As we head into a winter of much less discontent than we experienced one year ago, DC United has a substantial list of decisions to make about the guys we have on the roster now: who goes, who stays, who gets a raise, who else do we bring in, and how do we fit all this under budget.
Using the players union salary figures from October, we can see that United had $3.45 million in base salary on the books at the end of the season. Rather than try to work out our "salary cap" math with incomplete information, I've gone ahead and treated that base salary total as if it were DC's budget limit. This should capture the essence of the finances involved without getting bogged down in DP limits, GA exceptions, total allocation money accrued by the team, etc., etc. On that basis, what do we have and what does management need to consider?
I’m going to assume for the purposes of this post that, regardless of how long a player’s contract has left to run, the team can essentially retain or dismiss the player at will. Obviously, in some cases this would require a trade or sale (to dispose of the player) or a raise (to retain him), and these things are not certainties; however, the chance that the team cannot find a buyer for unwanted talent or will not pay the freight for its young & improving players is very low.*
So, let’s crunch the numbers a bit.
(All player salaries below listed in thousands)
The only question mark here is whether Hamid decides to jump ship for Europe. I would recommend against it in his case, because he’s a goalie, and if he moves there now he runs a real risk of stunting his own development due to a lack of game experience. Another year of starting duty in MLS would strengthen his game and strengthen his hand when he does go. But hey, it’s not my career.
The best thing about Joe Willis’ performance this season is that he not only showed himself to be a competent backup, he also went a long way toward nailing down the long-term starting job in DC once Hamid does leave. From DC’s point of view, Willis is a nearly perfect roster fit: dirt cheap at the moment, capable of stepping into the job at any time, with a ceiling of "very solid MLS starter", yet unlikely to be so good as to attract attention from across the pond. I could see Willis being our guy in net for 15 years… no, it’s not particularly likely in this day and age, but it’s plausible.
I’m not convinced that Dudar ended up riding the pine down the stretch for any reason other than bad luck… he was injured in midsummer, and by the time he was healthy again, BMac and Jakovic had gotten in sync and didn’t give him another opening. If Benny is comfortable with the McDonald/Jakovic pairing going forward, and I think he probably is, then Dudar may become a cap casualty… but I suspect the club will retain him and keep a 3-guys-for-two-slots situation at center back. It's a bit inefficient in budget terms, but center back is not an area where you want to take big risks.
Ethan White seemingly had a lost season this year. He was injured, then he struggled while out on loan. There's no reason to believe the club will give up on him at this time; at a minimum, he still provides depth coverage for the position.
Chabala gets disposed of in some way. Russell presumably returns as veteran depth, but he’ll have a hard time hanging onto starter minutes with Korb’s emergence. Korb has definitely earned a better salary, but he won’t break the 70k barrier right now. Woolard will return, but Lord knows whether he’ll be effective or not… getting that concussion right as he was hitting his peak was a raw deal.
And then, there’s Andy Najar. What we saw from him this year convinced me that fullback is his future, because guys who can provide his level of attacking skill and mark their man well and run hard for 90 minutes are a scarce commodity in world football. If that future is not in Europe starting this January, then something is very broken in European scouting of MLS. Any top-flight club ought to be happy to pay $5 million to get a hold of him; the price will only go up from here. DC should do what they can to retain him, because you never know, but I’d be planning for him to be gone.
You can pry Perry Kitchen from our cold, dead fingers at this point. Saragosa was great value for the money, he has his faults but he does the job and fits in well. Neal is a utility midfielder, not a holding mid per se, but he’d look just as wrong in the "fullback" or "attacking mid" categories… Benny obviously loves his versatility, and will probably keep him around for a few years here.
Whether we need more depth depends on whether Benny actually wants to play with two holding mids or was merely forced to by circumstances. I suspect it’s the latter, and no reinforcement is required; but that’s just a guess, we need more tea leaves to read.
Pontius and DeLeon can also be pried from our cold, dead fingers, but in Pontius’ case it is possible that somebody will flash enough cash to turn our fingers cold and dead. Unlikely, IMO, but possible. Stephen King could fall victim to the raising of the bar – the Standard no longer meets the standard. Augusto seemed to impress enough to stick around. Rozeboom will have to fight for a roster spot all over again from scratch.
Boskovic… I’ve found it helpful to think of him as if he were 35 years old, rather than 30. Basically, he’s Youri Djourkaeff circa 2005. Given how hard it is to get his kind of set-piece skills on the open market, there’s a sound argument for retaining him at the current price; just be aware that he’s not going to be a full-time starter.
OK, so DeRo stays, Wolff presumably retires, and Tan gets to put his concrete boots on one more time for a trip to commune with the mutant fishes of the Anacostia. What remains are three guys who, in Benny’s words,
gave us good moments this year. None of them had a real complete year from a playing and scoring and production standpoint. So they all helped. But do we need a big-time forward? Yeah. I would like to have that. It’s not easy to get that. We will continue to search.
So one certainty is that we won’t be paying $600,000 in 2013 to fill one position with "[an in]complete year from a playing and scoring and production standpoint." At least, not intentionally. Salihi says he’s willing to come back, but I can’t see how that works out for any party here. I read Benny’s usage of these players, and his commentary, as indicating that the team will plan for now to use a Pajoy/Santos platoon at target forward, but will also throw that in the garbage bin the moment they can get their hands on a DP-grade striker.
If the team unloads Salihi, Wolff, Tan, King, and Chabala, loses Najar to Europe, and spreads $150k around in various wage increases, then we would have about $500k available and 22 players on the roster. Dumping Dudar would open up another $220k, but we would probably need to sink a majority of that right back into the same roster spot.
In short, we can make space to make some significant moves. Exactly how much budget space and how many moves is a matter for much debate, coming soon to a Black & Red United post near you.
* If you’re inclined to disagree with this assertion, ask yourself: how many players in MLS can you identify who started the 2012 season with their current team and were carried by that team all year because they couldn’t find a way to get rid of the guy? This isn’t like the major North American sports leagues, where A) the league in question (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL) is the top of the world pyramid, and B) long-term contracts with significant guarantees and limited buyout options are the norm. Player movement in MLS is very fluid at all times. Meanwhile, none of the kids are in line for a DP-level raise at this point.