Brandon McDonald was a clear upgrade at center back when acquired in the middle of last season, but D.C. United might need to add some depth there and elsewhere to become a real contender.
During the 2010-11 offseason, D.C. United was after literally any player who was halfway competent. Ben Olsen and Dave Kasper built a team that more or less met expectations; at full strength, the team was probably good enough to snatch one of the last playoff spots, but a couple of key injuries were too much to overcome.
This offseason, United has justifiably raised the bar. If competence was the only quality the club was looking for, then most of the nine players released before the Re-Entry Draft would have been kept. In 2012, it's safe to say that the demands are going to be much higher. I think we'd all agree that making the playoffs for the first time since 2007 would be nice, but let's be honest: At this club, "making the playoffs" is just one step along the way. When there are four stars on your chest, you have to aspire to be more than barely above average.
Now that the unwanted or ill-fitting players gone, it's time to stock the roster. Given that the current squad is comprised of just 18 players, additions are a must. Most of the recent cuts were to second-choice players, but the new guys can't just be reliable depth. The scouting trips all over the world and the trips to watch top college players in person during the NCAA tournament have to unearth players ready to make a big impact in MLS this season as well as guys that can provide a spark off the bench.
With that in mind, we'll be taking a look at each position in Olsen's 442. The goal will be to look at what we have and use that figure out what we need to add in order to become a real contender.
I should clarify the format I'll be using. Players will be listed in order of ability at that position alone (not in terms of their overall value). A player in italics is a player capable of playing the position in question, but not a natural at the role.
This one's pretty straightforward. Hamid, again called into camp for the national team, is the undisputed No. 1. He'll be spending plenty of time with the USMNT and Olympic teams, but there should be little doubt about where he'll stand when he's available.
Willis turned out to be surprisingly good depth for a guy taken 50th overall and out of a University of Denver program not known for churning out MLS talent. He'll get a relatively high number of meaningful games this season with Hamid almost certain to make the Olympic team on top of his senior national team duty. For a second-choice keeper, Willis is reasonably skilled by MLS standards and looks like he has good upside to boot. Being under the tutelage of Pat Onstad - who has a similar build but was less athletic than Willis in his playing days - will be key.
A third GK is a must, especially with the amount of time Hamid will be unavailable. The draft seems like an obvious route, but I also wouldn't mind seeing United find a veteran willing to work cheaply for this job if we can afford that luxury. It wouldn't be a problem for me if Willis is being pushed for time, and we do have to acknowledge the fact that Hamid is already on the radar of West Bromwich Albion after his training stint there. A good showing at the Olympics could see him become the first United academy player to make the jump to Europe. That would leave us very inexperienced if we're carrying Willis and a draft pick, and the pile of cash we'd make from Hamid can't be stacked in the goalmouth to block shots.
Russell was acquired on the cheap to be our starting right back, a job opened up by Kitchen's full-time move to defensive midfielder. I'm on the record as being very positive about Russell, who will add soccer IQ, experience, professionalism, and the kind of winning mentality that this club needs more of. Russell will also add a bit more going forward than we had last year, which is an underrated plus.
Kitchen proved to be very stable at right back, but he did have to play the role very conservatively to mask his inexperience there. Between the fact that defensive midfield is a more crucial role and the availability of a reasonable back-up in Korb, it will probably be a long time before we see Kitchen at right back again.
Korb is the No. 2 at this point, and that seems like an acceptable proposition for both him and the team. Where he needs to improve is the mental side of things; Korb needs to do better at maintaining the team's shape and staying connected to the players around him, while also maintaining a more consistent level of focus. Still, for a 2nd year pro, you can do a lot worse.
One thing that should be discussed is the prospect of Korb being in a battle for a roster spot with Jed Zayner. Korb has a lot of advantages heading into preseason camp - still being on the roster, lower salary, age, and not having Zayner's troublesome injury history - but Zayner is probably the better player today (hypothetically assuming both players are 100% fit). I doubt Korb is in any real danger of being cut, but if Zayner does prove to be healthy, Ben Olsen will probably only want to keep one of these two for 2012.
White, Najar, and King have only played right back sporadically and/or in reserve games. We may rarely see Najar switched to a nominal right back role if we're trailing, but in practice that would end up with him overlapping enough for us to look more like a 343 or 352 than the 442 Olsen prefers. King is probably going to be trying to learn how to play defensive midfield given our lack of depth there, so I doubt he'll get many chances to repeat the occasional reserve league experiments with him at right back.
We seem deep enough at right back to not pursue players for the job, especially given the fact that we have some pressing concerns up front and at left back. If someone comes along that is young, cheap, and better than Korb or Zayner, then we'd obviously have to take him, but there are better things to do than pursue such a player at the moment.
We didn't get to see much of our top center back pairing due to injuries to both players, but what we did see was promising. United only conceded 2 goals in the 339 minutes that both players were on the field, or roughly 0.53 goals over 90 minutes.
I don't put a huge amount of faith in statistics when it comes to soccer, though. What convinced me was seeing Jakovic finally allowed to be something other than the leader of our defense. That job is much more appropriate for McDonald, who has better anticipation than Jakovic and seems to have the kind of personality that others can feed off of. This allows Jakovic to use his overall athleticism to solve problems, which is what he's more comfortable with.
Ethan White proved to be slightly ahead of expectations for a 20 year old center back, and certainly has the athletic gifts to succeed over the long term. There is plenty of work to be done in terms of positioning and reading the game, but White is one of the top center backs in MLS under the age of 22. I'm completely fine with him being our back-up for Jakovic, who he resembles as a player more than McDonald.
After the top three is where we find ourselves with a problem. Russell, Kitchen, and Woolard are all currently the starter at a different position; of that group, Russell is the only one with a replacement (Korb) that I'd be comfortable with starting in MLS play. Russell would be the player I would use to replace McDonald as the leader of the back four; it's not his best position, but RSL used him there numerous times (especially before the emergence of Chris Schuler), and they seem to know what they're doing.
That leaves Conor Shanosky, who is probably going to be under pressure to contribute now that he's turned 20. I don't think we've seen enough of Shanosky to say with certainty that we can use him as our 4th choice center back, but that's what he is right now.
The thing about having that job for this United team is that you'll still have to play games. Jakovic's troublesome hamstrings have been a problem for his entire career here, and McDonald has also had his share of injuries. In fact, if United had a game today, Shanosky would make the bench or possibly even start (White has a knee problem, and both he and McDonald had sports hernia surgery a few weeks ago).
Given all this - injury-prone starters, raw young back-ups, and needs at other positions - it would seem to me that grabbing another center back should be somewhere on Olsen and Kasper's offseason to-do list. It's not as high up as some other things that we'll touch on as we look at the rest of the roster (spoiler: two starting jobs are up for grabs), but it's not exactly a luxury item either.