The 2012 season was full of storylines for D.C. United. The slightest tweak in one direction could have put United into the MLS Cup Final. A different tweak could have easily placed us in sixth place, outside of playoff position for the fifth year in a row. The slightest tweak could have had us questioning whether Ben Olsen's tenure here should continue, rather than us rallying around the proposition of him being the MLS Coach of the Year.
One of the major storylines this season revolved around Dwayne De Rosario. Any player coming off an MVP season would have to be a part of a big storyline, right? De Rosario wound up becoming an even bigger storyline when he up and got himself injured when playing for Canada. DeRo sprained his MCL and was considered by many to be out for the remainder of the season.
We all know what happened afterward. The story wrote itself. United immediately embarked on a nine-game unbeaten streak that was enabled in large part by a shift in strategy. No longer did United have a world class player who could create chances for himself and for others basically from scratch. No longer did they have an all-around great forward.
With the team's biggest star on the shelf, United was left with only role players. They had one forward who excels at finishing but little else, another forward who can win balls and hold up play with the best of them but lacks a trigger finger, and a final forward with a killer left foot who was often wildly inconsistent. Olsen had to adapt his lineup to include the players who gave the team the best chance to win, but not necessarily the best chance to score four goals a game anymore. Lionard Pajoy became the lone striker, and Marcelo Saragosa became a starter in the midfield.
Somehow, it worked brilliantly.
While the second half of the 2011 season was all about De Rosario conjuring up goals because he was United's only legitimate scoring option, the second half of the 2012 season was precisely the opposite. It was about the team coming together defensively while getting goals from unexpected places when they were needed the most. 2011 was DeRo. 2012 was Saragosa and Lewis Neal. But the 2012 season also resulted in a third-place overall finish, and featured four matches in the month of November. 2011 was over by Halloween.
So what would have happened though if De Rosario had never disappeared from our lineup? What if he finished the season with two healthy MCL's? What if De Rosario had skipped that infamously fateful trip to Panama?
It's possible that the results wouldn't have been very different. Maybe United would have dropped more than a single goal on teams like Toronto FC and Chivas USA, but the undefeated streak and the third place finish still may have been the end result. And as Chest has already noted, we probably would have seen a little more of Hamdi Salihi and a little less of Lionard Pajoy, due to the added work rate that De Rosario provides when tracking back.
Since United didn't really need De Rosario to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, we don't need to spend a ton of time breaking down how things might have been different prior to that series against the Houston Dynamo. And when De Rosario came in for the final 30 minutes, his impact was clearly evident. He sent one perfect cross into Maicon Santos that could have been a goal, and his presence in the box certainly played a factor in allowing Branko Boskovic to finish his run and score. With De Rosario for all 180 minutes, that series could have ended much much differently.
But at the same time, I can't help but wonder if United would have even reached that point though if De Rosario hadn't missed any matches due to injury. United thrived when transitioning into a more possession-oriented team with a compact defense. That transition might not have happened had De Rosario not suffered an injury. And sure, United might have scored more goals in the month of September, but maybe they would have allowed more goals too if De Rosario was on the field instead of Saragosa.
I don't doubt that United would have still made the playoffs, or that United would have even finished anywhere lower than second place in the East. But it's worth noting that United gave up a total of six goals in three regular season matches against the New York Red Bulls with De Rosario this year. In the playoffs, United gave up only a single goal in two matches without him.
That could just be a coincidence of course. It could be that our improved goals against average without De Rosario has much more to do with the emergence of Bill Hamid, Dejan Jakovic, and Brandon McDonald as some of the top players at their respective positions in MLS.
Maybe if De Rosario hadn't gotten injured, we'd be breaking down United's upcoming match against the LA Galaxy, instead of sitting here asking What If. Maybe we'll get to find out next year.