Missing out on the playoffs on the last day of the season in consecutive years has brought about a host of changes that has more than a few fans and pundits uneasy about the teams prospects heading into the 2010 MLS campaign. Gone from United’s roster is 3/4 of their foreign attacking contingent in Luciano Emilio, Fred and Christian Gomez. Between the three of them they accounted for 18 goals and 10 assists. That breaks down to roughly 42% of the goal scoring and 28% of the assists. While those numbers don’t exactly jump off the page at you, it is a significant amount of their offense nonetheless and it will be missed at times during the upcoming season.
The question now is “Did United do enough to make up for those losses?” It’s obviously too early to say because the players they brought into the team whom they can count on scoring goals doesn’t exactly look like a murderers row of goal scoring. Australian striker Danny Allsop comes to United to add some size and scoring punch as does Salvadoran winger Christian Castillo who scored two fantastic goals against the United States in World Cup qualifying last fall. Again, is that enough? If you held a gun to my head I would say that no, it’s not enough at the moment. To be fair to the front office, it’s still only the middle of February and the transfer window for MLS doesn’t close until the end of March. United has also brought in 18-year old Honduran striker Arnolyn Guity. Your guess is as good as mine as to who this kid is and what kind of a player he is. If he has any kind of speed at all, it will be a welcomed sight for the Black and Red because their current crop of forwards (Allsop, Jaime Moreno, Chris Pontius and newly acquired Adam Cristman) don’t exactly come across as players that can get behind defenses. Not that pure speed is the magical elixir that will vault United to the MLS Cup anytime soon, but wouldn’t it be a refreshing change of pace (pun intended) to see a United player actually run past the last line of defense and bear down on goal?
Enough of that pipe dream. Arguably the most affected area of the team is in midfield where United has lost four players who contributed major minutes to the club last season and beyond. The aforementioned Fred (traded) and Gomez (not offered a contract) are gone as well as Andrew Jacobsen (selected by Philadelphia Union in the Expansion Draft) and the heart and soul of United, Ben Olsen. Olsen does remain with the team as an assistant coach, but his leadership skills on the field will be sorely missed. United brought in the electric Castillo on loan and also picked up Congolese midfielder Flo N’Galula to help make up the numbers. N’Galula was a former Manchester United youth player and actually sat the bench with the first team on the rare occasion though never actually played. Also back for United is midfield Brandon Barklage who played very well during the U.S. Open Cup (scoring in back-to-back matches) but was lost for the season shortly thereafter with a knee injury. Danny Szetela is back and is hopeful of bigger role than his spot duty after being obtained late last season. Unfortunately for Szetela, he is currently sidelined after tearing the meniscus in his knee. He should be back right as the season starts, but with missing most or all of preseason, his impact will be minimal until mid-season at least. Stalwarts Clyde Simms, Santino Quaranta and second-year man Rodney Wallace will be back, though with the addition of Castillo on the left it just might put Wallace into the left-back position ahead of incumbent Marc Burch. Quaranta is also coming off of injury but is very close to resuming full training in the next few weeks.
Defense is a position that seems the most thin part of the roster at the moment. Dejan Jacovic, Julius James and Marc Burch are all returning as well as Lawson Vaughn. However the big story of the off-season is the rather dire situation with Bryan Namoff and concussion issues. At the moment there is no realistic time table of his return and that will hurt this team at the beginning of the season. If they can hold on initially, they just might be able to stomach the loss of arguably their best defender. United has brought in Jamaican defender Jermaine Taylor and Honduran defender Quiarol Arzu for tryouts this week in Bradenton, Florida. If these two players manage to make the squad that could improve United’s admittedly weak depth in the back. Taylor is a central defender who just this past week put in a decent effort against Argentina in a 2-1 friendly loss. Arzu can play centrally and on the right side of defense. He seems to be cover for Namoff at the moment. Utility man Devon McTavish and rookie fourth-round selection Jordan Graye round out the defense.
The biggest move of the off-season undoubtedly was United’s acquisition of Troy Perkins. United certainly gave up quite a bit (Fred, allocation money and the #7 overall pick in the 2010 MLS Superdraft) to get him from the Philadelphia Union but in the end I think it will be worth it as Perkins is about as solid an MLS keeper as any team could ask for. Who backs up Perkins is the million dollar question at the moment. Will it be Josh Wicks (coming off injury and not available until after the season starts) or Milos Kocic? How about 19-year old manchild Bill Hamid? It’s perhaps a bit much to ask to have a 19-year old as a backup, but with roster spots limited and United only playing a bare bones schedule this season (just 30 league matches and however many Open Cup matches they play in), it would probably make sense to only keep two goalies on the roster. The big stumbling block in all of this is whether or not Perkins will be the #3 goalkeeper for the US this summer during the World Cup. At this point, Perkins has about a 50-50 chance to be that 3rd keeper.
Overall I am beginning to like the changes that new coach Curt Onalfo has brought about with United. With only two players over the age of 30 (Moreno and Allsop) who will play every game from the outset, it’s a bit of a departure from years past in the way that United is shaping their team. United has always prided itself on their flowing football and attacking style of play. To me their predictable play has gone a little stale over the past few years and I think the changes made during the off-season reflect that. Younger players and better ball movement might be the key to this team turning around their fortunes and finally getting into the playoffs after a two-year haitus. Who knows, they might even eschew their normal method of walking the ball into the goal in favor of actually using the width of the field and letting talented playmakers like Castillo and Quaranta get down the wing and hit some crosses into a team that now boast three strikers over 6 feet tall in Allsop, Pontius and Cristman.
It’s going to be an interesting preseason and even more intriguing regular season. I can’t wait for it to get started. In the meantime, can anyone volunteer to come over and help shovel my car out?