The Road Not Taken - What if Ben Olsen hadn't traded Dax McCarty and built D.C. United around Dwayne De Rosario?

Mike Stobe

In mid-2011, D.C. United traded newly-acquired captain Dax McCarty to the Red Bulls for Dwayne De Rosario, and Ben Olsen's blueprint for his side was instantly flipped on its head. What if the trade had never happened? We look at the alternative history.

During the offseason after the last Worst Season Ever, D.C. United traded away a draft pick and promising/disappointing fullback/midfielder Rodney Wallace to the Portland Timbers for Dax McCarty, whom the expansion side had just acquired from the MLS Cup runner-up FC Dallas through the league's re-entry draft. United head coach Ben Olsen, soon to have the "interim" tag removed from his title, would quickly hand McCarty the 10-shirt and name him his captain as the former D.C. midfielder sought to rebuild the team in the image of the great United sides of years past.

But the plan's flaws appeared right away. Dax McCarty was not the attacking midfielder Olsen wanted him to be, and the diamond midfield Benny had planned on using - with McCarty at the top point - was forced to flatten into a more vanilla 4-4-2. Dax didn't exactly rise to the captaincy on his end, letting the burden of formal leadership affect his play for the negative.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, the New York Red Bulls had acquired Dwayne De Rosario from Toronto FC just a couple games into the year after DeRo had made his discontent with his hometown club public. But the Metros weren't any happier with their new piece than United were with theirs, and a trade was worked out: Dax for Dwayne, straight up.

What had been a rebuilding year for United instantly became a "win now" situation, as Kevin Payne, Dave Kasper and Ben Olsen - the braintrust in charge of the Black-and-Red's personnel decisions - knew that the over-30 De Rosario would only have so many years left in his legs, even if the Canadian international took famously good care of himself.

Stylistically, there was an obvious adjustment from the ex-captain to the new captain. Dax was, essentially, a holding or linking midfielder being played out of position in a more attacking role. DeRo was all attack. McCarty was always a possession-minded safety-first player. DeRo was, again, all attack. Dax never met a breakaway he couldn't flub - leading then-Manager of B&RU Martin Shatzer to assign the verb "to dax" to holding the ball too long and ruining a clear chance from a breakaway. DeRo was famously clinical in front of goal and able to score from virtually anywhere on the field.

DeRo was, in short, the attacking midfielder Ben Olsen was looking for. But there were consequences that rippled through the rest of the roster. Building around De Rosario meant that United would be a more direct team, as the one-time Richmond Kicker nearly always played with his ears pinned back. This actually fit in well with some other pieces United had at the time, namely Chris Pontius and Charlie Davies. But it worked less well with others, like the Montenegrin attacking midfielder on the roster, Branko Boskovic, a Designated Player brought in midway through the disastrous 2010 season. It would also spell doom for 2012 acquisition Hamdi Salihi, the Albanian striker who would only last one year in the District before departing along with Boskovic last winter.

We all know what happened. In 2011, De Rosario would set the league on fire, winning the league MVP award even as United just missed out on the playoffs. In 2012, United would find their stride in late spring before stuttering in early fall. When DeRo was hurt on national team duty, Olsen again was forced to change his tactics to a much more defensive posture and would see his club go on a 7-match unbeaten run on their way to the 2-seed in the Eastern Conference MLS Cup playoffs and eventually the Eastern Conference final (where De Rosario would come on late in the loss to the Houston Dynamo).

What we don't know is what would have happened had the trade never occurred. What if DeRo had stayed in New Jersey and Dax McCarty in D.C.? We know that DeRo became an MVP and team captain in D.C., while Dax eventually grew into a very solid holding midfielder for the Red Bulls, but we can't know whether that would have been the case had they stayed put. We know that up until this year, United probably had the better of the trade, but going forward, the Dax & the Metros will have a monopoly on any future value. Beyond that, all we can really do is speculate - since this is the Offseason of our Discontent, let's do just that.

On paper, the alternate version of United is tantalizing.

Here's a list of players who were pegged by at least some to be major attacking pieces for the Black-and-Red but who departed RFK at some point after DeRo arrived: Charlie Davies, Branko Boskovic, Hamdi Salihi, Rafael Teixeira de Souza, Raphael Augusto. Add in Dax McCarty, whose departure allowed DeRo to come in, and there are a lot of similarities across the group. Before we get into that, I know that some of those pieces didn't overlap, and others were brought in well after DeRo was established as the team's focal point. But let's just assume that these decisions would have been made regardless of whether Dax or DeRo were in the squad.

Back to those similarities. These names represent a truckload of skill on the ball. More importantly is the style of play these players bring and how it contrasts with De Rosario's. Discounting Davies, it's a slower, more possession-based game that would build attacks deliberately and would be more likely cut through defenses with a scalpel than a the hatchet that DeRo might prefer. It's looks like something closer to Jason Kreis' Real Salt Lake than to the version of D.C. United that's developed since the trade.

The other big similarity among all of those names (McCarty excepted) is their collective absence from Major League Soccer. After leaving United, not one of them found a spot elsewhere in the league. We know they couldn't coexist with DeRo, but there's every possibility, even probability, that most or all of them wouldn't have lasted in MLS even if los Capitalinos' style better suited their own. Even if Salihi and Boskovic may have adapted to the rigors of MLS, both Rafas are big question marks, and Davies would almost certainly have washed out (as his lack of any production since leaving United should evidence). Only Dax, the value we had to trade away to get value, remains viable in the U.S. top flight.

But that won't stop many of us from wondering "what if?" What if McCarty had still been around when Boskovic gained his fitness? What if Salihi, always a luxury player and a poacher, had been brought into a side that jealously hoarded the ball rather than playing a more direct style? What if Raphael Augusto, whose first instinct was overwhelmingly to play the ball to his teammates' feet rather than into space, had joined a D.C. United that looked first to retain possession rather than to get forward? What if Rafael had somebody other than Lionard Pajoy to sit behind as he grew into his Young DP status?

All of which bring me to the big non-conclusion this piece was always heading toward: We just don't know. We don't know if any, let alone all, of these guys would have cut it here even if United's style matched theirs perfectly. We have no idea whether they would all have gelled with each other and the rest of the roster. We can only guess how Olsen would have managed minutes for a central midfield that included McCarty, Boskovic, Augusto, Perry Kitchen, John Thorrington, Lewis Neal and whomever else the team acquired.

On paper, the alternate version of United is tantalizing. Lots of names with promise, but precious little production in our universe. Until someone gets Jerry O'Connell to slide with them to the parallel world where the Dax-for-DeRo trade never happened, that's the most we can know.

But don't let that stop you from sounding off in the comments. What do you think would have happened had DeRo remained a Red Bull and McCarty remained in the District?

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