While most teams in MLS opted not to bother with the first stage of the new Re-Entry draft, United took the plunge and selected former Houston Dynamo forward Joseph Ngwenya. This was one of just two selections; the Columbus Crew acquired former Sporting Kansas City center back/defensive midfielder Aaron Hohlbein with the tenth pick. At 2pm today, teams will have a second shot at virtually the same group of players (aside from Jovan Kirovski, who has opted out of Stage Two to negotiate a new deal with the Los Angeles Galaxy).
The main deterrent for most teams in Stage One was the fact that picking a player meant automatically having to pay them what they were already making (actually about 5% more than that, but we're trying to keep this simple). That won't be the case in Stage Two, where clubs will gain a player's rights and will then negotiate a new salary. Players whose old deals were too expensive before are a lot more appealing when you can get them for less, so expect a rather active afternoon throughout MLS.
From a Black-and-Red perspective, the names that have come up most often are center back Jimmy Conrad and striker Juan Pablo Angel. Both players address areas that were major problems for United last season, but in the first stage their salaries ($232,750 for Conrad, $1,620,000 for Angel) were prohibitive due to their ages. However, both players may be attractive options for Ben Olsen's side if they're willing to play for less (in Angel's case, we'd be talking about seven figures less).
Read on to see what the odds are for these two (and a handful of others) to suit up for DCU in 2011.
Here are the players I could theoretically (in some cases, it's a very fuzzy theory indeed) see us taking, in alphabetical order:
Juan Pablo Angel (striker)
2010 salary: $1,620,000
Age for 2011 season: 35
Angel's departure from the New York Red Bulls was well known from August onward. However, Angel still scored 13 goals for NY in 2010, and also bagged a goal in the playoffs. Angel is still the best pure finisher in MLS history, having scored 58 league goals in 108 games for the Red Bulls. Angel even managed 12 goals in 25 games on the deplorable 2009 New York team. United in 2010 were often guilty of wasting three or four first half chances before eventually capitulating to teams that they should have beaten; a finisher of Angel's quality almost certainly would have managed to get to double digits, even as bad as we were throughout the year. There is also the added benefit of adding a player who was the club captain for the Red Bulls. On a team full of young players, additional leaders will always be welcome. Finally, it would be truly painful for Red Bulls fans (there are some, believe it or not) to see their club legend scoring goals for the team that has historically bullied them at every turn.
On the other hand, soccer can be a cruel game for players as they age, and 35 is up there in any league. While Angel has clearly shown a commitment to staying fit, he has gone through one MLS season without missing at least five games (interestingly, his injury-free season was 2010, a season in which he didn't have to play all home games on the artificial turf of Giants Stadium). Even if Angel were to come here and stay fit, he would clearly be a short-term measure due to his age. Angel would most likely play just one season here, with the odds of a second season appearing to be long.
I see the chances of us picking Angel as medium. On one hand, there were strong rumors saying that we were already trying to sign Angel during the mid-season transfer window. It also seems obvious that the club's biggest weakness is the lack of a reliable goalscorer, which is exactly what Angel is. On the other hand, United would have to be pretty certain of how much Angel wants to be paid before picking him. If we were to select him only to find him unwilling to go below the DP threshold, we'd have a potential fiasco on our hands. There is also the fact that we will likely have to choose between either Angel or Conrad with the opening pick in the first round; it is unlikely that either player would go unpicked by the other seventeen clubs. My preference would be for us to take Angel, but as you'll see below, I think the odds are slightly higher for us to select Conrad instead.
Preston Burpo (goalkeeper)
2010 salary: $70,000
Age for 2011 season: 38
Burpo was quietly doing very well for the Revolution before breaking his leg in gruesome fashion about a third of the way through the 2010 season. With Troy Perkins coming off a bizarre season in which he arguably played worse than at any point in his professional career, and Bill Hamid only just turning 20, having an experienced third keeper might not be a bad idea. Assuming he has recuperated from his awful injury, Burpo could be brought in cheaply to both provide a steady, veteran presence as a backup keeper while also providing a mentor of sorts for Hamid. It would also be a return of sorts for Burpo, who was born in Bethesda.
All that said, the odds of such a pick are pretty long. Unless the club plans to loan Hamid out to get him game experience (which assumes that Perkins is absolutely our #1, which is an assumption we can't afford to make after his performance in 2010), it seems unreasonable to pick up a third keeper that is at the end of his career. It's much more likely that we'll either draft a young keeper or have several on trial during the preseason with an eye on retaining one of them.
Ryan Cochrane (center back)
2010 salary: $100,000
Age for 2011 season: 27
Cochrane's age and the likely low-ish salary that he'd sign for are appealing, as is his history with winning clubs. However, he has a long history of injury problems, and fans of both Houston and San Jose have been rather disappointed in him whenever he was called upon to start. Combine that with the number of center backs available in the draft, and the odds of Cochrane coming to DC seem pretty long.
Jimmy Conrad (center back)
2010 salary: $232,750
Age for 2011 season: 34
As I mentioned above, there are plenty of reasons to believe Conrad is coming to RFK. Our defense needs a vocal leader, and Conrad is the best player in that mold available in the Re-Entry Draft. It doesn't hurt that Conrad can also play a bit, as his 28 caps for the United states, his 2005 Defender of the Year award and his 2005, 2006, and 2008 MLS Best XI nods all confirm. His age is a concern, but he was second in minutes played for the former Wizards this past season and appears to still be fit enough to make a difference.
There are, however, some caveats. Kansas City's defense was rather mediocre this season, though that is at least partly down to the fact that Conrad never had a steady partner at center back. Conrad was involved in a few more mistakes than usual this season, and one wonders how much that had to do with the inevitable decline that comes with being 34 in a (very) young man's game. There is also the issue of possibly wanting to continue the growth of of Julius James and Dejan Jakovic as a central defensive partnership, something the club repeatedly said it was interested in. If Conrad is acquired, one of those two will almost certainly drop to the bench, which is hardly the place to grow as a player.
Ultimately, I think Conrad is our most likely selection with the first pick tomorrow. The youth and lack of leadership throughout our back four seems to be crying out for the addition of a seasoned veteran leader that has actually proven himself in MLS. Conrad may not be the guy that made the 2006 World Cup team any more, but it's not like we're signing another Gonzalo Peralta either. Conrad won't need to learn the ropes, and he strikes me as the kind of personality that will fit right in off the field. It's also worth noting that Conrad is arguably the only available central defensive leader that can still hack it, whereas if we don't pick Angel, we'll still have a shot at someone like Jeff Cunningham to lead the line.
Jeff Cunningham (striker)
2010 salary: $220,000
Age for 2011 season: 34
There is popular sentiment amongst United fans that the club find some way to prevent Cunningham from breaking Jaime Moreno's goalscoring record. Sadly, this is totally impossible; Moreno's record will fall, and if it's not Cunningham it will be some other player that we like less than #99. It might be controversial in these parts, but the thought of those inevitable goals help us win some games is at least worth considering. Cunningham may be 34, but he still looked strong and fast for FC Dallas this past season. Despite irregular playing time, he managed to get 11 goals in the regular season and one more in the playoffs. Old or not, the guy can still play, and the evidence available points to him scoring goals regularly for someone this coming season.
The argument against bringing in Cunningham is equally strong. United is a tradition-bound club that, in spite of its mishandling of Moreno's departure, did fall all over itself to pay tribute to our best-ever player. Picking up Cunningham would result in the awkward situation of having to celebrate his taking over the goalscoring record while simultaneously preferring that Moreno hold onto the record forever. Perhaps more importantly, Cunningham comes with significant baggage. He has a strong reputation as a bad apple in the locker room, something backed up by the number of clubs he's ended up at in MLS. United did quite well in maintaining a positive locker room despite a miserable 2010, and adding Cunningham to the mix could easily endanger that.
Selecting Cunningham would probably hinge on a lot of other things. If United takes Angel in the first round, for example, Cunningham is as likely to play for DCU this season as I am (drop me a line, Benny!). There is also the chance that we're quietly trying to sign a striker from abroad, which would make signing Cunningham somewhat pointless. However, if we go for Conrad first, the odds are that Angel won't be available for us to select with our second pick. In that case, Cunningham (who would presumably sign for something like $150K) is an option that we must consider.
Fred (right midfield/left midfield)
2010 salary: $250,000
Age for 2011 season: 31
I'll come out and say that I think the odds of us bringing Fred back are quite long. Given his salary (which, even with renegotiation, will probably remain in the six-figure range) and inconsistency, it would be bizarre to bring him back to fight for a spot here. Our wide roles are taken by players that are better and more reliable than Fred, and his high-risk style makes him an unappealing option as a central playmaker. The only reason I include him here is that he always was well-liked by both the front office and in the locker room, and no club in MLS is more willing to reward well-liked former players than DC United. The odds are very long here, but Dave Kasper has a long history of making questionable decisions.
Cory Gibbs (center back/left back)
2010 salary: $121,000
Age for 2011 season: 31
Gibbs is a name that has come up fairly often as an alternative to Conrad in central defense. Given his experience abroad (with FC St. Pauli, Feyenoord, ADO Den Haag, and Charlton Athletic), it would make sense for DC to look at Gibbs. After renegotiating, it's reasonable to assume that Gibbs would come cheap and would be a likely starter either in central defense (over Jakovic or James) or at left back (over Marc Burch).
There are significant red flags here, though. Gibbs is coming off possibly his only injury-free season as a professional. Between some knee issues and a tendency to pick up muscle strains, there is a very real chance that Gibbs would simply follow in the recent tradition of United defenders that spend as much of their time rehabbing injuries as they do actually playing. Perhaps even more worrying is that Gibbs was a regular starter on the worst defense in MLS this past season; his Revs gave up 50 goals in 2010.
There was a time where I'd have jumped at the chance to get Gibbs playing for DC, but those days are past. Unless the thought process is to take him and install him as our first choice left back (unlikely due to the inexplicable faith in Burch that pervades the club), I feel like selecting Gibbs would elicit little more than a shrug. His recent form is worse than either of our current starting center backs, and he's never struck me as the vocal leader that we need. I highly doubt we'll take him in the first round, but we might snag him if we don't pick Conrad with the opening pick.
Richard Mulrooney (defensive midfield/right back)
2010 salary: $120,000
Age for 2011 season: 34
Mulrooney is a name that hasn't come up much, but I think he's someone that will be on Olsen's radar screen here. While he probably wouldn't be a starter with everyone fit, Mulrooney would provide reliable depth at multiple positions and provide a winner's mentality (three MLS Cup rings) in the locker room. Mulrooney is also pretty good on set pieces; while he's not a threat to score himself, he is skilled at curling balls into the box on corner kicks and from long-range free kicks. That's a skill we struggled with in 2010.
Like I said, however, Mulrooney would sit behind Clyde Simms and Jed Zayner, and it seems kind of pointless to go get a 34 year old backup when drafting a young player on the rise in those spots is still a strong possibility. Even at what looks like it would be a low price, the odds here are quite long.
In the end, our moves today will depend on a lot of things that us fans know little about. Why take Angel, for example, if you've got your eye on the next Luciano Emilio? Why bring in Conrad if we've got something else already worked out? While I'm almost certain that our first pick will either be Conrad or Angel, it could be that Conrad doesn't want to move to the east coast, or that Angel is unwilling to sign for a non-DP price. Players like Cunningham and Gibbs also complicate things. Whatever happens, there is the potential that our decisions this afternoon may end up as the biggest moves we make this offseason.