The State of United: Lowering the Bar

OK, last season DC United pretty much laid the bar on the ground (thanks to Ed the Red who perfectly captured my current mood so eloquently with his pithy thoughts), so improving on that hideous catastrophe last year is almost a guarantee. Well, unless they do in fact tunnel into the earth. However, apparently gone are the days of reloading the team to even try to get back to the top. Given the moves this off-season, DC United is clearly mired into slowly rebuilding for the future, while focusing on changing the culture of the team.

Ironically, all the moves made this off-season are virtually unassailable. Trading Wallace for McCarty and Perkins for Cronin, acquiring economical forwards Ngwenya and Wolff, drafting consensus best player available Perry Kitchen, picking up a young experienced South American in Bresesco, etc.. All sound moves most likely, but hardly moves that signal a team looking to turn around their fortunes immediately. For that to happen, United simply had to address make a big splash to address their epically bad offense by finding some speed and athleticism for their painfully slow attack as well as a securing a reasonably consistent scoring threat.

Well, United appears to have done that with the recent addition of US National team forward Charlie Davies. Davies is all speed and power who should be a reasonably consistent scorer in MLS. Well, that is if he actually is still the fast and effective player he was before his horrendous accident over a year ago. A crash that has kept him from top flight football for over a year, and it is disturbingly ominous that neither his French team nor Davies himself apparently couldn’t find any takers in Europe, so they and Davies are settling on MLS to revitalize his career.

United is apparently doing its due diligence in testing the recovering Davies down in Florida, but I’ll eat my hat if this is anything beyond a token trial. Davies will be on DC United this year, bet on it. Now, how effective he will be remains to be seen. For sure he could light up the league as the finisher on a team full of set up men, or he could struggle to return to form and never recapture that magic touch he once had. Chances are he will perform somewhere in between.

Which brings us back to the point of this article. DC United used to count on MLS Cups as their birthright, then of course they were humbled with the dark ages as the league steadily dismantled United’s dynastic tendencies. However, DC returned to the top of the league as strong as ever capturing Shields and making noise internationally, making the playoffs was a given even if capturing a trophy was not. Obviously, the Gallardo fiasco then hampered the team for years, but even last year, DC United put together a team that seemed likely on paper to at least challenge for a playoff spot. Of course they cratered out of the gate and never recovered, but they arguably were a solid team going into the season that was expected to be in the playoff race at least.

That’s not so anymore. Even rosy optimists are saying United, although a better team overall, are unlikely to make make the playoffs, even in a frightfully bad Eastern Conference. The team has gone from reloading every year to taking baby steps to rebuild the foundation of the team and more importantly change the attitude of the team and the culture of the front office. Hopefully, the arrogance and lazy sense of entitlement the front office exudes is long gone, but that remains to be seen.

However, it is clear the team itself is being rebuilt with youth and character as the central pillars rather than talent and expectations. It pains me to say, but jettisoning the legendary Jaime Moreno in favor of Josh Wolff as a team leader is an unquestioned shot across the bows of a team that recently has not scrapped to overachieve, but instead watched talent fester and underachieve. Lord knows, I love Jaime as much as anyone, but this team no longer can tolerate anyone who makes things look easy. They need mudders like McCarty and Wolff for now until young guys like Najar who combine blazing talent and scrappy determination take over the mantle.

Even United’s choice of Kitchen, instead of say trading the pick for an established MLS attacker that would be more likely to contribute right away for example, is a subtle fire lit under the easy going demeanors of United’s defensive leaders, Jakovic and Simms. Both are extremely classy players coming off sub-par years where they never showed the passion to demand better of themselves and others one would expect. Kitchen is described as a leader willing to do what it takes to succeed and inspire others to succeed. Remains to be seen if he succeeds, but almost all United’s defenders are on notice now that there is a replacements are in the pipeline.

Indeed United needs more of what Olsen exemplified as a player, that give it all scrap for every inch will to succeed, which is why I think Olsen has collected the kind of players he has. Even Davies himself exemplifies this now that he has a career to resurrect. He’s literally playing for his soccer life. All of this bodes well for the future of this team.

However, it’s inescapable when looking at this roster that United has anything but another losing season in the offing. United simply does not have enough talent overall, even with a healthy Davies. They have almost no one even in the top half of the league average players in any starting position. Certainly, a good team is more than the sum of their parts and United expects that team concept to give their current roster a boost, but even so, at the end of the day, players have to make plays.

Davies has to score at least 10-12 goals to be in the conversation of top class forwards in this league. It’s a toss-up whether or not he reaches that level or not. Najar could easily be among the top half of wing players in this league, McCartney is possibly the median central midfield player, but after that all the rest of United’s starters pale in comparison certainly by Western standards, but even just considering the East.

Obviously NY with Henry, Ibrahim and Aguadelo, the Crew with Cunnningham and Mendoza, KC with Bravo, Kamara and Bunbury, maybe even Houston with Ching and Weaver or Philly with Mwanga and LeToux probably have a more effective attacking corps than DC using any combination or Davies, Pontius, Quaranta, Wolff or Ngwenya. Charlie Davies is the key obviously, if he scores consistently, DC is competent, if he doesn’t no one else will score much either and DC will likely relive last year’s ineptitude again. Even TFC with a proven threat like DeRosario might be better off than United if Davies isn’t quite up to snuff. The Fire just signed a couple promising forwards too.

Not much better in midfield either. NY, Columbus, Houston with Cameron back, and arguably Chicago and KC all have better midfield personnel than any combination of McCarty, Boskovic, Simms, Najar, and Quaranta or Pontius based on their careers to date. McCarty does bring the grit this midfield needs, but Boskovic is truly the wild card. If equals say Pappa, Lindpere, Gaven, Davis, or even Perovic in effectiveness, than DC moves up the table a bit. If he doesn’t, than DC is in the dumps in the East. Simple as that.

Defensively, DC should be better overall. Bresesco is obviously a wild card, but seems a good bet, Kitchen will make Jakovic and James better or simply take their jobs eventually. Zayner is an upgrade, and DC has solid backups in Burch, McTavish and Woolard, even White adds some promise for the future. Unfortunately, almost every East team already has a good defense most of them with a proven keeper to boot. Defense is all about confidence and cohesion, so you never know how things will turn out, like Houston havin such a dismal year last year despite good talent on paper, but that said, NY, Columbus, Philly, NE, Houston and even Chicago with Gibbs, Robinson, Segares and their new Bosnian all probably have better defensive personnel.

Bottom line, DC is likely a better team overall, almost certainly has changed their culture to the point where hard work and effectiveness will be valued over talent for talent’s sake, and is developing a significant core of very good young players under the tutelage of a scrappy overachieving young coach in Ben Olsen, and the team took a good chance on an exciting attacking talent that could pay off huge if he comes back 100%, etc. et.. But, even so United just doesn’t seem likely to make the playoffs again this year barring a miracle.

That seems to me setting the bar too low.

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