The top spot on MLS's allocation list - rules, such as they are, about a quarter of a way down this page - is one of the many avenues D.C. United has to improve after a 2013 season that was some combination of woeful, nightmarish, farcical, and bewildering. In fact, it could be one of the very best ways to improve the team quickly, since the list applies to capped USMNT players or anyone that left MLS on a transfer fee. In other words, the chances of acquiring a potential starter are higher from this mechanism than just about any other.
Furthering the potential for this top spot turning into something worthwhile, this appears to be a very good year to be atop that list. Several USMNT players aren't playing much these days with their European clubs, which means their chances of going to Brazil are dwindling every single day they don't find regular playing time. That pressure to find minutes now makes this far more promising than last year, where Carlos Bocanegra was the only player worth using an allocation spot (yes, we used our spot too, but the acquisition of Carlos Ruiz clearly angered the gods and should never be spoken of again).
Most of the focus as far as potential allocation players has understandably been on USMNT fringe players, but the news last night pointed towards the first potential allocation player not fitting that mold. Instead, it could well be former Chicago Fire midfielder Marco Pappa, whose contract with Dutch side SC Heerenveen was apparently terminated. MLSsoccer has the best summary of this multinational rumor. In brief, the Dutch reports say Pappa is now a free agent, while the Guatemalan press says he wants to return to MLS.
Let's start out first by noting that there is no rumor mentioning United as Pappa's most likely landing spot. Numerous clubs pursued Pappa when he was a Fire player, including Newcastle, Wigan, Villarreal, and Colo-Colo of Chile, so there are no guarantees that he comes back to these shores. However, since the Fire received a fee when Pappa went to Heerenveen, any MLS return would require being placed in the allocation system rather than a lottery or a first-come first-served process. That means that, should he sign a deal with the league, DC has first dibs.
What could Pappa do for United? He would provide an instant boost to the creativity at Ben Olsen's disposal, fitting in on either wing despite being heavily left-footed. When we last saw Pappa in MLS, he was coming off of his fourth straight season with at least five goals; in fact, in 2012 he managed to get to six despite leaving the Fire on August 30th. Having a goalscoring threat from wide midfield made a huge difference in 2012 for United, but the players who provided that threat are injury prone (Chris Pontius) and/or inconsistent (Nick DeLeon). Even if both of those two were at their best, Pappa would be a serious competitor for starts assuming his time in the Eredivisie didn't somehow make him worse at soccer. He'd also replace Dwayne De Rosario as the United player with a Goal of the Year on his resume.
Pappa's ability to break teams down on the dribble is his best weapon. Regardless of where he lines up, he's a constant threat to beat his man, and we've lacked that sort of dribbling talent since Andy Najar went off to the beer paradise that is Belgium. In 2013, United was crying out for a player who could turn the tidy possession soccer we put together somewhat regularly into actual attacking danger, and a top-notch dribbling threat would have, at the very least, kept us from flirting with record-setting futility. United has improved in a lot of ways, but even if Fabian Espindola signs tomorrow, Pappa would be a better player on the dribble than we currently have on the roster.
Of course, there are downsides. Pappa - like many egoista-type players - often calls his own number when there are better options available. Despite being predominantly a wide midfielder, Pappa averaged nearly four shot attempts per 90 minutes played in his last two seasons with Chicago (and part of that time was playing in a diamond built entirely around getting Sebastian Grazzini the ball). He can also let his temper get the best of him, which usually causes him to shrink away from the game or sulk because the team isn't playing how he wants them to play.
Pappa's personal issues don't really overrule what he'd bring to the table. In a vacuum, United's only excuse for opting not to take Pappa would be either a) MLS gives him an inflated contract or b) we have someone else very similar lined up already. Given the circumstances of Pappa's return, the former seems unlikely since MLS would have all the leverage. The latter is also unlikely.
The problem is that United isn't signing players in a vacuum. Realistically, we get one shot at using our allocation spot, and the best time to be in this spot is in a World Cup year. There are myriad options as far as this goes, and just taking the first player available could end up being reckless. Here's a brief rundown of just some of the other players United could get a look at this year:
A forgotten man at Stoke City, Edu's only shot at going to Brazil is to start playing ASAP and then play very, very well. That would be even more difficult if Edu waited until March to resume playing and did so with brand-new teammates, but a longshot for him would be a sure thing for United. A central midfield of Perry Kitchen and Edu would instantly be MLS's most overpowering, and Edu's inner box-to-box marauder would be freed up to burst into the area. Plus, Edu would add to our near-endless roster of Maryland Terrapins.
If there's a downside, it's that Edu hasn't shown much interest in moving for playing time since returning from his spring loan to Turkish club Bursaspor. When everyone was talking about where Brek Shea will go to find minutes and stay on Juergen Klinsmann's radar, his Stoke teammate Edu wasn't even mentioned. Maybe Edu is quietly making moves right now to set up another loan to a good league like he did last year, but it could be that he's content with things as they are.
The other issue would be his contract, since I'm of the opinion that Edu would expect a DP contract. Remember, he left MLS for something above $4 million in 2008, and would be taking a pay cut even if he received a Hamdi Salihi sort of salary. If Edu got a DP deal, he's exempt from the allocation rankings.
He's local. He'd instantly be the most physically intimidating player United has ever had. He's said that if he ever plays in MLS, he'd prefer to play for United. His USMNT chances are essentially nil after barely playing at all (27 league appearances in three years!) following his departure from Standard Liege, but at this point a move to MLS might be simply about playing real games, period. He's currently stuck on the bench with Queens Park Rangers after arriving to find their back four already in place and doing very well, which is kind of how his past few seasons have gone during the times he's been healthy.
In this case, the problem would be more from United's end. We just spent a useful asset (first selection in Stage 2 of the RED) and spent a lot of money to get Bobby Boswell. Having one slow center back is something you can work around, but in modern soccer speedy players are more common than ever before. Pairing Boswell with Gooch would make United unbeatable in the air but extraordinarily vulnerable to speed and through balls up the gut. Remember Chris Pontius and Charlie Davies cutting up Chivas in 2011? We'd have the same issue Chivas had that night, except all season long.
Plenty of USMNT fans have a strong distaste for Jones, who can be over-aggressive and tends to give the ball away by forcing his passes. Still, the issues are overblown. It helps to think of Jones as the Jonathan Bornstein of today's USMNT: He might not be the best starter for the Yanks,but he'd still be a very good MLS player. Hell, he was a strong player for Schalke 04 - still alive in the UEFA Champions League - up until the moment he submitted a transfer request a couple days ago. Whatever your nervousness is about Jones, he's probably going to be a strong MLS player.
The issue with waiting for Jones is a simple one: He'll almost certainly demand a DP deal given his current status as a USMNT starter and his long tenure with one of Germany's top clubs. Not only that, but he already owns a home in Los Angeles and seems quite intent on moving there. If Jones were to come back to MLS and didn't ask for a DP salary, United's hopes would still be down to whether the Galaxy would be willing to trade up to sign him ahead of Chivas USA. That could be a pretty nice deal for United (in our Daft Punk's "One More Time" fueled dreams, this means Juninho), but in any case the chances of Jones playing for the Black-and-Red are very low no matter what salary he wants.
That specific trade talk provides a nice segue into more general discussions. What if United can get a top-quality current MLS starter out of someone for the #1 spot? Maybe Edu, a California native, has eyes for a return home? What if word leaks out that a national team player wants to return to MLS after the World Cup? It could be that said player is a big enough deal that United would be better off extracting a pound of flesh to let that deal go through. The pool of players that go through the allocation ranking usually appears predictable at first, but there's always a wildcard in there.
In the end, United's options are abundant. Taking Pappa would still make this team better, full stop. However, we could then miss out on someone that would improve United even more. If we get involved in some kind of trade, what if we get bamboozled somehow? Assuming the rumors are correct and Pappa does want to come back to MLS, he's a bird in the hand for United; do we turn that down to hunt two in the bush?
Personally, I began writing this piece thinking "well, it's not the worst idea, but I'd rather hold out for better." However, in looking over the potential "better" options, all come with serious issues. The possibility of waiting for the unexpected returning USMNT player is tempting, but that's so risky. What if we're still waiting in August or September? That will mean the allocation spot was utterly wasted. Pappa may not be the superstar people want, but he's a very good goalscorer for a midfielder, he adds an important element to our play that we don't have, and he's still only 26 years old.
What I'm trying to say is that looking more closely at this issue has made me reconsider my earlier feeling that Pappa was merely an acceptable use of our allocation ranking. I think he'd fit in quite well to how Olsen wants to play, and it wasn't long ago that I was clamoring for United to trade for Marvin Chavez. Pappa's not as fast as Chavez, but he's more skillful and younger. Circumstances might turn it into a mistake, but Pappa seems like a pretty safe option in terms of turning our allocation ranking into an important contributor. I'd have a hard time getting upset about it.
That's where I'm landing, anyway. How about you? Have at it in the comments.