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DC United Eyes MLS Free Agents and Re-Entry Players

No team in MLS goes into the hot stove season with more desire than DC United as they pick over the cold leftovers around the league looking for veterans with a chip on their shoulder.

MLS released the first ever list of Free Agents as well as the Re-Entry players that will be made available. Created with the CBA agreed upon just before this season, MLS players 28 years or older with 8 years in MLS are available for free agency and can negotiate starting tomorrow and sign with any team without any qualifications. Other players released around the league are made available through the re-entry draft held in two phases Dec 11th and December 17th.

United has made a name for itself in mining the league’s castoffs for reliable starters itching to show the league they still got game as Captains Bobby Boswell and Davy Arnaud can attest. The MLS list has some very intriguing names on it that would seem to suit Olsen’s gritty style to perfection. With Perry Kitchen all but out the door and Arnaud staring the end of his career in the face, a hard man like Jeff Larentowicz or some under-rated central players like Ned Grabavoy, Paulo Nagamura, Nick Labrocca, or Nathan Sturgis all fit the bill of players who would be itching to shore up United’s midfield and show up their former teams.

DC also needs to be in the market for upgrades in outside midfield as well with Pontius seemingly gone to Philly and only Lamar Neagle rumored to be on the way to join the underwhelming Nick DeLeon and the aging Chris Rolfe. The best wing players out there are guys like Justin Mapp or Oscar Boniek Garcia but wide guys who stay wide and get deep don’t really fit the way Benny wants the position to be played. However, guys like Mauro Rosales, Marco Pappa, and Eric Avila fit into Bennyball’s more narrow midfield roles quite nicely.

While those midfield holes absolutely have to be addressed, some other intriguing players available could bring some much needed speed and athleticism as well as fitting into Olsen’s somewhat lackluster opportunistic attacking style.

At forward, Danny Mwanga or Edson Buddle could help stretch the field and complement Fabian Espindola as well as provide a different look than Alvaro Saborio. Or Alan Gordon could bring in some serious bang off the bench, and Maxi Urruti is another very intriguing option but might be too expensive for DC’s taste. In midfield, some speedy guys worth a look are Jackson and Robbie Finley.

And while the defense is a strength for DC, the injury to Chris Korb and the dramatic drop-off in Sean Franklin’s play as well as the age of iron man Bobby Boswell would indicate that shoring up the back is a good idea. Jermaine Taylor, Chris Schuler Seth Sinovic, and especially Steven Beitashour are all good players that the league tends to underestimate all the time. With Andrew Dykstra apparently on the outs, picking up a solid backup like GK Jon Busch or Tally Hall for Hamid is a no brainer if those guys aren’t too pricey.

DC has some money to spend and they’ve shown they will absolutely over pay to replenish the team with solid MLS veterans as opposed to overseas signings or bringing in precocious young players so I’d expect the next two weeks to go a long way toward defining United’s roster for the upcoming season.

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?

Change – Maybe We Should

What a strange state of affairs. You have doom and gloom Dyson preaching patience and staying the course, while yours truly, Mr. Sunshine, is finding optimism for DC United a tough sell this off-season. After all, at the end of the day, you’re keeping together a core group that lost a combined 24 of 47 games last year in all competitions. Not exactly the stuff dreams are made of.

Granted, you would hope and expect that the injuries and chemistry issues would not rear their ugly heads again, but the bottom line that can’t be ignored is that this team showed a remarkable capacity to under whelm (aside from one glorious June and an Open Cup trophy). Plus, there are legitimate concerns that this team actually could dramatically improve this season and still be mediocre in the rapidly improving level of play in MLS. Seeing the glass as half full or half empty is not really the point when the reality is you only have half a glass.

That’s really the big worry about not making changes. DC in their current form is a wildly unbalanced team in a lot of ways. They have too many skilled guys and not enough athletes. They have too many old players with injury concerns without enough young healthy understudies to step in for emergencies. Too many overpaid players, not enough bargains. Too many players overly experienced or under-experienced, not enough 4-5 year solid pros. Too many guys playing slightly out of position, not enough playing roles that suit them exactly Too many all round players, not enough specialists, etc.

So to begin with, the team has a horrifying lack of speed and athleticism, which is a decided disadvantage in the very physical world of MLS. I’m a big fan of skill over athleticism for the most part, but you’ve got to have some thoroughbreds in the stables too. United’s attack is slowest ever in MLS, and that’s even with the truly spectacular skill and speed of thought from guys like Moreno and Gallardo. And obviously the lack of speed in the defense is appalling as we saw pretty much all last year.

Even worse, there seems little United expects to do about that situation for at least a year. In the attack, Moreno, Emilio and Gallardo are all past their athletic peak, yet are pretty much guaranteed to start the majority of the games this season, at least when they’re healthy. Which brings up another concern. Gallardo and Moreno are both coming off surgeries and coming up against father time. Emilio is healthy enough, but has yet to start or more importantly finish a season as well as he’s played the middle, much less show up big in a money game. All of those things are huge concerns especially since Quaranta is the only true understudy on the team with anywhere close to their skill and effectiveness. When healthy and on the field together, those guys are truly quality, but the dropoff if two of them are out is astounding.

Then there’s Guerrero and Fred who are reasonably athletic as well as skilled, but not truly fast enough (or consistent enough, given their anemic scoring statistics) to keep opponents off balance. Santino again is really the only decent option if they miss time. Olsen is a long shot, Khumalo isn’t really a midfielder, Mediate is average at best, Vide isn’t a wide player, Wallace and Pontius are probably a year away from being consistently helpful, etc. So, unless the big three have outstanding years and play the majority of the games together, DC is not likely to be better offensively this year.

The defense is not really getting more exciting either. Martinez actually had the right combination of speed and skill, with Simms and Namoff right behind him, while McTavish and Burch are somewhat athletic. But Martinez proved uncoachable, wildly inconsistent and is all but gone, while McTavish struggles with the skill side of the ball which got him exposed unmercifully. Janicki is raw too. Namoff and Simms are the gems here, but even then, neither of them looks very good when matched up against speed coming at them. But again all these guys will play the majority of the minutes unless something is done to bring in some changes in the defense (and call me skeptical that a 34 year old Brazilian with back problems is the answer there.).

Bottom line is that you have to have a balance of speed and skill which United absolutely does not have. Slow in the attack means teams can play you high and compact the field making it difficult to unbalance teams with sublime passing or get separation from skill off the dribble. So, you have to force steals and counter with an extra man, expect to score on set plays, or score early every game to force the other team to open up. None of which is a consistent way to generate offense. Slow in the defense means you have no cover for mistakes, which pretty much sums up our defense last year and that seems unlikely to change this year just because our young defenders got a year older.

Then you also have an ugly salary imbalance too. Gallardo, Emilio, Moreno, Olsen, Fred, and Guerrero take up roughly 60 percent of your salary cap. Throw in Namoff, Simms, and Crayton and you’ve got precious little left over. Everybody else has to play way above their salary level or you’re sunk. Plus, those guys take up so much money, it’s next to impossible to get players good enough to groom as their replacements down the road. This leads to constantly remaking the team through acquisitions which obviously leads to chemistry and talent issues year after year. Now, you can build around a core of high priced talent, but the talent have to be reliable players AND the rest of the team has to be very specific complementary players, neither of which DC has.

To me, that is the worst thing about DC right now. There’s too many all around players and not enough specialists. Emilio, Moreno, Gallardo, Guerrero, Simms, Namoff, and maybe Janicki if he starts are guys who are playing their favored role. Everybody else has to compromise their game to fit into a role which isn’t quite right for them. So, even with everyone healthy you have four or five guys playing out of their comfort zone. Given that, it’s really not surprising when they’re inconsistent or mistake prone. Fred, McTavish, Burch, even Quaranta as good as he was, all had inconsistent seasons and they all played three or four different positions. Throw in some injuries and underwhelming bench players playing out of position too, and things go south rapidly to the tune of 15 losses, most in MLS last year. There’s no real reason to think that can’t happen again.

And all those things don’t even address the possible coaching and front office concerns, as well as the obvious holes in the team like central defense, reliable wide players, and overall lack of leadership. All of which have been glaring problems since the team lost Stewart and Nelsen (and Olsen and Gros too). But, all those worries will be for another day as this article is getting too long as it is.

So, avoiding change may well be what happens, but in my opinion, at best, if the team stays remarkably healthy, they might be an average to good team, but I doubt they challenge for a Cup unless they just catch lightning in a bottle and get hot at just the right time. Even if the team signs some talent for central defense and gets that Honduran forward, they will still have inherent imbalances that will likely doom them next year no matter how good or lucky they get this year.

Unfortunately, given their situation, change may not be possible right now, but I think they should really look to start addressing these imbalances and obvious holes in the team. The draft this year looks to have been a good start, but no where near enough. More speed and athleticism have to be brought in aside from rookies. Salaries have to be pared down, or specific role players have to replace the generalists we have now. More MLS veteran solid pros brought in instead of aging foreigners or flashy youngsters with potential.

All of which means trading, selling, or dumping players now when they still have value or salary cap space to use, not letting them go for nothing at the end of their rope, and having nothing but cash and hope to replace them with. The fact that DC appears to still be mining South America instead of seeking some home grown veterans doesn’t strike me as promising though. The fact that they appear to have no plan for replacing the skill players who will be gone very soon isn’t too promising either.

Still a ways to go until the season, so possibly it’s too early for making judgments, but I do think optimism at this point is being a bit naive. I for one would like to see DC at least try to make some deals that address some or all of these concerns. Not only would I feel better about this season, but I think the team would be on more solid ground going into the future as well.

So, there you have it. The glass half empty as it were. No more Mr. Sunshine until I start to see some serious changes made or the team proves me wrong with a run at another Cup. I think DC should be a good team this year barring any more seriously bad luck, but I’m not expecting anything great until some big changes are made and I don’t think they can wait until next year.