In order for United to be awesome, Branko Boskovic has to be awesome.
We're spending the last week before MLS First Kick with some previews of the 2012 season, as each member of the Black And Red United staff gives his answer to various questions.
So what will be the biggest storylines for D.C. United in 2012?
Martin: If we were having this conversation a month ago, I would have said the contract of Dwayne De Rosario. There was a big fear that a contract dispute with the MLS MVP would eventually sabotage this season for United. With him earning a new deal of designated player stature though, that is now no longer a concern.
And so instead we turn our eyes towards Branko Boskovic, who is under contract only through this summer. Can United afford to keep him past that date if he isn't quite living up to his potential? Can they afford not to? We're all very optimistic that Boskovic will be truly great this season, and have a huge impact on the field. And hopefully that will come true. If for whatever reason (fitness? injury? whatever) it doesn't, United's formation and tactics may need drastic changes, in the form of either moving De Rosario back to the midfield, or starting Stephen King. Those aren't great options. Those aren't championship-contending options. In order for United to be awesome, Boskovic has to be awesome. That's a huge storyline for this club.
Chest: As much as United's offseason has been focused on the attack with the acquisitions of Hamdi Salihi and Danny Cruz as well as the return to fitness of Branko Boskovic and Dwayne De Rosario getting his deserved contract extension, DC's problems in 2011 were not really at that end of the field.
With on-field success the surest way to get attention in the press and amongst fans, I'm going to go with the moves made to improve United's defense as our biggest storyline in 2012. If Robbie Russell and Emiliano Dudar can bring their experience to an athletic but sometimes inattentive back four, and if Perry Kitchen is ready to be the lone defensive midfielder on an attacking team, the sky is the limit for United. If not, however, we could be looking at another up-and-down season where Ben Olsen's squad must score 3 or 4 every time to be sure of a win.Benuski: The biggest storyline for D.C. United in 2012 will be the continued development of Ben Olsen as a coach. Even now, he is only three years removed from his playing career and has now spent more time as a head coach than he ever did as an assistant. But now he has completely stripped away anything that isn't his about the team and he has rebuilt it in his own image. He has been given all of the necessary parts, and now we will see what kind of coach he really is. I, for one, think it will turn out well and the front office's faith in Olsen will be rewarded.
I believe that, even if United do not make the playoffs, Olsen should be given a third year. Look at how long it took Schellas Hyndman in Dallas to put together his team, and how many people were calling for him to be fired after two years. But Hyndman had a track record of success at the college level that Ben doesn't have. Like I said, I think he should get a third year regardless, but if United don't make the playoffs this year, I don't know if he will.
AMT: Goals, goals, goals. If this team jels - and I think it will - we could be seeing one of the most potent attacks in the league. LA's got the names, but the Bruce's style lends itself to a lot of 1-0 games; Seattle get more looks at goal than almost anybody, but they have trouble finishing for long stretches. The Red Bulls are and always will be the Red Bulls ('nuff said). With United's front five, though, we have pace, passing vision and range, and finishing ability in the air or on the ground. We have the ability to strike from distance or to get to the end line and cross. We have the ability to drive dead balls into the net or to provide service to bodies in the box. The goals are going to come fast and furious for United this year.
The flipside might apply, though, too. The question that'll need to be answered for United is whether the defense will step up from its subpar 2011. I think it will, even if not to an extent that will compare with RSL's amazing 2010 impenetrability. Even a moderate improvement over the last couple years, though, when paired with the potential this attack has, could make United a contender in the East.
I'll go out on a limb a little bit with a secondary storyline: Who will United be losing this summer? Look at the young talent on this roster - Bill Hamid, Perry Kitchen, Andy Najar, Chris Pontius, and more. We all expect to lose at least one of these guys to a European club in the next 18 months, but would anybody be surprised to see a club run at one of them during the summer transfer window? The risk has to be even higher now that several of these guys spent part of this winter training with teams in Europe. Now, it's no guarantee that we'll be losing anybody - but it's certainly well within the realm of possibility, and United might find themselves in a situation similar to what FC Dallas faced last year with George John.