This is my blogging debut. I hope I don't give our readers a reason to call for my head (as is becoming a popular activity amongst regular visitors to RFK Stadium). I'd like to again thank Shatz for inviting me to take part here. Before I really get started, I ‘d also like to apologize in advance for my overuse of parentheses, which is a habit I can't seem to break. Now, with that out of the way, let's jump right into the deep end.
The hustle and bustle of the draft is done, and it's time to start putting together a team. The consensus in the press seems to be that Philly ran off with the draft. I see this as overly high praise (unless Amobi Okugo, at just 18, becomes an above-average player regularly making an impact right away), but that's neither here nor there. United only had one very late pick - #55, used to grab youth academy product and DeMatha grad Jordan Graye - so making a big impact on draft day was always going to be difficult for DC. So, what do we do next? My ideas on the subject are beyond the jump.
I’m not losing too much sleep over our non-involvement in the draft. Why? Well, the single best player acquired by anyone in the draft or the trades surrounding the event is undoubtedly Troy Perkins. Most of the league, as well as many United fans, seems to be of the opinion that the price was too high. I’m not as worried about it; Fred was either going to be a totally inconsistent playmaker or an overpriced substitute, and the #7 pick was a) no guarantee and b) most likely just a sub. That might sound like a facile write-off of a quality pick, but consider our current likely starters. For the #7 pick to be more than a substitute, he would have had to step into one of the three most difficult roles on the field (center back, playmaker, or striker). Center back would have been difficult, since Ike Opara – the #3 pick – looks like the only sure starter at that position in this year’s draft pool. Playmaker would be an even more difficult role to fill within the draft; Sacha Kljestan and Steve Ralston (drafted in 1996!) are the only MLS draftees that currently are in true starting playmaker roles; a couple others fill a two-way role that leans attacking, but they are not true #10s in any real sense. Further, there were no "this guy will start immediately" attacking midfielders in the draft (Corben Bone, the best available playmaker, fell to #13 because there are doubts about him being able to either be a team's #10 or switch positions). I will admit that the #7 pick could have gotten us a good fourth striker, with Zach Schilawski, Andrew Wiedeman, and Andre Akpan all still on the board. However, no one would expect any of those guys to start over Chris Pontius, Jaime Moreno, or the mystery foreign striker we will undoubtedly be pursuing. Is a fourth forward really worth prioritizing over a starting goalkeeper when your alternative is Josh Wicks, Milos Kocic, or taking a chance on another foreign acquisition?
The allocation money thrown in probably makes the deal a bit of a stretch, but for our particular situation it’s worth it. Our back four, barring a veteran signing at center back, is going to be very young, and our two-year stint of poor goalkeeping happens to have coincided with two years without a playoff appearance. I’m sure we’re all sick of teams being handed goals by awful decisions, dropped crosses, and other easily avoided errors. At some point, we had to invest in our defensive players, and this is a very good start.
One of my favorite things about soccer is that your play at one end of the field always affects how you play at the other. Free-scoring teams with bad defenses don’t win titles, just as teams that don’t take care of the ball going forward find themselves defending constantly. The DC United sides of 2008 and 2009 scored enough goals to be a good team; the problems were obviously at the other end. Let’s not forget that every United team that won an MLS Cup had a solid defense that was able to cover for the fact that we devoted more numbers and more energy to going forward than coming back.
Now that we’ve got a goalkeeper we can trust, it’s time to figure out what move is next. Dave Kasper and Curt Onalfo still have a ton of work to do. If the season started today, we’d be looking at starting Julius James at center back, an uncertain situation at attacking midfield, and having few options up front other than Moreno and Pontius. We also have little reliable depth. That last problem will be fixed to a certain extent by bringing in starters at our problem positions, so I’m putting it on the back burner for now.
Given the choice, I’d prioritize our front line for now. Julius James needs to make some big strides in the mental side of his game, but I think we’d all be more comfortable starting him than we would if, say, Boyzzz Khumalo needed to start up front for a long stretch. It’s especially important, considering Moreno’s endurance, that we bring in someone that will seriously compete for a starting role. On the plus side, we don’t need to look for a guy that fits a specific profile. Pontius can lead the line, or play underneath a target man. Moreno has shown the ability to do this as well (though his target play would be a radically different approach to that of Pontius). The important thing is that, whomever we sign, he’s a quality player capable of adapting to MLS. Franco Niell, for example, made more of an impact in the Argentine league than he did here, despite the fact that Argentina’s league is obviously stronger than MLS. Finding guys that can deal with MLS’s emphasis on athleticism is critical. It’s also important that we realize that one forward won’t be enough; we need to find another player to give us 4 strikers we can start or bring in against any opponent (not just US Open Cup matches).
After our forward issues, things get messy. Do we focus on finding an attacking midfielder, or a central defensive partner for Dejan Jakovic? This probably depends on how we align our midfield. Onalfo has been up front about playing a 442, but has said that he could play a diamond or more of a flat midfield with one central player bursting forward. DC fans are familiar with the diamond, after years of worshiping at the altar of El Diablo. The best current example of the latter approach in MLS is the Houston Dynamo, with Stuart Holden taking up positions alongside Ricardo Clark when defending, yet making himself a constant threat in and around the box when the Dynamo comes forward.
We have players that can function in that flat midfield set up. Danny Szetela, badly misused by Tom Soehn, is probably the most natural fit in that two-way attacking position. He’s not a brilliant set-up man; rather, Szetela does well at combination play, where the overall movement of the ball throughout the team creates chances rather than waiting for individual brilliance. It’s also worth noting that, with his size and physical style of play, Szetela would add some bite to a midfield that is not exactly hard. We could also use Santino Quaranta there, though that would a) move him into a role that is no better than his third strongest and b) leave us in need of a right midfielder (or hope that Khumalo/Shipalane could make a difference there). However, if Onalfo would prefer having a diamond, he has no choice but to acquire a player currently not on the team.
At center back, I look at Onalfo’s time with the Wizards for examples. Aaron Hohlbein, among others, was tried alongside Jimmy Conrad in Kansas City’s central defense, and the results are not very good. However, these were players that probably overachieved; the fact that the Wizards were not out-and-out awful in defense gives me the idea that Onalfo got more out of bad groups than average.
While sticking with inferior players and hoping it works out is not a good way to succeed, something should be said for getting the most out of what you’ve got. James may not be on the verge of an all-star season, but I’d take him over any of the guys trotted out alongside Conrad. If Onalfo could get those guys to mediocrity, perhaps he can get the promising-but-flawed James to play above himself. I’m not saying it’s at all certain; I’m just entertaining the possibility.
As a result of that line of thinking, I’d prefer to see playmaker be the next position addressed (or the one addressed with the biggest share of resources). I think we can do more with a dangerous playmaker and James starting, rather than starting Szetela and a new center back. However, I’m honestly just splitting hairs; both have to be addressed if we want to be something more than a team needing a win on the last day of the season to get to the playoffs.