez, Oughton, Ching, Eddie Johnson, Buddle, and Cory Gibbs because none of them really fit a specific need at the time.

Now, obviously, it’s debatable how well that turned out for Rongen since he was fired that year, but Onalfo is in exactly the same boat right now, so it’s pertinent. In some ways Rongen inherited a complete team that was steadily gutted by the league and he was simply unable to transition quickly enough to the incredible young talent he did collect. Talk about the little Dutch Boy, he was plugging holes in the dikes like there was no tomorrow and just didn’t have enough fingers. So to speak. Hmmm… best to leave that analogy and move on.

Anyway, since 2002 and Kasper the confident ghost took over, the idea of filling needs has gone by the wayside. Granted, the team often simply went out and bought or traded for the talent they needed, but how well has that really worked out? Since Kasper took over, way too often DC United has simply lacked a complete team because there always seems to be some hole that simply isn’t addressed competently.

And by many accounts, it’s been Kasper calling the shots on draft day for the most part. I doubt Hudson had any idea about the draft outside of Kante, who he drafted twice, and who never played a second for him either time. Nowak too, he had Freddy forced on him, and unearthed Gros, but Kevin Ara? Seriously? Stammler from Maryland for goodness sake was still on the table, so was Michael Bradley, and Andy Dorman. How do you think those guys would have looked in Nowak’s five man midfield?

As for Soehn, please! His drafts were terrible. Moose? Dyachenko? A team needing defensive depth left Ianni, Sturgis, Wahl, Burch, Veris, and Bornstein on the table in ‘06. A team always in desperate need of speed left Findley and Cummings on the table in ’07 in order to take Arguez, and North was deemed a better forward than Cristman.

You can go even deeper over Kasper’s whole tenure and see a very ugly trend. This team has desperately needed a finisher since Conteh left in 2001, and while Alecko had the potential and got unlucky (as well as Quaranta wandering off the reservation), really the team had to wait six years until Emilio bought, but eight years until a player from the draft (Pontius) looks to have the ability needed to at least be competent in the role. The team has lacked true wingers ever since Convey and Earnie left in ‘04, and it was five years until they addressed those problems competently with Quaranta, Pontius, and Wallace this past year. This team has lacked a defensive leader since the Admiral sailed for Blackburn, but aside from brief stints by Petke and the undrafted Boswell.com, it’s still a problem going on five years unless the very promising Jakovic fulfills those weighty shoes, since clearly no draft pick has even come close to being the answer.
Bottom line, before Kasper (even leaving out the 1996 draft as that’s not really fair), DC drafted a fairly decent amount of competent players, Presthus, Llamosa, Talley, Aunger, Convey, Armstrong, Denton, Lisi, Nelsen, Quaranta, Namoff, Ziadie in five years. In the eight years since, the team has drafted Alecko, Carroll, Freddy, Gros, and maybe Jacobon, although it took him a year to show up before being lost again. So, that’s 10-12 starting quality players in the first 5 years versus 5 starting quality players in 8 years since, and Alecko and Freddy were automatics. Which strategy seems the best to you?

In my opinion drafting for a need will always outweigh talent because building a team of players is far more important than collecting a sack of talent. Granted sometimes talent will simply pull off the miraculous from time to time. You can run the table for an MLS Cup if you get hot at the right time or win a Supporter’s Shield if you stay remarkably healthy for example, or win an Open Cup if circumstances fall your way. But you’ve got to have some home grown talent if you want to sustain any kind of consistent success.

Think about it this way, if you draft talent and have to shoehorn them into unfamiliar or unflattering positions because their natural position is filled by a sacred cow, how likely are they to pan out? Now, flip it around. Suppose you draft for position and train them to play a role they already know well at a faster pace and at a higher level. Who do you think is more likely to make a contribution in MLS and stay around long enough to become a solid starter?

It’s no coincidence that Nowak reigned at the top of the league from August 2004 to September 2005 winning two major trophies, when he had 6 United draft picks playing significant minutes supporting his exceptional mercenary talent (Nelsen, Namoff, Alecko, Caroll, Gros, and Freddy). Soehn, for example had some exceptional mercenaries for sure, but precious little draft picks (Gros and Alecko lost to concussion and Freddy and Carroll moved on, beyond that no draft pick made any impact), and how did that work out for him? Yes, a couple trophies, but certainly not sustained success.

So, as far as I’m concerned if DC wants to keep the roller coaster going from a lone trophy here and there sandwiched around not even making the playoffs at all, then by all means keep doing what you’re doing. But if you want to actually take a stab at getting to the top and staying there, you can’t afford to waste this draft. Gone are the days you can simply buy or trade for what you need. At some point, you have to have players you coached up and who are playing their natural positions who can step in and keep the good times rolling.

DC United has always set the precedent for the rest of the league. The Black and Red have always set the tone for excellence, and even with their unconvincing efforts since 1999, they have still managed more trophies than most teams in the league have in their trophy cases in toto. But, this is the time to establish a new paradigm. Time to take things to another level, now that teams like LA and Houston are creeping up on United’s undisputed accomplishments because so many of them are in the past. Time to re-establish the greatness and as crazy as t sounds, it starts with this draft Thursday. If more of the same from the last 8 years show up, then why expect better results? Time to see if Onalfo really knows his job.

Aaagghhh!! Since this article is already too long already and not even what I really sat down to write about anyway, I’ll end it here. Seriously, I sat down to analyze what United needs to do with this draft and was listening to that interview and it just launched this whole new tangent, but there you go. Anyway, look for another article tomorrow on what DC should do based on an examination of their roster and projecting their needs. Not that I have any confidence that’s the way they will go anymore, but one can hope can’ t one?

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