To start with, the theme for 2009 was “tradition”, and if that was to be a reference to United living up to the successes of their past (as the T-shirt with all the trophies implied), then that slogan was an utter failure, as there was nary a trophy to be had this past season. In fact, Nowak’s 13 month reign at the top of the league is the only period this decade that came close to the multiple trophy “traditions” of the Golden Age before the turn of the century, and for certain Soehn’s last year at the helm came nowhere near anything like that.
On the other hand, if the idea was that the 2009 team would wallow in the same kind of close but no cigar tradition of mediocrity we’ve seen pretty consistently in this past decade, then DC was right there in the mix. We did make a Cup final after all and barely missed the playoffs, as well being cruelly iced out of the knockout round of CONCACAF.
Maybe after the spectacular failure of the expensive mercenary forces that made up the team in 2008; 2009 was supposed to be a return to the tradition of fielding the best young talent available sprinkled with just enough exceptional veteran superstars to lead the team back to its relentless appetite for trophies. If that’s the case, DC United appeared to have done that with the roster they put together, so what happened?
Well, first of all, looking at the way the season played out, it did work pretty well, at least until the wheels came off the wagon when the driver doggedly aimed for the ditches instead of sticking to the straight and narrow. Quite simply, Soehn failed this team for the most part. For sure there were some underperformances by some key players and some truly brutal bad luck, but really Soehn was the biggest fly in the ointment, no question about it.
Consider that through the first 20 games of the season, DC consistently stayed near or at the top of the table. United was 6-3-10 before losing a barnburner in Houston in the 20th game, leading the league in offense with the big three of Emilio (8), Moreno (6) and Gomez (6) combining for 20 of the 34 goals scored. Add in the reserve team going 5-0 in the Open Cup outscoring opponents 13-4, and DC seemed to be cruising along quite nicely. Everybody clicking and loads of depth seemingly pushing for more minutes.
The only real troubling issue at the time seemed to be a defense leaking more than a tissue paper boat having given up 32 goals in that same span. But surely that would tighten up as the new defensive players (Jakovic, Wicks, Wallace, etc.) became more familiar with each other and the playoff stretch began.
However, in hindsight, a much bigger problem was just beginning to manifest itself because of Soehn’s sloth in determining a true system and a transparent pecking order of players. So, the team never did gel mainly because Soehn never settled on a starting lineup or really even a consistent formation for that matter. In some ways Soehn was a victim of the early success of the whole roster, it seemed he could play almost anyone anywhere and get decent results, even holding Real Madrid in check for almost 60 minutes.
However, over the last 10 games of the year as United’s schedule ramped up in intensity with the CONCACAF matches filling in almost every midweek as the team geared up for the playoff run, Soehn panicked and tried to go ultra-defensive to weather the storm, but unfortunately he had not built up any real foundation to survive the waves of troubles. Without any sort of structure or pecking order, his flailing attempts at lineups and formations were brutally exposed and suddenly the depth looked decidedly out of their depth. Some crucially timed injuries certainly didn’t help either.
So, over the last 10 games, DC sank like a stone right out of the playoff picture, fumbled away the Open Cup at home, and was embarrassed in the opening matches of CONCACAF play, although they did recover in the end. So, despite tightening up the defense considerably from giving up more than 1.5 goals a game to barely over 1, DC had as many losses in those last 10 MLS matches as they did in the first 20 going 3-4-3 in MLS play. In addition, quite frankly, those three wins were outright gifts as Chicago, KC, and the Crew all outplayed DC, but simply failed to put the ball in the back of the net as DC stole 1-0 wins each time.
Worse, Soehn’s idiotic rotation of Moreno and Gomez, as well as some utterly incomprehensible lineups, tactics and benching, etc. hampered the production of the whole team as they went from averaging almost 2 goals a game to averaging less than one. And of the 9 goals scored in those last 10 games, the big three were a shadow of their former selves although Moreno and Emilio combined for 5, but Gomez was shut out. Conspicuously defenders scored the other 4 goals.
Now granted, there were some hideously poor performances by a lot of players at various times, and a lot of bad luck down the stretch. But bad luck always happens and Soehn didn’t help himself overcome any obstacles by establishing a structure earlier in the season, or preparing understudies for the inevitable injuries and absences. Plus, you ride the horse you have. Losing faith with your veteran leadership in crunch time doesn’t usually work out too well.
But Soehn is no longer here to kick around anymore and Onalfo does not seem the sort to shoot himself in the foot regularly. Surely, with him and a very good base of excellent young talents in place and with some crucial experience, everything should be golden for the new year, right? Hmmm… not so fast.
Which brings us to some resolutions for the New Year.
First of all, resolve what to do about the big three once and for all: Emilio, Moreno, and Gomez. No team in MLS finds any kind of consistent success unless it has a got a top half of the roster that produces consistently and leads appropriately. DC did not have that last season when push came to shove at the end of the season. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean cut the lot of them and start over. If no suitable replacements are on the horizon and more equitable salary numbers can be had, then some or all of those guys could easily have a future in DC.
Consider Emilio, he wasn’t worth 700K for sure, but he wasn’t a bust either. Considering only 400K of that counted against the cap and he is worth that amount for certain when you consider he made his goals count as 6 of his 10 goals were game tying or game winning strikes. He contributed directly to 17 of United’s 39 points to put it more bluntly. That compares well with any other MLS forward except Donovan and Casey, who clearly contributed more to their respective teams. So, unless there’s a better option itching to come here, and especially if there’s a number DC United’s brainstaff can accept to pay, he’s worth another year in my opinion.
Moreno, too deserves to finish his legendary career here as well. As difficult a year as he had and as old and slow as he has become, he also finished with 9 goals and contributed heavily to 15 of United’s 39 points. Granted, PKs boost that total, but that’s largely irrelevant as he often caused those PKs to occur, and even if he didn’t, he still had to put them in the back of the net, often with the game on the line. Again, find a number that suits which shouldn’t be too hard and he deserves to be here another year at least. Especially as Onalfo is very likely to know how to use him well considering his handling of Lopez in KC as well as being a former team-mate and assistant coach of Moreno previously.
Now, Gomez is a lot trickier of a proposition. He too did enough to keep his job, if you crunch the numbers and consider his entire season, but then again he is the player that is most difficult to fit into any system other than one built around him, and he’s probably past the days of being that influential. Still, he did contribute heavily to 10 points directly, and arguably 4-5 more indirectly, and flat out carried the team to the lion’s share of its return to respectability in CONCACAF. But, that might seriously end up as a swan song for his truly impressive United career as he just doesn’t seem likely to fit into the new United being built.
And just for comparison, no other players even came close to directly influencing as many points as the big three, even as much as they were mismanaged and underwhelmed this season. Pontius, for example was only responsible for 7 points, Wallace 4, Quaranta 4 (although indirectly responsible for much more than that), heck Burch and Namoff helped the team to four points directly. Obviously, the game doesn’t break down into statistics very easily and I’m the first to argue statistics are damned lies, but sometimes there’s no other way to at least come close to quantifying the importance of specific offensive leaders to the entire team.
Secondly, resolve to develop a system that accentuates the strengths of the team and hides the weaknesses. Duh! But it’s amazing how often MLS teams seem to get that simple concept wrong. Now, often it’s the chicken or the egg with systems and players in that often you need to know the abilities of the player pool in order to decide on the system, or you have a system in mind and then move players in or out of the team based on their ability to fill roles. But, whichever Onalfo decides (and I suspect the later more so than the former), let’s hope he makes the changes and sticks with them long enough for them to know their roles and responsibilities.
In that same vein, resolve to develop reserves that can fill any role or position adequately. Again, that sounds pretty obvious, but considering the trouble DC had last year replacing Jakovic or Gomez or Quaranta, especially in the confined rosters of MLS, it’s not so easy. But, you shouldn’t have some players that are irreplaceable because no one on the bench plays the same style, nor should the whole team be discombobulated because the first sub off the bench requires two more subs to balance the team properly. Seriously, every player on the pitch should have a backup that plays similarly to the starter, so the entire system doesn’t suffer so badly when absences and circumstances hit.
Finally, resolve to return to a tradition of letting the results of the team speak for itself instead of idiotic marketing campaigns. Resolve to place the desires of season ticket holders above the greed for money and exposure with inconsequential matches like Real Madrid. Resolve to say and do the right thing every time you open your mouth to speak for the organization as opposed to shooting off with sour grapes when frustrated. Return to the days of class and determination in your actions and there’s no need to blow your own horn. To paraphrase the old saying about celebrating a touchdown, act like you’ve been there before and will for certain be back again because this team has the credibility, they just need to live up to it.
Bottom line is that DC United is facing a similar crisis to one they faced at the end of 2001. Rongen was ridden out of town on rail, team was in turmoil at the top, veteran core players were seemingly heading downhill fast, lots of promising young players who were not quite ready to hold the reins completely just yet, and the pressure for a return to winning ways after a two year playoff drought was entering hysterical proportions, etc. We even got a splashy Central American in the off-season back then too (Reyes). Didn’t matter.
DC chose wrong back then both with Hudson as the savior and by trying to coax one more year out of Marco, Richie, and Eddie (as well as a banged up Moreno) sheparding the young guns like Convey, Nelsen, Quaranta, Namoff, Lisi, and Ziadie, all of whom turned out to be a year or more away from reaching their potential. That strategy only garnered one more win than the previous year and DC continued to wander in the wilderness a year later.
Let’s hope the brainstaff now supplemented by Onalfo doesn’t find itself in a similar situation where the team is still bailing water for another two years just to stay afloat. It wasn’t until Nowak burst on the scene and established order and discipline and roles with understudies that DC began to turn around. Even then it took Gomez signing out of the blue as the final piece of the puzzle to take the team over the top. But those 13 months were as close as anyone has gotten to recapturing the spirit of that long ago golden age.
Now, that’s a tradition everyone would like to see repeated in the New Year.