DC United History Repeats Itself?

So, let’s see. In 2001, DC United was coming off a year where a lot of overpriced veteran players underperformed badly to the tune of the team enduring the most losses in the league. United was also entering the third year of a coach who was very much on the hot seat as he inherited a winning side, but was rapidly falling out of favor. The brainstaff also decided in the off-season to eliminate a lot of veterans and replace them with a youth movement based mostly from the draft. Sound familiar?

Heck, the two teams were even built similarly. Emilio, the deadly, but streaky forward capable of leading the league in scoring, yet often accused of not being able to mesh well with others. That could be the very description of Abdul Thompson Conteh in 2001, and Obviously, Moreno is still Moreno.

Gomez, the aging MLS MVP hoping for a last few years as the hub of the team and Marco in 2001 are obviously not that far off. A youngish Olsen entering his injury prone years and Fred now looking a bit shaky. Then there was a young Convey then and slightly older Santino now, as opposed to a much more mature Santino now. A Brian Kamler then and McTavish now as utility players couldn’t be more similar. Talley and Burch aren’t that far apart either. Both teams also expected to rely on scoring and timely play from rookies and reserves to cover for what were both projected to be very weak defenses.

But first, a little closer review of the situations. DC United in 2000 was simply the worst team in United history despite a roster full of experienced winners coming off a championship season in ’99. From MLS Cup winners to second worst team in the league which had piled up a stunning 18 losses, the most ever for a United side, a year later. Now, United has gone from Supporter’s Shield winners in 2007 to the most losses in the league in 2008 despite the highest payroll and arguably the most pure talent they’ve ever assembled.

Then at the helm of the Titanic in 2001 was the widely reviled Thomas Rongen, who had inherited Arena’s dynasty and gotten very little credit for winning United’s third MLS Cup in ’99. So, as the iceberg’s closed in during his second year in charge throughout that painful 2000 season, most of the fan base was to turn against the coach quite vigorously. In fact as the 2001 season came crashing down, fans hired the infamous plane to fly over the stadium emphasizing their displeasure, and he was fired after the end of the season.

Soehn is also in his third year after he inherited Nowak’s Supporter’s Shield winning team and was not really credited much for winning another Shield in 2007. And in his second year in charge, as the 2008 season slowly fell apart, most of the fanbase turned against almost as vigorously. One would hope a brutal flyover is not in his future is this season unfolds, but he has to seriously be concerned for his job nonetheless.

Anyway back to 2001, in reaction to that brutal 2000 season, United’s brainstaff decided to jettison some of that perceived dead weight very similarly to what United did this off-season. In 2001, it was the shocking losses of the likes of Carlos Llamosa, Jeff Agoos, Richie Williams, Tom Presthus, and Geoff Aunger, who were all traded or let go to be replaced by an MLS veteran scorer in Conteh, as well as Kamler, Mark Watson, Mike Amman, and a host of high draft picks. This off-season, United dumped Gallardo, Peralta, Martinez, Guerrero, and Vide to be replaced by a veteran scorer in Gomez, as well as adding Jakovic and Janicki (in effect), and a few high draft picks.

Which brings up the draft similarities. In 2001, clearly United’s best draft ever, they collected Mark Lisi, Ryan Nelsen, and Santino Quaranta in the first round, as well as Bryan Namoff in the second, and Craig Ziadie in the third. All of whom would make significant contributions right away. Lisi scored the game-winning goal in the season opener, after two other rookies started that day, Nelsen and Ziadie, while Quaranta and Namoff were to become startlingly effective performers off the bench throughout the year.

This year, United got Pontius and Wallace in the first round this year as well as Kocic in the second. Pontius and Wallace started the first game, with Pontius scoring what should have been the winning goal, but was the eventual tying goal. In fact, Pontius could be considered very similar in Lisi coming out of college as both were highly thought of, very savvy offensive players well suited to making the leap to MLS having the brains and skill as well as athleticism. Wallace and Ziadie could be considered very similar in terms of skills if not in their draft positions.

Also, in some ways the backgrounds of Jakovic and Nelsen could be compared too. Nelsen, a foreigner who played his college ball in America, yet expected to go right to Europe, but the Grasshoppers deal fell through and he signed with MLS the night before the draft. Red Star did come calling for Jakovic right out of college, but that fell through in his first year, so he comes back to MLS. A stretch, I know, but it’s certainly better than comparing Jakovic or Janicki to Watson isn’t it?

Which brings us to how that promising and exuberant start to 2001 ended up after the dust settled. United started off 3-0 at home including a 5-0 thrashing of New England in which Lisi got three assists. Unfortunately, DC then reeled off five straight losses after that heady NE win. But they seemed to turn things back around with two wins in a row including a shocking road win over the defending champion Wizards at the Tomb behind two goals from Quaranta, Namoff with two assists, and Ziadie with the other, that buoyed hopes for a few weeks.

But sadly that all too brief escape from the Eastern cellar was not to last as the season cratered with only one win in the next two months, and only three more total for the rest of the season as United finished last in the East and 10th overall. Still, one of those wins late that year was a startling 5-1 hammering of the Crew where Lisi got the goal that iced the game and both Namoff and Nelsen registered assists. So, there were quite a few bright spots that awful year.

But, as to the fate of those talented rookies over the season, Lisi never really got a good shot at his preferred central midfield role as Marco was hanging onto that like grim death, so Lisi bounced around the midfield with mixed success until finally being shipped off to NY in mid 2002. Pontius might want to take note of that as he has another legendary Bolivian directly in his path in Jaime Moreno who looks like it might take a stake through his Black and Red heart to dislodge him from the lineup permanently.

Nelsen was the defensive midfielder of choice throughout the beginning of the season and played pretty well, but it wasn’t until July when Rongen finally realized he was far better suited to central defense than the decidedly pedestrian Watson. He finished the season strong and locked down the position for the next few years eventually becoming the bedrock of the championship team in 2004.

Quaranta had a stunning rookie year coming off the bench at 16 years old. Two multigoal games, both wins. Five goals 1 assist overall for third place in scoring on a pretty anemic team. And of course, he’s still on the team today after a variety of difficulties and departures have matured him into a very promising young player again.

Namoff suffered a bit early in the season as Rongen constantly switched lineups and tactics trying to find the right combinations in the midfield. But even so he became pretty much a consistent starter by the end of the season after Nelsen was moved into the back and Lisi faded down the stretch. He also notched the second most assists on the team with 7 behind Marco’s 12, and of course he is still here too.

Ziadie might be the most interesting career arc of them all. He seized the starting right back slot out of nowhere and played very well early on. There was legitimate talk of cap tying him to the US National team to prevent him from playing for his native Jamaica in World Cup qualifiers. That’s how highly he was thought of within weeks of entering the league. Sadly, by June he was playing so badly, DC traded for Scott Vermillion and Ziadie barely saw the field again. Talk about coming down in the world, benched in favor of Vermillion is almost cruel. By 2002 he too was shipped to purgatory in NY along with Lisi, and out of MLS completely about a year later.

But, the rookies really did their jobs for the most part in 2001, and when you add in the veterans on offense having respectable seasons, you’d think DC would have fared much better. Conteh led the team in scoring with a respectable 14 goals and Jaime chipped in 9g and 6a. Marco led the team with 12 assists. All decent numbers. But a lot of those numbers came in blowout wins or more often losses because the defense never really settled in and that youngish defense, anchored for the most part by Pope and Nelsen no less, let in 8 more goals than the offense scored as the third worst defense in the league overall.

So, there you go. It’s very possible this team in 2009 can actually live up to expectations and still be very average in the league overall if you go by historical precedent. Fortunately, while these comparisons are interesting, they rarely pan out exactly the same. At least I hope not!

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