Martin asked for a volunteer to pitch in during the holiday week, so I thought I would look at the current roster and the season so far from a broader angle. This year’s edition of D.C. United, while capable of making the playoffs, is rather unlikely to win a championship. Whatever our chances were, they got a lot smaller when Branko Boskovic’s knee ligament went snap. But if you’re like me, watching United this year was always going to mean a focus on our long-term development, the construction of a new foundation for success after the collapse of the Gomez/Emilio/Moreno/Olsen era.
At the beginning of the season, we had no way to evaluate which players might fulfill key roles in our new long-term core. Now that we’ve seen most everybody on the roster play at least two or three games, some outlines are beginning to take shape. What will our 2012 or 2013 MLS Cup winners look like?
First, we should dispense with arguably our best three players right now, all of whom are likely to move on before our next trophy.
Leaving before the party has started: Davies, Najar, Boskovic.
Any narrative that leads to Charlie Davies being here next year must involve injury or poor performance. I haven’t seen anything in his play for us to date that suggests the pre-injury Davies is gone forever. He’s been progressing well given the circumstances, and at the end of the season he’ll go back to France and try to build on that progress. Charlie will be 28 for Brazil ’14, and he won’t be satisfied if his prime years building up to that peak are spent in MLS. Enjoy him while you can.
While Andy Najar started slowly this season, his recent play has been more in line with what we saw last year … and what we saw last year was already too good for MLS. His instincts and technical skills are a cut above everyone else on the field, good enough that he should be able to hold down a job in a top-ranked European league when fully developed. I’ll be surprised if he is still on our roster next April, and outright shocked if he is still here in 2013.
And Branko Boskovic? It’s hard to see us trying again with a 30 year old midfielder coming off significant knee surgery, at least not without cutting his wages in half, and at that point he might as well go back to Europe.
So if the biggest names aren’t part of the plan, what have we got? Who is going to be a frontline starter in our next finals appearance?
The new core: Hamid, Kitchen, White, Pontius, McCarty.
Well, we’ve got kids. In spades. The mistakes the front office made in the last few years are fast fading into memory as we watch the fresh troops perform each week.
I will state up front that I am no great evaluator of goalies. When we sampled Bill Hamid last season, I mostly noticed the bad: tentative play, poor distribution, a certain stiffness. Others, such as Chest Rockwell, saw the potential. Now I can see it too, if only because it is being displayed in neon lighting every match. This kid is good. Courageous, agile, commanding … if there is anything that we can say with confidence about a contending DCU squad in the next few years, it is that Bill Hamid will be in net for it.
Perry Kitchen has been an excellent addition, but I hardly need to wax enthusiastic here; I’d be preaching to the choir. He has delivered most everything we could have asked for when he was drafted. Very bright, very steady, moves the ball well for a defensive player, plays where asked and adapts his game accordingly. His future with this team is probably still at center back, but regardless of where exactly we play him, he’s going to be an everyday starter.
Meanwhile, nobody has come farther, faster on this team than Ethan White. Sure, he still needs a lot of seasoning. But the positives … oh, the positives. He gives us the strength and athleticism that Julius James brought to the table last year, but with much greater potential for intelligent play. I love the way Ethan keeps his head up. He’s very alert and adapts well to different challenges, often improving his play as the game progresses. He’s already become a passable MLS center back, and more importantly, he shows all the signs of a guy who will learn from his mistakes and develop into a quality starter.
If Hamid, Kitchen, and White solidify their games as much in the next two years as Chris Pontius has in the last two years, then we will be in very good shape indeed. Pontius has established himself as an inside winger who can move the ball well through traffic and provide supplementary scoring. If we could give him Marc Burch’s left-footed cross … we’d have a guy who was thinking about going to Europe. So perhaps this is for the best.
And then, of course, there is Captain Dax. Looking into the competitive future, Dax McCarty is clearly going to be integral to our success … and deservedly so. He is an excellent box-to-box midfielder who tackles well, covers a ton of ground, and does very good work maintaining possession to sustain the attack. Played in a central/defensive midfield role, he shines by shielding the back line properly and simultaneously moving the ball well to teammates – and good attacking development from the ball-winning defensive mid is a luxury many MLS clubs do not have.
But it is pretty equally clear that he isn’t a playmaker, and in future years we should not expect to see him used that way. Dax needs to be in motion to support an attack properly. As the ball moves up the field and the opposing team closes down the remaining space, it becomes more and more likely that Dax will have to trap the ball when receiving it, or be brought up short by a tight marker, and when closed down and boxed out he doesn’t have the technical ability to break the play open again. So supporting/defensive midfield is where he has to be – which in turn has implications for Kitchen, Simms, King, and Morsink.
Valued supporting cast members: Wolff, Brettschneider, King, a fullback or two, and Tino.
Mostly from his USMNT performances, I always thought of Josh Wolff as a mediocrity… and on the international level, that is certainly true. But as a hard-working complementary forward, he has been a huge asset to us so far this season. His age precludes him from being considered a key component in any long-term plan, but as a smart veteran with some energy left in the tank, he can still be a valuable part of a winning team over the next few years.
As Wolff ages (hopefully with grace), Blake Brettschneider has a good chance to grow into his replacement. BlakeBrett doesn’t appear to have any single brilliant attribute to hang his hat on, and that will limit his ceiling, but he is already demonstrating enough overall quality to be successful at the MLS level.
Stephen King has, I think, shown himself to be a fairly rare asset: a central attacking midfielder who is not a starter, and is unlikely to ever be paid like a starter, but who can back up an actual starting playmaker and not kill your offense when he comes onto the field. If you’re thinking, "that’s not a rare asset," I have two words for you: Rod Dyachenko. King gets by on intelligence and positioning rather than technique; if utilized properly, could perform excellent service in a depth role for years to come without ever hurting our room under the cap.
eight billion four guys splitting time at right back will eventually produce a single starter, but whether that starter is Kitchen, Jed Zayner, Chris Korb, or Brandon Barklage is a very open question. Korb might also switch over to the left side and out-compete Daniel Woolard. We don’t have enough information yet to know how the fullbacks will shake out, and (apart from Kitchen) I don’t think any of these guys would necessarily deter the front office from hiring a DP-grade veteran to replace them if the opportunity presented. But all have talent and are worth keeping an eye on.
And then there’s Santino Quaranta. We have come to love him, but he’s so frustrating, a perennial candidate for "most erratic touch in MLS." Despite the inconsistencies, he remains a valuable piece of the puzzle, a "sixth man" for the offense who can fill in adequately anywhere in the attacking half.
Caught between a rock and a hard place: Simms, Jakovic.
Clyde Simms does not control his own D.C. United destiny, which is an unfortunate situation for our current senior "tradition" guy. As noted above, Dax McCarty will eventually force Clyde out of a starting job unless the team switches to a five man midfield. And after several years with the club, Clyde makes too much to be a backup. He’s been tried before at center back, with a distinct lack of success. Perhaps when Davies leaves in the fall the team will reconfigure to a five-mid approach… but with every game that McCarty plays well in a deep role, or poorly in an advanced role, I think Clyde’s future prospects with D.C. get dimmer and dimmer.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for Dejan Jakovic. We still don’t know if he can purge that last (but oh-so-crucial) remaining percentage of stupid plays from his game. And if he doesn’t, he won’t be a successful starting CB for a championship side. Not at this level, anyway. With a little more experience under their belts, a Kitchen-White pairing at center back could be a very appealing prospect; I suspect that Dejan should keep an eye on real estate in Vancouver and Montreal.
Fungible assets: Kurt Morsink, Joseph Ngwenya, Daniel Woolard, Devon McTavish, Steve Cronin.
Every team has its interchangable parts, guys who could be replaced by shopping in the USL. None of them are bad players, any or all of them could be part of the next successful DCU squad… but frankly, it doesn’t matter whether these particular guys are filling in or not. Salary and health will dictate how long they wear black.
Aaaand… you’re done: Burch, Fred, Brasesco.
Marc Burch briefly looked like he might have figured things out in April, but then proved it was a mirage. I’ve seen more than enough at this point.
Don’t get me wrong, Fred da Silva still has his uses. But he’s lost a step, if not two. While speed was never the foundation of his game, as he slows down he will become less versatile. Within another year or two, his game will be reduced to "tricksy central attacking mid with minimal defensive utility"… and that’s not a player we’re likely to pay real money to have on the roster.
I assume that Rodrigo Brasesco is also going out the door, on the basis that he hasn’t been able to get playing time despite all the instability in the back line. Benny didn’t even feel like using him in the Ajax game. What I have seen of Brasesco suggests that there’s a player in there somewhere, but it seems for whatever reason that he’s just not going to work out here.
Overall, I am tremendously pleased with the progress the club has made in the last six months. The defensive foundation is very promising, much closer in talent and commitment to what we saw in the Bruce Arena era than to the hodgepodge assemblies we have been treated to in recent years. This will make the front office’s job much easier this winter: knowing that many key needs are already fulfilled, Payne, Kasper, and Olsen can focus on the attacking half, where we are likely to need a near-complete overhaul in the next 18 months.
But of course, if they find a way to splurge on a transformative playmaker in July, and we surge toward a deep playoff run this fall, no one will be complaining…