The More Things Chang, the More United Underwhelms

It used to be DC United was either great or terrible. They were either an inexorable trophy gobbling juggernaut or a pitifully futile jalopy staggering back to the garage for the inevitable overhaul. Being a DC fan was kind of like being a Russian under Ivan the Terrible (Grozny, for you Russians out there), you were either in awe or in horror and often it was a coin flip to decide. But either way, you knew DC United was always grasping for all the marbles. It didn’t always come off of course, they either wowed the crowd and stuck the landing, or were the most spectacular pile of limbs at the bottom of the heap, but they were out there taking chances to win it all.

Seriously, like clockwork almost every off-season, United always took risks shooting for the moon. Whether it was daring trades, drafting teenagers, or acquiring a Stoitchkov or a Gallardo, or buying South Americans like a kid in a candy store, United made obvious efforts to go for MLS and even regional success every off-season. Consequently, United either won big or cratered like they were tunneling into the Earth. But it was never a dull moment being a DC fan.

Apparently, not anymore. Welcome to the world of low expectations. Given the way United has approached its roster building the last few years under Chang, and more importantly this current crop of unspectacular hopefuls gearing up for 2010, DC is well a truly on the path to mediocrity. Better safe than sorry must be the new motto. Better to shop in the bargain basement and hope for the best, than risk overpaying for top talent that might not live up to their billing.

I suppose it’s easy to excuse Chang for his cautiousness. After getting hideously burned by that South American spending spree in 2008, it’s easy to excuse his thinking that he was pretty much taking the same risks if he spent a third as much, so why not save the league some money. But, that is truly amputating and tying off the traditional United Way. No wonder the new slogan is “It Takes More”. It sure does take a whole heckuva a lot more than the motley crew DC has collected this off-season to expect to contend for MLS glory.

But, enough ranting. Let’s see what exactly United has done since failing to make the playoffs last season. After their underwhelming coach bolted like a rat up a drainpipe, DC takes two months to come up with an MLS retread with a career record under .500 in Onalfo, not exactly uplifting, but maybe there was no other choices, so that sting can be brushed under the rug. Besides, getting players is much more important than a coach surely?

So, with some fanfare, United grabs a Salvadoran winger in Christian Castillo. Again, nice but not exactly like pulling in a Honduran or even someone a lot higher profile from say, Colombia which is apparently the new Argentina in terms of being a talent mine for MLS. Still, maybe he’s a diamond in the rough, and besides he will help the bottom dollar bringing back some disaffected Salvadorans from years past. That can’t be a bad thing, can it?

Then Emilio was shown the door and while everyone was vaguely disappointed by the Onalfo decision, surely the team wouldn’t hold back when replacing the most important player on the team. The number one scorer and former MVP of the league second only to Angel in scoring over the past three years. Surely fans slavering for a shiny new thoroughbred to be unearthed along the lines of a Montero or an Angel would be thrilled with the world class player DC would hand over the reigns to. Instead , DC again underwhelmed by settling on a workhorse from Australia. For sure, a serviceable player with a decent resume, but not exactly the kind of player that sets the heart to racing.

So in what is becoming a disturbing trend, DC sheds their leading scorer in Emilio and picks up a Danny Alsopp. Now, he might end up being the second coming of Mamadou Diallo, but I gotta tell you, most times you exchange a Brazilian for an Australian, you’re trading down. Especially when you dump an established and reasonably consistent scorer in this league for a guy new to this entire continent. Talk about big shoes to fill for a guy just getting introduced to the wacky world of MLS.

DC does go out and dramatically upgrades their keeper situation with the return of Troy Perkins at the cost of Fred and a first round pick, which might be considered overpaying. But then again, DC will likely need all of Perkins magic because they’ve done nothing to upgrade one of the worst defenses in MLS last year in front of him. Plus, considering Namoff is still out indefinitely with the dreaded concussion diagnosis, DC is arguably an even worse defense even if Wallace remembers to defend and drops back to help out.

The next anti-climax to hit the news in United land is the announcement when DC scrapes up a sketchy Belgian-African defender in N’galula. Now, he has ManU on his resume, but is hardly on the career arc you would like to see in a young player. Sure enough, he washed out anyway being released this past week in favor of signing some practice fodder formerly of KC in Kurt Morsinck. A move which was ominously explained by saying N’Galula was expendable because someone else can do essentially the same things for less money. Hmmm…..

Now, having squandered the draft where cheap unknown talent could be spectacular like Pontius was last year or a bust like many in the past, DC settled on a known quantity in the workmanlike Cristman. He won’t excel, but he won’t suck either. Interestingly, he was the Pontius of 2005, finalist for rookie of the year and coming off a five goal first year. Given that Pontius had four goals in MLS, that’s not so promising in perspective. So, yet another move is made that leaves one feeling decidedly underwhelmed.

Worst of all, somewhere in this whole process DC drops Christian Gomez like a bad habit and replaces him with no one. Same with Olsen retiring, no new face to replace the skill and leadership those guys exuded. Apparently, the brainstaff expects to pretty much go with the current roster of players as the creative difference makers in midfield. Granted, you can’t always shake the number 10 tree and find replacements for such talent easily, but it doesn’t appear DC is even trying to upgrade their central midfield at all.

So in effect, DC has subtracted the upper tier of their salary table and the bulk of their offense and replaced them with Alsopp, Castillo and a couple of KC rejects in Morstinck and the pedestrian Cristman. DC has done nothing for their dismal defense at all except add the soon to be fish in a barrel Perkins. For a team that finished well out of the money last year, it can easily be argued they have made themselves even worse heading into this season.

Fairly or not, Chang has presided over the most dismal run in DC United history in terms of underperformance. Yes, DC has collected a couple of trophies the last couple years and quite obviously, the 2000-03 teams were much worse overall. But, those teams were never really expected to do much given the almost complete overhaul being undertaken at the time. Sure, DC fans being what they are expected Cup glory from even those teams too, but not to the extent of the teams the past few years since Chang took over.

In 2007, DC romped to another Supporter’s Shield behind a couple of Brazilians being added to the SS winning side from the year before. But they too failed significantly in the playoffs and internationally even given their obvious over the top talent. 2008 was supposed to fix all that when Gomez and Boswell were shipped out to make way for Gallardo and the Gonzalo brothers, but that crapped out too. They snagged an Open Cup, but for sure much more than that was expected. Then of course, the much more cautious trend that was started last year with that under the radar roster also came up well short of the usual level of success DC United is known for.

So, now we see the pendulum swing all the way to the other side as DC has clearly gone all the way towards restraint instead of flair when building a roster. Now who knows, maybe DC becomes greater than the sum of their parts, which is a welcome change from their recent run of being worse than the sum of their parts. And DC still has gobs of salary room to rectify some serious lack of talent if they do manage to find anyone that fits their new scheme.

However, Payne has been quoted as saying the team probably won’t be signing a DP as there’s no need, really sends the fan meter into the “disaster looming” mode. No need? Seriously? There’s arguably not one single player on the roster who is in the top half of the league in their position on the field. Lots of worker bees for sure and some promising future talents, but no need for any over the top talent? Or just too gun shy to pull the trigger again?

But even if Payne is being coy and DC goes and brings in a DP, considering the trend to date, don’t expect anyone who will wow you or break the bank. DC is no longer shopping at the trendy boutiques anymore, they are strictly big box utilitarian now. Looking for those unexpected overachievers in the sea of cookie cutter competency. We’ll see how that works out for a club whose fans are not known for their suffering silently when faced with mounting failures.

But, no matter what happens, it’s a new day for DC United fans. No more obvious expectations of greatness through splashy signings apparently, no more going for the gusto with daring plans for Cup glory. Apparently, just plodding along collecting simple competency and hoping for the best is the new paradigm.

Great. Now we’ll get to know how it feels like to be a KC or Colorado fan. DC has finally embraced mediocrity with the outside shot at grabbing glory like RSL did last year. Oh well, I guess it can’t be any worse than the results of the past few years can it?

5 replies
  1. Paul
    Paul says:

    Chang wrote on his Twitter this week, “We have signed some great players and still more to come. I think you will be happy with our team this year.”

    I have to think something more will happen, so your assessment may be a bit premature, but yes, if we get to opening day and nothing more has happened, you’re right.

    But last year, you guys were saying how great it would be to dump all the fat, old guys and just run with the young guns, and I think that’s what they are doing.

    It will be interesting to see what DCU’s style of play will be. You have believe that it will be a faster pace than we’ve seen with Moreno as a guy who could come in and slow things down if necessary.

    I’m not sure how the Aussie plays, but it would seem that Emilio would have fit into that role well, since he’s such a scrappy goal-scorer.

    It’ll be an interesting season for sure. Thoughts?

  2. Chris_B
    Chris_B says:

    At least we have the plush confines of RFK with great concessions to look forward to…… oh wait, I was dreaming for a minute. FWIW, I can’t wait for the first tailgate in lot 8.

    Arguably, the United roster is less talented than it was last year as you point out. Perkins is the only exception. The only hope I can come up with is that Onolfo will actually let the same set of players learn to play together for more than a game at a time and they will gel into a potent offense. We are faster so perhaps there is hope. I don’t see any 12+ goal seasons out of anyone currently on the roster but perhaps they can play off each other well enough to have a bunch of guys with 8 goal seasons.

    All I know for sure is that lot 8 will be worth the trip (27 days and counting).

  3. Mike Martin
    Mike Martin says:

    Yeah, I saw that Chang comment too, but then again what would he say?
    As for premature, maybe. But making predictions and analyzing trends inherently means I’m guessing the future. Of course, I could be wrong and I mentioned that, but I’m also way more focussing on the change in philosophy more so than anything else.
    As for dumping the old guys, yes I was for that, but I was also thinking they would bring some young guys too, not just stay with the young guys already here and thinkig just because they’re a year older they can carry the load.
    And CHris, I’m with you! Can’t wait for the first tailgate. And I agree Onalfo sticking with a consistent lineup and especially the streamlined schedule will help.
    But making the playoffs will be a lot tougher this year too. We’ll see.
    Good comments though, thanks.

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