The D.C. United season begins in less than 24 hours. To near completion of our preview series, the four B&RU writers discussed which under-the-radar players will have the biggest impact for the club in 2012.
Benuski: The one player who will who doesn't get talked about much but who will make a big impact in 2012 is Brandon McDonald. He was a major addition last year, but he seems to have fallen off the hype radar in the buildup to 2012. But playing next to Emiliano Dudar (or Dejan Jakovic), McDonald is poised to have a great season.
Last year, Dejan Jakovic played his last game on 8/21/2011; Chris Pontius played his last game in United's very next game, and their defense was never the same. The few games that McDonald and Jakovic played together were the best games for United's defense that whole year, while the combination of McDonald and White declined the rest of the year. McDonald compliments both Dudar and Jakovic well, providing the steel while they provide the finesse. The steel that he provides will be essential to United's defense this year, and the proper partner will free him to do what he does best. The key to D.C. United's defense will be the relationship between McDonald and Dudar, and people have been forgetting about the McDonald part of the equation.
Martin: I'm going to go with a player who has a name that's recognizable to all U.S. soccer fans, but who doesn't always get mentioned in previews for the D.C. United season. I'm going to go with Bill Hamid.
At this time last year, there was lots of talk about how Hamid was entering the season with superb fitness and an increased maturity level. This year, in addition to those things, he also has the mentorship of Tim Howard. He's seen what greatness looks like. He's seen what he can become if he continues down his current path.
Hamid was a strong goalkeeper for United in 2011, but it's hard to point to many (if any) games that he single-handedly won for D.C. Meanwhile, he made a few mistakes. By my count, Hamid cost United four points on the year due to overly aggresive tackles in the home games against the Houston Dynamo (handing Brian Ching a penalty kick equalizer) and against Toronto FC (earning an early red card, which eventually led to a horrendous performance from Steve Cronin). Hamid's shot-stopping ability has never been in question, but if he takes another step forward in terms of soccer IQ and control, he'll be winning games for United, and he'll be that much closer to fulfilling his ultimate goal of playing in Europe.
As such, I'm going to go with Robbie Russell. Russell's experience and soccer IQ are both excellent, and he knows what it takes to win games. That means taking care of defending by anticipating attacks, working as a coherent unit rather than as lone players, and in forcing teams to go where we want them to go. Russell was a great example of that at RSL, and at his age it's vital for him to keep the game mental rather than letting it become a series of footraces down the wing. United's defense improved twice over when we brought him in; once at right back, and once at defensive midfield thanks to Perry Kitchen's move forward into his natural position.
AMT: I'll actually talk about two. I think if there were an MLS Spot Starter of the Year award, Danny Cruz would be my preseason favorite for it. After being the first choice right midfielder for the MLS Cup runners up last year in Houston, he'll find himself behind Andy Najar and Chris Pontius in the wide midfield pecking order this year. That said, with Olympic qualifiers, injuries, and the like, Cruz is going to have to start a pretty significant share of games. Don't bet against him doing well. His trademark bite and work rate are there, but if his preseason is anything to go by, he's developed more offense to go along with it. I wouldn't be surprised to see him find the score sheet more than a few times in 2012.
The other name is Ryan Richter. I mentioned in a comment earlier this week that if he's signed, he'll be that guy who surprises us with how many minutes he's seeing at various positions. As deep as the Black-and-Red are, that depth is going to be seriously tested if injuries coincide with national team call-ups. If things get bad, Richter, who can play forward and any wide position, could be this year's jack of all trades and see time at multiple positions.