The State of United: Time to Look to the Future

In some ways, United’s hideous 1-7 record could actually be a blessing in disguise. There’s simply no hiding from the fact that this team is painfully bad and needs a lot more than a player or two to return to being in contention for trophies. Imagine for a moment if DC had gotten lucky and pulled off a couple more wins, maybe a tie or two, by now. If they even had only 6-7 more points than the 3 they have now, is there any doubt the Brainstaff would still be shuffling the deckchairs thinking a winning streak is just around the corner? Or that the playoffs, and maybe a Cup run, were within reach if just the right player or two were added in the summer?

No, the ship has sailed on those faint hopes now. Which is a good thing as that type thinking has led to this team making desperation moves repeatedly over the past few years that have mortgaged the future in order to ineptly try and save the present. Then when the team continues to underwhelm, miss out on the playoffs and get embarrassed in tournaments, etc. the team went from We Win Trophies to We Make Excuses.

Even last season, when it seemed the team had finally come to their senses and sought out young athletic talent for the first time in years and collected guys like Pontius, Wallace, Jakovic, James, etc. The hope was the team had finally learned its lesson. But no, it was apparently just a mirage as the bad decisions just kept coming. A coach couldn’t be found, the expansion protection list was handled badly, Emilio and Gomez were ruled expendable, along with Olsen retiring, and very little was done to replace their enormous contributions convincingly. Then the real panic mode hit and the team started this season by overpaying for Perkins, icing the team out of any blue chip draft pick, kissing some valuable money goodbye and adding Fred to the long list of DC players forced out. Even adding dinosaurs like Pena and Talley at the last minute smacked of desperation too, though both have played admirably.

Granted those moves seemed reasonable at the time as they seemed to add some experience to guide the youth movement, but it hasn’t turned out the way the team intended for sure. Obviously going economical with Allsopp, Castillo and a few KC castoffs, as well as assuming Quaranta and Pontius were ready to make a huge leap forward, all crapped out too. So, the Brainstaff panicked again and brought back Emilio using money that should have been used a lot more wisely, and when more injuries hit the team traded away another draft pick for Stephen King. Neither of whom will even be on the roster next year, indeed if they even make the rest of this season.

Well, it’s time to unofficially cut this season loose and plan for the future. Now of course, you can’t say that publically, nor can you undercut the players you have now because you still need them to try their best to win, and more importantly find out who is good enough to hang onto when this debacle is over in October. No, privately the team needs to assume this season will end without the playoffs, much less any trophies, but there is no need for public groveling to a vengeful fanbase or throwing players and staff under the bus as that might trigger an epic collapse. Just admit things didn’t pan out the way you expected and show obvious signs that all decisions from this point forward are being made with the long term future in mind.

So, the auditions for the future begin right now. Let’s take an inventory of the stock. First and foremost, Onalfo has to be under serious scrutiny. I personally think after a hideous beginning to the season, he’s done about as well as can be expected with this dismal group of talent and a horrendous injury plague. But, if he was the key to creating this roster, then he has to take heat for their overall lack of skill, too. However, if he keeps this team working hard, keeping games close, and rustling up a win every few weeks for the rest of the year, then it would be worth it to reward his baptism of fire with another year with a better roster.

Kevin Payne, President and Chief Executive Officer, D.C. United

In that same vein, Payne(right) and Kasper have to be seriously under a microscope as well. My thinking is that they are the primary architects of this dysfunctional roster, so they either need to prove they can do better by the end of the year, or they both should be relieved of team building duties at the very least. Maybe keep Payne as overall president for the business side, but with no fingers in the player pie except for signing off on the contracts.

As for the team itself, obviously Moreno, Pena, Talley, and probably Namoff should not be included in any plans for next year. Moreno deserves to go out gracefully if he can stomach another year off the bench, but only if his salary is extremely easy on the cap. Pena might be useful too if this year continues to go well, but again only if his salary is very low and he’s not a starter either. Talley is a class act, but the new MLS is light-year’s faster than his legs ever were and that won’t get any better in the future. And sadly, even if Namoff does make it back this year, he’s one knock on the head away from retirement anyway. So neither of them should be counted on to contribute much if anything next year.

In the defense, that leaves Jakovic, James, McTavish, Graye, Burch and Wallace fighting for roster spots next year. Jakovic, Graye and Wallace all have the inside track as they shown decent play and tons of potential. James has shown the athleticism and the heart, but not the smarts so he has to step up to stake a claim to be in United’s future. McTavish and Burch are clearly on the bubble as they have been in the league long enough that they should be pushing hard to start, and the fact they are not (and Burch wouldn’t be starting over Talley or Wallace even if healthy) means they are rapidly approaching expendability.

In midfield, Simms, Quaranta, Pontius, Najar, and probably Barklage are the only players even worth considering for next year. Morsink would be on the list too if he keeps improving, but he’s similar to James in that he’s got everything except talent and it’s tough to hide that flaw in today’s MLS. Obviously, Khumalo, Castillo, and King are way out of the running. Boyzzz works and tries, but is simply not effective enough. Castillo has been a disaster and doesn’t look like he can adjust to MLS given the way he wants to play, and King can’t be a choice for the future if he can’t even get a sniff of playing time in a midfield this bad and with so many injuries.

Forwards and goalkeeper are even easier to decide. Allsopp and Cristman can easily be in the team’s plans if they keep playing like they have been. The Aussie will be lethal when the team finally rewards him in the right spots for the devastating runs he makes and Cristman is an excellent option off the bench as long as he stays light on the salary cap which he should. Moreno and Emilio are goners almost certainly as mentioned above. It’s doubtful Jaime will go cheaply into the night, so he might follow the Gomez route where his legendary time here ends badly, and Emilio is simply too limited for the big money he would command if DC picks up his option. Then in goal, Hamid is obviously a keeper and Perkins, who should return to good enough form to make a it a lovely battle for the starting job over the next two years (or until Hamid is sold overseas) has to be kept too as he’s too pricey to move anyway.

Now, if that’s your foundation for now and the future, simply fill in the blanks. At forward, Allsopp, and the whole team overall, could use a speedy partner up front to challenge Cristman, Pontius (maybe even Quaranta) or maybe Najar for that second forward slot. That should b a decent enough stable to live with the next two years assuming they play the rest of this year as good or better as they have played in the past.

Simms is the only decent central midfielder in the team, so there’s a hole there that needs to be filled. Onalfo favors two way midfielders, so spend some money there. Finding a left wing that can impact games is the next order of business, obviously. Maybe a light bulb clicks for Castillo and he suddenly makes the job his own, but I suspect he doesn’t get any better and Pontius, Najar or maybe even Wallace takes his job for most of the rest of the year. Quaranta ,who seems the least likely to get time at forward and is a potential Nats wide midfielder anyway so he has that for incentive as well, and Barklage will be the ones auditioning for that right side slot for the rest of this year.

No need to worry about fallout for cutting Castillo loose either as the Salvadoran community is already too embarrassed by him to even show up for games anymore. They’ll be relieved if he’s axed in my opinion, no riots or backlash for the team this time. Then Barklage could be a good utility option too for next year if he finishes the year continuing to improve and staying healthy.

On the backline, Graye and Wallace could be the defensive bookends for the next five years, or not, this is the year to find out. Jakovic too is the bedrock of the future, or not, depending on how he and his lovely skills, but somewhat cavalier play, finishes this year. James will not displace Pena this year, but he should be close enough by the end of the year to make Pena expendable or he’s only going to make the roster next year if he comes on the cheap to be an emergency backup. So, the team needs another true central defender in the mix and maybe another utility backup if McTavish or Burch don’t make themselves into reliable players.

Now, to be clear, the team flat out needs an influential central midfielder, some speed at forward, and a solid central defender at the minimum to just become average in this league. For example, if any of DC’s young players fails their auditions this year, then United needs to fill those holes too. Even if all of them improve and deserve to stay, DC still need a lot more if they truly want to get themselves back to the top of the table contending for trophies. There is no easy fixes to this current mess, let’s be clear on that. Signing Messi wouldn’t change this team’s record one iota. But, just becoming competent would be a step in the right direction if moves are made that don’t continue to rob from the future.

So, extrapolating this to the front office, Payne and Kasper need to restrain themselves from any more deals that shuffle away draft picks as they are too valuable to the future for any journeyman to replace, and the team does not need any more retreads this year or next year anyway. They also need to triage this year by fixing the midfield first. Restrain themselves from any splashy moves like Henry (not that he’s coming here anyway) or some such useless luxury, but take whatever money they can cobble together and get a nuts and bolts solid central player that will be here to partner Simms for years.

Unless its Gerrard or Lampard, it doesn’t have to be a big money player either since Chang seems so reticent to risk overspending. Seemingly the rest of the league finds or develops such players either through home grown MLS guys like Evans, Cronin, Lahoud, Gavin, Jewsbury, Stammler, Larentowicz, Beckerman, McCarty, Cameron, McDonald, Pause, etc. or buying them on the cheap like Auvray, Birchall, Alonso, Palmer, Moffat, Luiz, Niouky, etc. so United’s vaunted brainstaff should be able to acquire one too.

Same goes with a speedy attacking option to push Najar and United’s other even more underperforming talents, Pontius and Quaranta. Draft or grow one like Zakuani, Findley, Cummings, Oduro, Lenhart, Shea, Braun, Johnson, Nyarko, White, Wondolowski, Barrett, Kamara, etc. Or buy one on the cheap like Espindola, Dube, Ekpo, Glen, Smith, Appiah, Padilla, etc.

Now, this is no small task for our vaunted front office. They seemingly don’t have much money (which I can’t understand), and few decent draft picks (which makes me want to tear my eyes out with a spoon) and worse they have very little on the roster of any value so trades are pretty useless. But, such a talented front office as DC thinks they are should be able to get a central midfielder and a young fast player from somewhere by the end of the year, both of whom need to be young enough or can’t miss good enough to be on the roster for the next two years at least, without sacrificing any draft picks or young players already here. If the front office can pull off that miracle, they earn another year no question.

All this also doesn’t mean DC has to completely punt this season either. They still have to find ways to win games as well because it’s pretty hard to evaluate players in a losing environment. However, if Onalfo keeps them working hard at least and coaches them to find Allsopp more, they will win games. Besides the players most under scrutiny are the best players we have anyway. Most importantly, the turnaround has to start this year, next year is too late. NY, SJ, and Dallas were all abysmal early last year, but they began tweaking their rosters midseason and finished much stronger than they started, and look where they are now. Certainly not in the doormat territory they were in most of last year.

Bottom line, whether the team admits it or not, this season is circling the drain, every decision from here on out has to be with the future in mind or DC will continue to tread water at the bottom of the barrel until more drastic measures become un-escapable. And, make no mistake, barring a few miracles, it will take until the end of next year at best before this team truly becomes good. However, if this painful start to the season has actually forced the front office to be forward thinking and narrowed their focus to the future instead of scrambling around rearranging the deckchairs on a team that is going down, then as bad as this stretch has been (and will continue to be), it will have been worth it in the end.