Yesterday, D.C. United made the two biggest in-season moves of any MLS team in 2011. First, the Black-and-Red sent allocation money to the San Jose Earthquakes for defender Brandon McDonald. If that potentially (more on that later) excellent trade wasn't enough, the club then traded Dax McCarty to the New York Red Bulls for Dwayne De Rosario in a move that came as a shock to most observers.
The moves D.C. made this past offseason were mostly in the "build for tomorrow" category, especially in terms of young defensive talent. The move to acquire Charlie Davies on loan could also be characterized the same way, as United has a buyout clause with FC Sochaux to keep the joint-leader for the 2011 Golden Boot. The other move thought to fit this category was acquiring Dax McCarty, a player the club seemed to believe would quickly become a core player to build a team around in central midfield.
With these trades, things have changed. As Martin pointed out yesterday, United is now betting big on this season being a success. Coming into the season, most people - myself included - would have told you that United was going to be in the jumble of teams battling for the last MLS wild card playoff spots. Traditionally, those spots end up determined by a single standings point or even tiebreakers like head-to-head results or goal differential. We were in the tricky position of possibly having one unlucky bounce or one lucky call determine whether our 34 game season was a success or a failure.
That set of expectations meant that, if United came up just short, fans could at least begin to think of what Olsen's young guns would do in 2012 with a full year of experience together. Yesterday's trades take that thought process off the table; barring a terrible rash of injuries, this team now must qualify for the playoffs. Right or wrong, no one will be thinking about United's youthful promise if we finish 11th overall. D.C. may not quite have the "win it all this season" urgency that we see with the LA Galaxy or Seattle Sounders, but making the playoffs is now a requirement rather than a reasonable goal.
That's all off the field. Read on for what these moves will mean on the field and in the locker room:
Seeing as how one of these deals is a true (and all-too-rare) MLS blockbuster, we'll start there. Olsen tried, unsuccessfully, to have McCarty learn how to play at the point of a midfield diamond (or at least in the center of a midfield T, ahead of Clyde Simms). What we found was that, without a transcendent talent playing between him and the forward(s), it's hard to get the best out of McCarty. That's no knock on Dax; the role United wanted him to grow into was one that will take a very long time for him to come to grips with, if he ever does.
It also didn't help that our midfield was probably strongest playing in a Y-shaped set, with wide men Andy Najar and Chris Pontius pushing up high to terrorize fullbacks. McCarty probably could have gotten used to the job he'd have had in that formation - offensively, that would mean learning how to time his runs forward to be the late runner that causes chaos for opposing defenses - but we'll never find out.
De Rosario will undoubtedly play the point of a midfield diamond, recalling the look D.C. used in the halcyon days of Marco Etcheverry. While the diamond has become less fashionable in the past few years as teams look to crowd central midfield with two-way or outright holding midfielders, it can still work with the right personnel. Real Salt Lake play out of a narrow diamond, with the wide midfielders (particularly Will Johnson on the left) pinching inside to aid Kyle Beckerman defensively. Najar and Pontius have both proven adept at pinching inside like this when United has played teams that deploy three central midfielders. That detail will now become a game-in, game-out requirement, especially since a) Simms is not quite on the all-star level of a player like Beckerman and b) our back four is some distance behind that of RSL, who possess by far the best defense in MLS.
De Rosario offers up some positional versatility as well. While he has stated in the past that he prefers to play in a traditional #10 role, he has been effective on either flank, as a withdrawn forward, and even as a target player (provided we play to his feet; De Ro isn't a small or weak player, but he's not going to win a ton of aerial battles either). This is a big positive for Olsen, and allows him a significant amount of in-game tactical flexibility in terms of protecting a lead. Previously, our subs could be somewhat predictable; a central midfielder like Stephen King would enter for Josh Wolff, say, or we'd simply stay in the 442 with King replacing McCarty in hopes that the fresh legs would be enough. Now, Olsen can look at any attacking player with flagging energy and ask De Rosario to make a short-term shift. The variations we can now throw at opponents are a lot more complex than our occasional move to simply switch our wingers and see if that works.
So obviously De Rosario improves our lot on the field; what about off of it? We're talking about a complicated figure here. De Rosario has won 4 MLS Cups, a Supporters Shield, and has made the MLS Best XI in 5 seasons (United legend Jaime Moreno and former Chicago Fire defensive midfielder Chris Armas are tied with De Ro for the record in that category). De Rosario also has a reputation for the big occasion, with 2 MLS Cup MVP awards, 2 MLS Goal of the Year winners, and numerous other dramatic successes. Simply put, the guy is a winner.
However, this winner comes with some significant baggage. Since being traded from the Houston Dynamo to his hometown club Toronto FC - a move designed to let him play out his career where he grew up while prodiving TFC with some much-needed quality - De Rosario has been traded twice. Despite being their best player, Toronto was virtually jumping at the chance to jettison De Ro after he publicly embarrassed the club with his infamous "check-signing" goal celebration/raise demand (the video in that link is a perfect summary of the best and worst of De Ro; absolutely brilliant goal followed by a terribly-timed, tone-deaf choice to demand more money) and later by going on an unauthorized trial with Celtic. These incidents are now followed by what was essentially a cup of coffee with NYRB, though it should be noted that there have been no rumors of De Rosario causing waves in the NY locker room.
It can be said that De Rosario is a roll of the dice. Does he show up with his big personality under control? If so, the already dangerous United attack would jump up to being as dangerous as any in the league. Or, does he come down I-95 with the wrong kind of chip on his shoulder, causing issues in what appears to be a harmonious locker room? Plenty of United fans are worried given De Rosario's reputation as a volatile character, but I'm less worried.
Why so confident? Sitting a few feet away from Ben Olsen on our bench is a man by the name of Pat Onstad. Onstad was De Rosario's teammate with the Houston Dynamo (and before that, San Jose Earthquakes 1.0) and on the Canadian national team. These two played and trained together for a decade. Surely Onstad has told his fellow coaches (as well as the front office) what to expect from De Ro, and more importantly how to get the best out of him. Onstad got to see first-hand how Dominic Kinnear managed De Rosario's fragile ego, and as such is an ideal source of advice on the subject.
One final note on De Rosario's personality: Don't let his reputation as a stock "difficult, fragile #10" character lead you to believe some of the other stereotypes that come with that archetype. De Rosario puts in a respectable amount of work off the ball and defensively; we're not talking about a guy that functions as a passenger unless he has the ball. Also, despite being 33, De Rosario has a strong record of taking excellent care of himself away from the field, and is rarely injured as a result. De Rosario could easily play 3 or 4 more years without losing too much off his game, and will almost certainly not show up out of shape for the 2012 preseason. Lastly, despite being Canadian, De Rosario is a Green Card holder and will not count as an international player.
On to McDonald, whose acquisition may be a masterstroke. I say "may" because, as Steve Goff pointed out, McDonald is out of contract after this season and may be looking to go to Europe on a free transfer this winter. That's a very big deal; making a trade to keep McDonald for several years is a very intelligent move, but sending cash to San Jose to rent him for the summer and fall would be a mistake over the long term. One good piece of news on this topic is that McDonald's salary is just $45,000, which means United has plenty of room to raise his salary without ruining our salary cap situation. If DC can convince McDonald to stay and be a valuable member of the team, this will have been a superb piece of work from the oft-maligned Dave Kasper.
On the field, McDonald is going to be a big positive for United. While often described as hard-nosed or imposing, McDonald's main asset is actually his ability to read the game and organize his fellow defenders. D.C. has been crying out for years and years for just this sort of vocal leader in the back; with the young crop of defenders currently getting minutes, the need is as acute as it has ever been. McDonald is precisely the kind of player this group needed.
McDonald is not just a strong organizing force, however. He will also provide a grittier, more focused presence when it comes to getting the little things right in the back. D.C. has let in a near-flood of soft goals, but McDonald should be able to cut down on those by making the right decision early enough to end attacks before they become dangerous. It's less about spectacular diving blocks or Jamison Olave-style recovery tackles, and more about simply diagnosing the problem quickly and shutting it down. To be blunt about it, McDonald is immediately our best defender.
Like De Rosario, McDonald also offers us some positional flexibility. He has significant experience as an anchor-style defensive midfielder, where he can keep things tidy in between the midfield and defense. However, what's more likely is that McDonald will step straight into central defense, which will have ripples elsewhere. Perry Kitchen's positional versatility means that several veterans - Simms, Jed Zayner, and Dejan Jakovic when he returns from injury - will all be under immense pressure to keep their starting roles. It's safe to assume that Kitchen will be kept on as a starter somewhere, so one of those three is probably going to become a sub in the near future.
While many are clamoring for Kitchen to replace Simms, I don't think it's time for that yet; personally, I think we were at our most defensively sound using Kitchen as a right back. I'd prefer to see Simms given a real chance at succeeding in the role he'll have behind De Rosario, which will be more straightforward than the nuanced partnership with McCarty. Zayner is a solid player, but I think we can get the same results out of Kitchen at right back; I'm not so sure Kitchen is ready to be as consistently good at defensive midfield just yet.