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United begins offseason housecleaning – Inside and Out

The bloodletting has begun. Not even a week after D.C. United closed what arguably will be the worst single-season by an MLS team in it’s 17-year history, the Black-and-Red have made moves on and off the field that have sent shockwaves through the United community.

The on-field moves made by United yesterday included the declining of team options on Dwayne De Rosario, Lionard Pajoy, Carlos Ruiz and Marcelo Saragosa. None of these moves comes as a surprise with the exception of De Rosario, team captain for most of his time on the field this season. While DeRo came up way short in terms of production on the field, it was a bit of a surprise that the team didn’t at least talk through the option of re-signing DeRo at a much lower rate than his reported $600,000 salary from this past season. Not coincidentally, all four of the players let go yesterday were all over 30 years of age. John Thorrington and Lewis Neal are the only players now on United’s books that are over 30 years old and both will most likely be retained in the offseason.

As for the others, it was a no-brainer as Pajoy, Ruiz and Saragosa were shells of their former selves. Some would argue differently for Pajoy’s case as he was clearly the fans and media’s #1 whipping boy for the failures of the 2013 edition of United. Pajoy was unconvincing pretty much during his entire run with United, but for some reason head coach Ben Olsen loved his workrate. It’s funny, I remember a conversation during an early season match for United that was televised on ESPN when play-by-play man Adrian Healey was mentioning a conversation he had with Olsen in regards to Pajoy when he said “Olsen really likes his high workrate”. Immediately color commentator Taylor Twellman shot back “well I prefer my forwards to score goals.”  That pretty much sums up everyones opinion on Pajoy and it really seemed a mystery why Olsen decided to hitch his wagon to him.

Ruiz was a shot in the dark that simply didn’t pan out. There were expectations that Ruiz’ experience would help United’s admittedly young striking corp (aside from Pajoy) but it never materialized and he became an afterthought for Olsen during the summer. Ruiz’ only contribution was a goal against Chivas de Guadalajara in an exhibition match midseason. After that Ruiz was a persona non grata once the on-loan addition of Conor Doyle came to be.

Imagine how Ruiz’ and United’s fortunes may have changed had Ruiz finished that sitter late against Real Salt Lake in the 2nd match of the season. Who knows? Maybe if Ruiz buries that chance, both he and United don’t begin a season-long funk in front of goal. Now of course it’s ridiculous to heap the blame of an entire season’s worth of ineptitude on the feet of Ruiz and a shot he buries 9 out of 10 times, but it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that a burst of confidence from that finish might have spurred United to a better outlook on the season rather than what became the customary “here we go again” scenario that unfolded too many times to count during the season when chances came begging that weren’t put away.

As for Saragosa, he was a solid peice of the late-season puzzle for United last year in the wake of the DeRo injury that put him out of the last 9 league matches (of which United went 7-0-2 to end the season). Saragosa however has always been a limited player aside from locking down the middle of the park and his injuries this season and subsequent unavailability made this an easy decision for the front office staff.

Now, speaking of the front office..

On Tuesday the team also announced that Doug Hicks (Cheif Marketing Officer), Aprile Pritchet (Community Relations – also in charge of United for DC charity) and Sarah Lerner (Communications Manager) were all let go. This news sent shockwaves through the media and Twitter was ablaze for about 5 hours after the late-afternoon announcement.

Hicks had been with the club for 13 seasons and was everpresent for any and all major announcements and was a true pro in his role as Communications Director for most of his time with United. On a personal level, I’ve dealt with Doug for over 10 years and he has been more than meets the eye on almost every occasion. Without knowing the inner workings of United, it seems on the face of things a terrible move by the ownership group. On the heels of major front office moves last season, which included the letting go of Communications Manager Kyle Sheldon, it makes you wonder what the Hell is going on over at United.

On the one hand, I understand if new onwnership comes in and wants to input their own personnel, that’s their prerogative as owners and truth be told, the front office has not been up to snuff from previous seasons. Season ticket sales are down and United just came off their worst attendance average in club history in just over 13,000 per game. Heads are gonna roll in situations like this but it doesn’t mean that I can’t disagree with them from the outside looking in. That’s my prerogative.

As for Aprile Pritchet and Sarah Lerner, not unlike my experiences with Doug, they have been very open and receptive to any of my minimal needs. It just doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense why good people are losing their jobs. Sarah was only with the team for two years but Apriel had been there a very long time as well. I wish all three of them good fortune in the future and hope to cross paths with them again one day.

In the end, United in two years have basically jettisoned every person I deal with from a media standpoint and it just doesn’t seem right to me. However, it’s not my decision and I will just have to buck up like every other media member who is as saddened as I am to see these good people let go.

One can only hope that their replacements are equally as accessible and professional as Doug, Aprile and Sarah were.

Getting back to the on the field product, it seems pretty clear that Olsen and his staff are cutting what they see as dead weight. This doesn’t mean that the contributions from the four aforementioned players won’t be forgotten anytime soon. DeRo after all did win an MLS MVP trophy and almost single-handidly carried United to a playoff berth in 2011. I think in many ways, everyone with a vested interest in United was hoping to see something similar from him this season after the team made a number of offseason moves that saw quite a few goals leave the team. DeRo obviously wasn’t up to the task and paying him a Designated Player salary just wasn’t sound business. Additionally, I think DeRo’s time had come. From the two-game suspension at the beginning of the season to the pouting about not starting matches when clearly his form was way off, he just wasn’t giving this team what it needed most, veteran leadership.

DeRo can still play in this league, just not for a team like United who is in major flux. DeRo would be a good addition to a veteran team next season, provided he’s okay with a reduced workload that also comes with a slight reduction in salary. Unfortunately, that is the climate for veteran players in MLS these days not named Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill or Robbie Keane.

The much maligned Lionard Pajoy actually did manage to carve out a few memorable moments in his brief time with United. He scored the lone goal in a 1-0 away win over Philadelphia during that streak late last season that kept United in the hunt for a top playoff seed. He also scored the game-tying goal in Chicago on the last day of the season that clinched 2nd place for United in the East. Had that goal not been scored, United would have been in the play-in game against Houston. I think we all know what would have happened had that panned out. And last but not least, he helped set up the series-winning goal against Red Bull last November that got United to the Eastern Conference final.

Obviously Saragosa and Ruiz’ contributions had much less impact than what DeRo and Pajoy had done during their time with United but that doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate the effort they put forth for United. These are tough decisions for teams but at the end of the day, they were the right moves to make going forward.

United still has a trip to Indonesia on the books in December and Technical Director Dave Kasper had said recently that the club was planning on taking a 22-man squad on the trip. Well, the releasing of these four players makes that decision that much easier.

All in all, I still think this team has a lot more moves up their sleeve. Let’s hope they make the right ones this time as clearly last season they did not on many fronts..

D.C. United's Hamdi Salihi celebrates his 24th minute go ahead goal against the Richmond Kickers in U.S. Open Cup play. Photo: Matt Mathai.

United defeats Kickers to advance in Open Cup

D.C. United defeated their nearest rival, the Richmond Kickers, 2-1 to advance to the next rounds of the U.S. Open Cup. United needed a extra time play to dismiss the Kickers from the 98 year old tournament with a strike from Marcelo Saragosa in the 107th minute of play.

Hamdi Salihi gave United the lead in the 24th minute of play after receiving a brilliant through ball from teammate Maicon Santos. Salihi collected the ball in the middle of the box and rounded the Richmond’s kicker to slot the ball in the back of the net.

The hosts managed to even it up shortly before the break when they were awarded a penalty kick. Kicker forward Christopher Kwame Agorsor was brought down in the box from behind by United’s Marcelo Saragosa. The ensuing kick was slotted past D.C. United’s Joe Willis by Zimbabwean International Stanley Nyazamba

Saragosa made up for his blunder late in extra time after the ball fell to his feet from a Branko Boskovic corner kick.

D.C. will now face the Philadelphia Union who defeated the  USL PRO side, the Rochester Raging Rhinos, by a score of 3-0 on Tuesday, June 5 at the Maryland SoccerPlex at 7:30pm.

United has won the U.S. Open Cup twice, once  in 1996 when they earned the coveted “double” and again in 2008. Last year, D.C. United beat the Philadelphia Union before falling to New England in Open Cup play.

Better Late than Never

It was only about three weeks ago when United’s rabid and passionate fanbase was ready to lay waste to the front offices of their beloved D.C. United. After failing to make the playoffs for a fourth year in a row and jettisoning a number of popular players after the season ended, it seemed that DC United were not intent on improving their roster heading into the 2012 MLS Season. As of the MLS SuperDraft in mid-January, only the trade for Real Salt Lake right-back Robbie Russell was made and then United selected outside midfielder Nick DeLeon with the #7 overall pick in the Draft.

Hardly an offseason do those two moves make…

With tensions running high and the message boards overflowing with bile and hatred and with an unknown future in DC,  the United front office showed the patience most of their fanbase lacked with a number of moves both within and outside of MLS that has turned that frown upside down and has the previous disheveled “internet nutjobs” singing a different tune. With Maicon Santos, Danny Cruz, Marcelo Saragosa, Emiliano Dudar and finally Hamdi Salihi signed up, the outlook is predictably a bit more rosy than just over a fortnight ago.

While none of these moves have paid off yet obviously, there is natural hesitation amongst United’s faithful that this class of 5 players brought in will rival the South American 5 brought to United prior to the 2009 season. Well, we all know how that worked out.

However, I feel a different vibe with this group as most of those players acquired in the past three weeks have addressed specific needs for the Black-and-Red.

A goal scoring forward to replace Charlie Davies? – Check

Hamdi Salihi is hardly a household name in the soccer world, but if you’re particularly geeky like myself, you’ve seen this guy play. While he won’t remind anyone of Dominic Oduro and his blazing speed, what he will remind you of is a better finisher and goal poacher than Luciano Emilio. How does 163 goals in 289 professional matches grab you? Were most of those scored in lower European leagues such as his native Albania? Yeah, but in a credible league like the Austrian Bundesliga, he racked up 73 goals in 178 appearances in league, Cup and Europa league matches. Umm, I’ll take that, plus he’s 6’1″. Throw in the MLS experience of Maicon Santos and United has viable enough options up front that afforded them the release of promising young player Blake Brettschneider late last week.

An experienced defender to help shore up United’s defense? – Double Check

It’s no secret that what ultimately let United down last season was their very young defense. Often having to play at least two players 20 years old or younger on some nights, United was the second worst defensive team in the league and gave up 4 goals on four different occassions  and 3 goals on four occasions as well. That’s 28 goals of their season total of 52 given up in just 8 of 34 league games. The late season injury to Dejan Jakovic was the real breaking point and having the experience of 6’4″ Argentine defender Emiliano Dudar will help offset any potential losses United could incur during the 2012 season. Bringing Robbie Russell into the fold is also a good move due to his size and ability in the air alone. United gave up 15 goals on headers alone last season, at least a half dozen of those might have been negated with the presence of Dudar and Russell in the lineup. Additionally, it seems Dudar is the vocal and emotional leader that United has always wished Jakovic could have been in the center of defense. Jakovic is still a very good player in his own right, but he always seemed to lack that leadership potential in spite of very good play from him.

Depth in the midfield? – Triple Check

And finally, the midfield has gotten the depth it sorely needed when Chris Pontius went down with an injury late last season. With all due respect to Clyde Simms and Santino Quaranta, they just could not bring it on a day-to-day basis and United suffered because of that. Bringing Kitchen into his natural defensive midfield spot will give this team some added physical presence, something that has been lacking from all midfield positions quite honestly. Throw in MLS veteran defensive midfield experience with Marcelo Saragosa and United won’t have to fret the absence of Kitchen while on Olympic Team duty. Danny Cruz is a 22-year old sparkplug that has energy to burn, in many ways a Ben Olsen-type player at his age. Olsen no doubt had the better pedigree, but Cruz’ bite alone will help improve this team.

The drafting of Louisville midfielder Nick DeLeon is another important step in United’s developing depth. It’s no secret that Chris Pontius’ offseason healing from his broken leg will most likely drift into the early part of the season and DeLeon’s ability to step into that role if needed will help United along the left flank. Ben Olsen stated that he was one of the few “MLS ready” players in this recent SuperDraft in terms of his skill and physical ability.

Last but not least is the “addition” if you will of Branko Boskovic back into the team. Out of shape on his initial arrival in 2010 and during the preseason last year, Boskovic was out of favor with Olsen, but when he finally did see the field, his second-half stint in a 4-0 loss to Red Bull (two shots off the post while the game was still 2-0, plus two shots cleared off the line) and his 80 minutes (before a season-ending injury) in a 3-2 loss (both goals for United) in the Open Cup to New England were hopeful harbingers of things to come. Getting Boskovic involved will give the team more posession and more ability to control the flow of play and most importantly will free De Rosario up to partner with Salihi to make a formidable front line.

Notwithstanding, I feel United has gone a long way towards developing their team for the future and they are miles ahead of what they had on hand at the end of the disastrous 2010 season and have significantly improved even from last years squad.

All that being said, it still is a waiting game for United but the perceived lack of action from the front office was merely the result of something that is almost a four-letter word around these parts..

Patience…