D.C. United's Top 5 Challenges Entering 2013

Hopefully the Atlantic Cup is just one of many cups D.C. United will raise in 2013 - Patrick McDermott

Preparations for the 2013 season are now in full swing. Here are the top 5 challenges D.C. United must face as they get ready for next year's campaign.

This is an odd time of year in Major League Soccer. The season is not yet complete with the MLS Cup still to be played on Dec. 1, but most teams are firmly entrenched in offseason activities. Last week, we looked back at D.C. United's top 5 accomplishments of the 2012 season. Let's now turn our sights to next year, and put together a list of the top 5 challenges D.C. United must address heading into and during the 2013 campaign. These are the issues D.C. United must overcome to continue the great momentum they displayed on and off the field during 2012. As always, we want to see your list as well, so post those in the comments section below.

5. Start preparing the team for when Dwayne De Rosario is not available. Let's state it right up front: Dwayne De Rosario remains D.C. United's best player and inspirational leader. But, as we all saw at the end of 2012 when he went down, D.C. United was forced to play a different style of soccer than they wanted to play. While they had great success with this more defensive-oriented style of play, the team must begin to address the question during this offseason of how it will play, and who it will rely on, when De Rosario is not available, whether due to injury, substitution, or (eventually) when he is no longer with the team. Does Ben Olsen want the entire tactical direction of his team riding on the health of one player?

It's no secret that De Rosario is 34 years old, and will turn 35 early next season. And, while he may still have years of good play left in his legs, D.C. United must begin to factor in his age, and what they plan to do when he is not available, into almost every player acquisition decision they make for next season and beyond. One unexpected opportunity is that the departure of Branko Boskovic, although a beloved player, likely allows D.C. United to begin addressing this challenge in an easier fashion than if Boskovic had stayed with the team for 2013.

4. Strengthen the defense. D.C. United's defense in 2012 had a bend-but-don't-break quality to it. On the plus side, the team ranked in the top half of the league in goals conceded across the regular season by giving up only 43 goals (as compared to the overall league average of 44.9). On the negative side, however, D.C. United ranked third from the bottom in the total number of shots allowed by opposing teams. The table below is sorted based on this statistic, and D.C. United is keeping company with some of the worst teams in the league at the bottom of table. While this stat isn't a perfect indicator of how teams performed overall throughout the season (e.g. Colorado gave up fewer total shots than I would have expected, while D.C. United and the Chicago Fire gave up more total shots than expected), good teams tend to do well at limiting opponents' shot opportunities.

Team Total Points Made Playoffs Goals Against Total Shots Against
Sporting Kansas City 63 x 27 328
Real Salt Lake 57 x 35 382
Houston Dynamo 53 x 41 390
Colorado Rapids 37 50 395
Seattle Sounders 56 x 33 421
New York Red Bulls 57 x 46 428
Portland Timbers 34 56 429
Montreal Impact 42 51 433
Vancouver Whitecaps 43 x 41 434
Philadelphia Union 36 45 438
LA Galaxy 54 x 47 439
San Jose Earthquakes 66 x 43 440
New England Revolution 35 44 445
FC Dallas 39 47 446
Chicago Fire 57 x 41 480
Toronto FC 23 62 486
D.C. United 58 x 43 499
Chivas USA 30 58 502
Columbus Crew 52 44 503

For the season, United allowed 499 shots (the league average was 438). When compared to the fact that D.C. United took 451 shots, it is obvious the team was giving its opponents too many opportunities. Fortunately for D.C. United, the team (including Bill Hamid's excellent goalkeeping) limited the number of these opportunities that were converted to goals.

Lastly, immediately following the loss of De Rosario, D.C. United played the New England Revolution in their first game with Ben Olsen's more defensive approach. This ended up being the game in which D.C. United gave up the most shots (28!) of the season. Following this game, however, the defense improved and finished the season by averaging about one less shot allowed per game than they did during the entire regular season. While this was an improvement, the team will need even more improvement next season just to get to the league average of total shots allowed.

3. Figure out the forward position. As has been stated by Ben Olsen, team executives, and frequently on this site, the team has to figure out what to do at the forward position for next season. There's not much left to be said after this excellent FanPost (and the comments that go along with it), except to add it to the list of the top 5 challenges the team must address this offseason.

2. Get better results on the road. D.C. United followed a classic model for reaching the playoffs in 2012: pile up huge points at home and get draws on the road. OK, they actually only got three draws on the road, but overall they earned 18 points in 17 road games (1.06 pts/game). And, even though D.C. United ended the regular season as the overall third best team, they never were in serious contention for the Supporters' Shield from mid-summer on.

If D.C. United plans to make a run at the Supporters' Shield in 2013, they are going to have to do better than the "get draws on the road" mantra. Let's take a look at the records of the past seven Supporters' Shield winners compared to D.C. United's 2012 record to see what top teams have historically done:

Team Won Supporters Shield Total Points Home Wins Home Losses Home Draws Home Points Home Pts/ Game Away Wins Away Losses Away Draws Away Points Away Pts/ Game
2012 D.C. United N/A 58 12 1 4 40 2.35 5 9 3 18 1.06
San Jose Earthquakes 2012 66 10 1 6 36 2.12 9 5 3 30 1.76
LA Galaxy 2011 67 12 0 5 41 2.41 7 5 5 26 1.53
LA Galaxy 2010 59 9 4 2 29 1.93 9 3 3 30 2.00
Columbus Crew 2009 49 9 2 4 31 2.07 4 5 6 18 1.20
Columbus Crew 2008 57 11 2 2 35 2.33 6 5 4 22 1.47
D.C. United 2007 55 10 2 3 33 2.20 6 5 4 22 1.47
D.C. United 2006 55 9 3 4 31 1.94 6 4 6 24 1.50

What immediately jumps off the page is that D.C. United did everything they needed to do at home to win the Supporters' Shield in 2012. Of the past seven Supporters' Shield winners, only the 2011 LA Galaxy averaged more points at home. In 2013, the D.C. United home schedule is likely to be more difficult than it was this past season since D.C. United will play four of the Western Conference playoff teams (San Jose Earthquakes, Real Salt Lake, LA Galaxy, and the Vancouver Whitecaps) at RFK Stadium rather than on the road as they did in 2012. So, D.C. United getting more points at home in 2013 than they did in 2012 will be difficult.

When we look at how the recent Supporters' Shield winners performed on the road, however, we see what D.C. United will have to do to be competitive for the league's overall top spot. Over the past seven seasons, the Supporters' Shield winners have averaged 1.56 points per away game. If D.C. United can just equal this average in 2013, they will earn 27 points (rounding up) in their 17 away games. That would be nine more points than they earned on the road in 2012, and those nine points would have given them the Supporters' Shield in 2012 when added to the 58 points they already had.

Get at least nine more points on the road (three wins!) against what should be an easier road schedule than in 2012. That's the challenge for D.C. United in 2013, while continuing to keep RFK a fortress.

1. Build on the momentum of 2012 with the fans. Although 2012 was the historic low point for D.C. United home attendance, the season ended with significant momentum between the club and its fans. From the gritty seven-game unbeaten streak to end the season; to the incredible home finale on Oct. 20 against the Columbus Crew; to the drama surrounding the home playoff draw against the New York Red Bulls on Nov. 3; to the #700 and #300 at Thermopylae in Harrison, New Jersey (complete with the team and Will Chang joining the fans in the stands) in 480 BC on Nov. 7 and 8; to the tremendous environment before, during, and after the final playoff game against the Houston Dynamo on Nov. 18; the special relationship between D.C. United and its fans seems stronger than ever. The question is, what should the club do to build on this momentum?

D.C. United has already taken some important steps to keeping this positive energy moving forward next season. For example, the season ticket package for 2013 has some terrific benefits, and it includes several opportunities for season ticket holders to interact with the team. See this recent FanPost for an analysis of the new plan.

In my opinion, however, there is one major step the team could take that would energize the fan base and sustain the momentum into 2013. This step could take one of two forms:

a. Announce that the stadium deal is complete. This is easy for me to write, but I recognize it is not completely within the power of D.C. United to pull it off in this offseason. Probably no city in America is more difficult to get a stadium project completed in than Washington, D.C. The numerous stakeholders include the District Government and the Federal Government, neither of which are flush with cash at the moment, as well as the numerous other constituencies that have a real or perceived stake in the stadium deal. But, if anything can be done to complete and announce the deal before the 2013 season begins, D.C. United should do it! If that can't be accomplished before the 2013 season begins, however, D.C. United should take the step below.

b. Announce a firm commitment to keeping the team in D.C. The club has flirted with moving to Baltimore for a few years now. That talk certainly died down during the 2012 season, but it was never completely taken off the table. And, to be fair to D.C. United, they've seen the majority of their MLS competitors move into soccer specific stadiums (with all the advantages that brings), while they have been unable to complete a deal in the D.C. area. As such, Baltimore has served as a bargaining tool in the team's discussions with D.C., while also giving credence to United's contention that the long-term economics just won't work for the team in RFK Stadium. So, understanding that they've kept Baltimore on the table for perfectly valid reasons, the team should carefully consider making a statement like the following during this upcoming offseason to demonstrate to their fans their absolute commitment to the future of D.C. United in this area. My sense is the fans are ready for this, and it would make a big impact.

"Over the past three years, D.C. United has had productive discussions with the City of Baltimore and the State of Maryland about their interest in D.C. United relocating to a potential new stadium in Baltimore. While we very much appreciate their interest, and the passion of so many D.C. United fans in and around Baltimore, we are announcing today that our current ownership group and management team are unalterably committed to keeping D.C. United in the D.C. Metro area. Our first and overriding priority is to stay in the District by building an economically-viable, soccer specific stadium that will give us the opportunity to win championships and serve the community into the future. We continue to work diligently to ensure this happens. If, however, we are unable to conclude an agreement to build a new stadium in the District, we will broaden our search to other locations in the Metro area.

D.C. United has the best fans in all of Major League Soccer, and we will forever remain united with them in the D.C. Metro area. Vamos United!"

What do you see as the top 5 challenges facing D.C. United as they prepare for the 2013 season?

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