Over the second half of the 2012 season there have been plenty of things for D.C. United fans to disagree on. Even as the club embarked on an impressive run during September and October, returned to the playoffs, and invigorated a fanbase that had seen casual support lapse, there were rumblings of discontent. The style of play, which I will diplomatically call "pragmatic," was not everyone's cup of tea. Players like Lionard Pajoy and Marcelo Saragosa became fixtures in the starting eleven, even though both have their vocal detractors.
One thing we can all agree on, however, is that striker is a position United needs to address. Kevin Payne admitted as much publicly when he noted to Steven Goff that a combination of Pajoy, Maicon Santos, and Hamdi Salihi would solve our problems. B&RU endorses this Dr. Frankenstein approach to player acquisition.
Each of our contributors at striker has good qualities, but all have a flaw or two that won't just disappear. Pajoy is our best back-to-goal player thanks to his size, first touch, and underrated passing ability. His movement is unconventional for an MLS target man, which causes confusion for opposing defenses while opening up avenues for our deadly band of goal-scoring midfielders. Even when Pajoy's sharpness on the ball is at its worst, he helps the team through his commitment to defending from the front.
On the other hand, Pajoy is the worst finisher of the group, and his tendency to play slow doesn't really fit the higher tempo United plays with when Dwayne De Rosario is on the field. That's a real problem, because until proven otherwise this is still De Ro's team. Our success over the last couple months just means we have an effective Plan B.
Santos is the best of the group in the air, has by far the best long-range shot, and is probably the player most likely to come up with a game-changing play (goal or assist). Unfortunately, Santos is also the least consistent of the trio. There's a reason we have had to keep the excellent "Mike Sanders" nickname bestowed on MFS by Toronto FC fans alive. Sometimes Santos is just off for no apparent reason, and when he's off he generally doesn't find a way to influence the game in a positive manner.
Salihi may be the favorite among the fans that want Pajoy benched. He holds an appeal that's easy to figure out: He's our best finisher, and finishing is kind of important for a forward. Salihi is comfortably ahead of both Pajoy and Santos in terms of keeping his shots on frame, as well as sniffing out chances in the box. He also has the best soccer IQ of the bunch, which is why his substitute appearances against tired players usually cause trouble. Tired players are not going to think as clearly or as quickly, and Salihi is great at taking advantage of those lapses.
Of course, if scoring goals was all we needed out of a striker, Salihi would be the starter. Sadly, the man who did not want a cow near him has some issues that have made his time in MLS less than successful. First and foremost, Salihi is slow. It's hard for a poacher to function on a team that wants to play up-tempo soccer, because he'll generally be behind the play if he had to check back to get involved in the build-up. Salihi's hold-up play is underrated in my opinion, but he's still not as imposing as Pajoy nor as able to win headers as Santos.
If there's one thing that could take this United team to the next level, it would be one more scorer as consistently dangerous as De Ro, Chris Pontius, and Nick DeLeon. The benefits would be at both ends: Obviously we'd convert more of our chances, but a more dangerous group of four attackers means we'd also be able to consider sticking with the double-pivot. That would maintain our defensive strength, which is particularly important with Andy Najar likely charging forward from right back for all of 2013.
That brings me to the player I'd place at the top of my wish list if I were running United: Herculez Gomez.
There's a lot to like about how Gomez would fit United. He offers (and arguably betters) Pajoy's work rate and speed, he can at least match the battling qualities and knack for the spectacular that we get from Santos, and he can match Salihi in the finishing and soccer IQ departments. While he's not quite Hamnard Salijoy (HFS for short) come to life, Gomez would combine most of the good qualities of our three strikers and comes with the added bonus of not needing an MLS adjustment period given that he already has seven seasons under his belt.
The one issue we'd have on the field is that Gomez is not going to be a target man like Pajoy or Santos. However, I don't think he has to be. When fully fit, Olsen's best ten plus Gomez would work as a unit to keep the ball rather than relying on the longer passes that Pajoy needs to hold onto for several seconds. Movement and technique would come back to the forefront, and those are the building blocks of attractive soccer. In this case, we'd have enough skill and scoring ability on the field to win games with that appealing style of play.
We'd also have some great tactical flexibility. If we find we're in a game where we need a target man, we can bring in Pajoy and play De Ro in the midfield. If De Ro needs a rest, we have real options aside from having to grind those games out and hope the bounces go our way.
Making this happen won't be easy. The good news is that an emphasis on younger players and the big step up by fellow striker Oribe Peralta has left Gomez as more of an oft-used substitute. That boosts the chances of him being willing to make a move and of Santos being willing to let him go for less than he's really worth. There were rumors recently that Chivas Guadalajara were interested, but they have apparently decided to stick with their policy of only employing players eligible to play for El Tri who are not naturalized citizens.
So where's the hard part? Simple: Gomez would command Designated Player wages. He told Don Garber precisely that a couple of years ago, and we're talking about a player that is consistently on the field for the US national team these days. Gomez is going to want a salary commensurate with what he earns in Mexico, and Liga MX clubs can afford to spend a lot more than an MLS side.
We're not just talking about a Salihi-style deal where the salary is barely over the DP threshold, either. More than likely, Gomez's salary would have to be the second-highest wage United has ever offered (behind Marcelo Gallardo's $1.2 million back in 2008). While Gomez may be willing to take a (very small) pay cut in exchange for being a full-time starter and moving from a dangerous city like Torreon, it would still likely require rich uncle Erick to OK an offer in the $700-800,000 range.
Some may think of Gomez's age - he'll turn 31 next April - as an issue. I don't necessarily think it's a problem, because Gomez is a late bloomer who doesn't have 10-12 years of playing 40+ games a season on his legs like many 30-and-up DPs do. Gomez doesn't play like a guy on the downside of his career; if anything, his play with the national team points to a guy at his peak.
There is one other obstacle out there: The MLS allocation system. United is currently 3rd on the 2012 allocation list behind Chivas USA - another team that would love to have Gomez - and San Jose. However, the list resets for 2013 in reverse order of the 2012 standings, which would place us 17th overall. In both cases, we'd have to trade something substantial to the team in pole position (Chivas or Toronto FC). Even if neither side has any interest in Gomez, they're hardly going to just step aside and let us pursue a player of his quality for some supplemental picks and the rights to Joseph Ngwenya.
All that said, I think it would be worth the cost. Gomez is an Olsen's Army kind of player: Skilled, tough, hard-working, has a bit of an attitude, and like many of our current starters was overlooked or underestimated in his past. Surrounded by the kind of creative talent we have right now, Gomez would be a lock to be among MLS's deadliest scorers, and bringing in a current USMNT starter would be a further step for DCU towards returning to the flagship club status that we once took for granted.
EDIT: A comment from Howard the Drake below notes something I had forgotten: Grant Wahl was told by Peter Vermes that Sporting Kansas City has the MLS rights for Gomez because they made him a qualifying offer before he left for Puebla.
KC would hate to see Gomez playing for the team that looks likely to be strong in the East for years to come, so if anything the offer we'd need to make them would be even higher than it would be for a desperate side like TFC. KC would also do well to sign Gomez themselves, so we'd be talking about a price so steep - Howard's asking about Perry Kitchen, for example - that we might have to pursue a different player.