If someone were to create a list of the most common phrases said by D.C. United fans this offseason, "We need a striker" would almost certainly be at the top of the list. The departure of Charlie Davies - regardless of how it probably made sense for United - left a glaring hole in the starting line-up. Defensive reinforcements and depth in the midfield were also required, but I'd estimate that 9 out of 10 DC fans wanted a striker first and foremost.
While new signing Maicon Santos was a reasonable acquisition, using him as a full-time starter would have left the faithful at RFK underwhelmed. Fans would have been grumbling while also hoping for a repeat of the Christian Gomez signing back in the summer of 2004. The attack would have produced enough goals to be in the playoff race, but not enough to realistically hope for any trophies.
Problem solved. Albanian striker Hamdi "The Bomber" Salihi and his absurd goalscoring record are coming to DC, despite interest from both Rangers and Celtic in Scotland, Changchun Yatai of China, and possibly even Premier League clubs. Between Salihi's salary - likely somewhere between $500,000 and $750,000 - and the unknown transfer fee United had to shell out to bring him in, "The Bomber" will be a Designated Player.
I'm not the only person who was surprised by the news. On one hand, it's great to be signing a forward with a proven record of scoring for a big club in a decent league, and the fact that he only just turned 28 is icing on the cake. This is the kind of signing you want to see your club make.
However, I can't pretend that I was expecting any Designated Players to arrive. When Craig Stouffer of the Washington Times scooped everyone on Wednesday, I assumed that there was no way Salihi would be a DP. It honestly never even crossed my mind. I figured that the end of the European transfer window had reduced his options to the point that he would be willing to take a deal at the high end of the MLS salary spectrum, but short of the DP threshold. The possibility of United spending that kind of money seemed non-existent.
As of a few weeks ago, the big questions for United were on the field. Now, provided our former Rapid Wien stars have the kind of success they had in Austria, those questions are answered. DC United should find themselves closer to the top of the MLS table than the bottom in 2012. Now, however, we're stuck with some very important questions off the field: How do we keep Dwayne De Rosario happy? How do we deal with Branko Boskovic's contract, which ends mid-season?
Most importantly, what does it mean when a supposedly broke club already facing those expensive propositions goes out and spends?
Let's get the minor question of how we're going to use all these forwards out of the way first. Salihi gives Ben Olsen four true forwards to call on, and that doesn't count De Ro. However, with De Ro and Salihi both highly likely to receive call-ups for World Cup qualifying and Josh Wolff turning 35, I don't foresee too much of a problem in terms of people getting unhappy about playing time. It might be wise to consider a short-term loan to an NASL club at some point for Blake Brettschneider just to ensure he continues developing, but having five capable forwards is not something to be worried about.
As for the more important questions, we should start with De Ro. To cut things down to their essence, the 2011 MVP and Golden Boot winner wants a Designated Player deal. There isn't really an acceptable argument against that request, either. De Ro would make any reasonable MLS All-Time Best 11 and is coming off of the best season of his career. From United's side, every public comment on the topic indicates that DC wants to give De Ro that kind of deal as a reward for his performance since he arrived.
This is a bit of pop psychology on my part, but most people in the know when it comes to MLS would say that De Ro isn't just chasing a paycheck in his pursuit of a DP deal. What he wants as much or even more than the money is the recognition that comes with being a Designated Player. He wants MLS to acknowledge that he's just as good and just as worth paying attention to as players like Fredy Montero or even Robbie Keane (if you're going to scoff at that, please note that my dad is a big fan of Ireland and Spurs; I've seen Keane, and stand by that judgment). When you're as good and as consistent as De Ro, and your clubs have signed DPs like Mista or Julian De Guzman while not affording you a similar level of respect, it's got to be frustrating. Frankly, it's rather ridiculous.
I wish I knew how that particular situation was going to pan out. My expectation as recently as a few hours ago was that De Ro would get his DP deal, and that the trickle-down impact would be felt when it came time to discuss a new deal with Boskovic. I was hopeful that he could be kept for a lucrative, non-DP contract provided it was for long enough to offer Boskovic some security. Everyone would be happy (or happy enough, anyway), and we could revel in De Ro golazos for years to come.
With the Salihi signing, we have two Designated Players...and neither of them is De Ro. As reported in the Washington Times (Stouffer again...dude is in mid-season form), MLS has taken the seat across the table from De Ro's people. Dave Kasper is said to have emphasized United's desire to keep De Ro, and both player and club are saying all the right things, but we've all seen issues like this come to a head. As big as the Salihi signing is and as promising as the squad looks on paper, De Ro is still the Black-and-Red's most vital player.
If these talks go south, the best case scenario is that De Ro holds the league responsible, maintains a good level of play, and departs after the 2012 season. The worst case? Well, we all know how ugly things got in Toronto after the infamous check-writing goal celebration. This is the kind of issue that can break a team's morale beyond repair. The 2012 season could go down the drain if the situation turns toxic.
On to another contract issue: Boskovic's deal expires this summer, and very little has been said on the subject. Boskovic has had little chance to prove that he's worth the DP tag he currently carries, both through poor timing (his arrival without a preseason in 2010), poor choices on his part (showing up out of shape for preseason last year), and poor luck (the torn ACL that ruined his 2011 season). There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the Montenegrin.
However, anyone who saw him get injured on that fateful night last April also saw a fleeting glimpse of a player that probably justifies the big money. Even more important than one performance is the fact that Boskovic has helped his cause by remaining in the area throughout his rehabilitation. Unlike Marcelo Gallardo's unfortunate preference to chill in Argentina while injured, Boskovic has maintained a presence around RFK and has showed a dedication to making things right. He probably still has to earn an extension over the first four months of this season, but his recent behavior indicates that this is more possible than it used to be.
In my opinion, the issue with Boskovic is no longer even "Will we bother trying to keep him?" We've probably moved on to a situation where it's more about whether he'll remain a DP or not. Will he get a contract extension? That will depend on his play in the early going, but I think it's probably something like 60-40 in favor of him sticking around.
Either way, the more pressing issue right now is this: Giving De Ro a DP deal tomorrow would trigger the MLS luxury tax for any club carrying three DPs. The rule would require United to pay $250,000 to MLS (the league then spreads that money equally between every club that doesn't have three DPs). United already has to pay out everything above $335,000 to Boskovic and Salihi, so adding that luxury tax in along with whatever De Ro makes would likely mean the club is paying roughly $1 million.
Fortunately, the solution to this problem is a little more straightforward. If Boskovic plays so well that he clearly deserves DP wages, United should pay his cap hit down with allocation money. If we have enough of that - remember that Salihi required some kind of transfer fee, and those are paid out of your allocation funds - we can a) keep Boskovic as a senior roster player, b) offer De Ro the DP deal he requires, and c) avoid the quarter-million-dollar luxury tax. The timing will be important, since we'll have to move Boskovic out of the DP ranks before we can make the deal with De Ro, but at least the issue (probably) has a cut-and-dried solution. It's not easy or simple, but it can be done without relying on too many things to fall into precisely the right place.
With that out of the way, we can look at the final - and most important - question: How can a club that has for years now been talking about how tight things are financially be paying transfer fees and carrying multiple Designated Players? How are we even in a situation where the MLS luxury tax comes up?
It's a tough question to answer, but I have a possible explanation. Will Chang has said repeatedly that he wants to bring several investors - preferably local - and have an ownership group paying the bills rather than going it alone. However, the club's troublesome stadium situation and poor results over the past four years has left us in a tricky situation. How do you attract investors when your team is struggling on and off the field? Conversely, how do you improve the team's fortunes on and off the field without investors?
Maybe the way forward is to prove to potential investors that you're not counting on them to ride in and save the day. A sports team that needs you to invest is not an attractive proposition. If people just went around buying troubled MLS clubs, we'd still have the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion on our schedule. A club that can carry multiple DPs, pay transfer fees, and generally doesn't look broke, however, doesn't look troubled. Chang can point to things like this and say "This is a team on the up." It's not as meaningful as getting a stadium deal done, but it is a sign that the club isn't on the brink of collapse.
Let's also not forget that, aside from the Washington Redskins, the DMV loves a winner and ignores a loser. As a lifelong Washington Capitals fan, I can tell you from experience that the constant sell-outs and popularity of the "Rock the Red" era are a new trend. There was a time less than five years ago that you could stroll up to the Verizon Center and buy $5 Eagles Nest tickets 10 minutes before the opening face-off. This also happens on a more narrow level with the Nationals; just compare the crowds when Stephen Strasburg is pitching to when he isn't. Like it or not, this is a place where the bandwagon fan is going to be a major source of revenue.
In a city where a lot of people are from somewhere else and/or work in cutthroat, winner-take-all professions, you simply aren't going to attract casual fans without winning games. I can't be the only person that notes how a contending United had mayoral candidates promising us the world, while a losing United can't even get phone calls returned by the city council. This is not a coincidence.
In a relegation-free, stable league like MLS, your performance and your stadium shouldn't be connected. However, the nature of DC politics and what people are like around here means that our long-term future as a club is at least somewhat tied to our on-field success. The same city government scofflaws and brigands that wouldn't give us a glass of water if we were on fire will suddenly start showing some interest in the only team in town to, you know, actually win something for 20 years. That's the nature of DC politics.
At the very least, this acquisition is an affirmation that the club can actually afford the kind of top-class players that you can no longer succeed without in MLS. It is a strong indicator that United is healthier off the field than most of us had imagined, which in the long run is far more important than any trophy we've ever won. This isn't a new lease on life so much as it is a sign that things aren't as bad as they once seemed.
Maybe the sky isn't falling just yet.