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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.