The New United – Lean and Mean

Well, nothing like missing the playoffs as well as an embarrassingly bad season to sharpen up the old focus on the fundamentals! DC United is used to being penciled in at or near the top of the league every year, so leading the league in losses last year despite one of the higher price tags in the league certainly seems to have prodded the front office into a new direction for the team. The expensive mercenary talent mentality of 2008 has become the more economical lean and mean look for 2009.

It’s pretty telling that DC United re-signed Quaranta, Simms, Namoff, Burch and McTavish, while actively purging the likes of Peralta, Gallardo, and Martinez (who’s option was not picked up and surely his departure is imminent). So that’s youngish, hard working, but possibly limited Americans who are easy on the salary cap, 5 and overpaid and unconvincing South Americans, 0 for those of you keeping score.

Plus, there’s barely a ripple of drama about chasing after some big name player, if indeed the team is looking for one at all. No hand-wringing over Veron or shoveling money at Gallardo, then hoping to build a team around some superstar. To be sure, Roger is an intriguing acquisition if he gets signed and will no doubt cost a pretty penny, but that’s about it in terms of splashy signings, and DC surely has more money to spend than that. Usually any excess money laying around would mean eyes as big as dinner plates scouring the transfer wire for shiny new uber-talents, but this time you get the feeling United is only going to splurge if it’s absolutely the perfect fit, and maybe not even then.

Now I, like most other avid fans have long been enamored of the tantalizing talents from over the oceans. Many and varied are the players I wish would come to America to don the Black and Red. I was born a United fan basking in the glory that Bolivians Marco and Jaime bestowed upon the RFK faithful in those heady early days. Surely the return to such bliss would be to find more sparkling talents from far away lands. But, United’s brainstaff is clearly taking the more cautious approach this time around, and is apparently going to rely pretty much on the horses they already have in the stable.

And, as evidenced by the quotes Dyson has put up the past two days, the team is pretty happy about that situation too. Quaranta pointed out there will be less dependence on individual brilliance and more on teamwork, Namoff discussing an overall commitment to collective excellence, Olsen talking about creating winning attitude, etc, etc. Bottom line is that this team sure seems committed to becoming a team, and by extension a much more successful club, by spreading the salary cap among a wider range of competent home grown players instead of concentrating money in a few pricey imports. All of which is lovely to hear and certainly refreshing after last year’s debacle, but will this new lean and mean machine actually work this year?

Consider the ideals that created the original United Dynasty and the numerous successes that followed over the years. Undoubtedly, Marco and Jaime, and later Christian Gomez were the crucial elements that put United over the top, but the reality was that as good as they were, those guys would have been little more than flashes of class without the solid base of hard core, high class Americans (and a few low profile foreigners, too) which gave them the background from which to shine.

Agoos, Pope, Llamosa, Harkes, Sanneh, Williams, Maessner, Rammel, Wegerle, Talley, etc. along with regional talents like Raul Diaz Arce, as well as lower profile foreigners like Sonora and Gori laid the foundations. Marco and Jaime put the team over the top. Later, after the dark ages it was a new crop of Americans like Namoff, Prideaux, Petke, Carroll, Gros, Stewart, Olsen, Adu, Eskandarian, Boswell, Simms, etc. along with lower profile foreigners like Ezra, Dema, and Erpen propping up the superstars, Jaime and Gomez who led the team back to greatness in 2004-7.

If fact, even in the dark ages, the team tried to build from an American base and with a foreign flair but tipped too far into the realms of unproven and incompatible talent. Pope, Kamler, Albright, Denton, Convey, Talley, Armstrong, Lisi, Ziadie, Curtis, Quaranta, etc. were a pretty good base, with Marco, Moreno, Nelsen, even Stoitchkov, as the decisive foreign talent should have been enough to put them over the top. Unfortunately, losing solid talent like Nelsen and Stewart as well as depending too much on an aging Marco, tipped the scales too far towards acquiring too many sketchy foreigners which proved too much too handle all at one time as Reyes, Villegas, Conteh, Ivanov, Quintanilla, etc. became a revolving door of frustration.

So, the clear theme that produces championships appears to have been seven or eight high quality American players or MLS veterans as the core of the team, and just enough foreign flair by players committed to making DC United and MLS succeed, to push the team over the top. Which coincidentally is exactly what Columbus, Houston and NE have done the past three years as well. Well, what do you know?

Obviously, last year was out of balance too as there was too much change and too much drama with too many new players given too much responsibility too early, who were injured too much to really acclimate, and who were ignorant of the rigors of MLS completely. Niell, Gallardo, Peralta, and Martinez, as good as they were had little chance to succeed as they were under the gun from the get go. They were expected to become the core of a team that had just been created in a league they had no experience with. In hindsight, how could it not fail?

Anyway, point is, this year the team clearly seems to be looking to re-establish that core group of Americans again by re-signing the solid players from the last few years and drafting some very compelling young players for the future, as well as looking to find young, lower profile foreign talent, which is fine heading into the future. But, the million dollar question is will that be enough right now to find real success this season?

You’ve got a solid group of talent and MLS veterans in the attack in Emilio, Moreno, Quaranta, Fred, and Guerrero, maybe Olsen too. You’ve also got a very solid group of promising youngish Americans in the defense with Simms, Namoff, McTavish, Burch, and you can throw in Janicki and maybe Kyle Veris too. That’s easily a competent group overall, but also a group that pales in comparison to the likes of Pope, Agoos, Llamosa, or even Nelsen, Petke, and Boswell. Granted few teams could boast those kinds of players, but the defense is very likely to be the Achilles heel of this team. Maybe if they gel to become much more than the sum of their parts, and if Fred, Emilio, and the ageless Moreno live up to the very best of their abilities, then they could push this team to the upper echelons of the league.

But that’s really the key. If DC just expects to be decent like the Kansas Cities or Real Salt Lakes of the world, then they’re set. But they still have money in the coffers and it seems to me that if they want to challenge for the top, they really need to find or swindle for another high quality American or two to steady a still fragile defense. I can understand their reticence to fork over big money, and I love that they are scouring USL and Dutch internet cafes for the likes of Atieno and De Jong, but they need a stud defender far more than they need another attacking talent.

Maybe Roger is that player, but I have some trepidation about that. My thoughts about foreign defenders are well documented if you check out my previous stories to the right there. Roger is old, and worse, completely unfamiliar with MLS. I wouldn’t care if he won a world cup with Brazil; he’s still got to adjust to the wacky world of MLS with the travel and physicality, etc. That’s not easy to begin with and it’s even worse if you expect the guy to be the rock in the middle of the defense. It’s pretty hard to lead others if you’re still trying to find your way yourself.

Frankly, I’d be a lot happier if DC United were to bring in a guy along the lines of a Cory Gibbs or Greg Berhalter or Danny Califf or even Clarence Goodson as an English speaking, well versed in American life central defender if they have to find someone outside the league. But DC should have a nice pile of money and most teams in MLS or USL1 love to make deals for cash. I can’t believe any central defender almost up to and including Chad Marshall and Jimmy Conrad can’t be had for a big enough pile of acquisition moola. Heck, I would have settled for seeing DC pick up Petke to help shepard Roger into the MLS, but bottom line is that someone with leadership and experience with MLS or USL1 really needs to be found.

Still, seems to me DC is moving slowly back in the right direction. Everyone, brainstaff, coaches, fans, me included, got starry eyed and optimistic last year which clouded the tried and true team building rules, and we all paid the price in anguish over the results.

But, the new lean and mean United should be a more cohesive and hard working bunch who should compete very well overall, and almost certainly improve upon last year’s record if nothing else. But for my money there’s still work to be done on the defensive and leadership side if United expects to collect any trophies this season.

It will be interesting to see how the new hands-on owners handle this last six weeks before the season. Are they jaded and gun shy about spending big money after last season, and willing to settle for competent, with an outside shot at greatness. Or will they actively pursue the final pieces to the puzzle that gives them a better shot at both greatness and the possibility for failure. Tough call. They could play it safe and wait to see what transpires and hope to fix the problems in the August window or through mid-season trades. Might be too late by then, though. Or they could go for the gusto in the next six weeks and spend whatever they have left under the cap and roll the dice on putting a team together that can start fast and win big at the end of the season.

I know what I’d like to see. I love lean and mean, but fat and happy has it’s allures too!

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