D.C. United made a lots of moves this offseason, and all of them made sense. All except one actually. Cutting fan favorites Santino Quaranta and Clyde Simms? Yeah, those made sense. Signing Maicon Santos off the scrap heap? That made sense too. The one move that didn't make a whole lot of sense was signing Lewis Neal. At least not at the time.
Neal isn't young - at age 31, he's actually the fifth oldest player on the team. Neal isn't particularly fast, or tall, or physically imposing in any way. He takes up an international roster spot. He wasn't signed to fill any specific need. His best position is left midfield, which was pretty much our deepest position already, with Chris Pontius, Nick DeLeon, Andy Najar, and Josh Wolff all with experience and expectations playing there.
But what we didn't know then was that Neal is one of the hardest working players on the team. That he has a high soccer IQ and he knows what to do with it. That he shares several traits with Ben Olsen.
And now the move makes sense.It makes even more sense now that we know that Neal can also serve as a box-to-box central midfielder, which was actually a pretty significant need for United. With Branko Boskovic now fully engrained in the starting lineup but still not fit enough to play all 90 minutes, Neal filled a vital role on Saturday against the Montreal Impact. Its a role that we've already said that Stephen King was born to play, but Neal plays it even better. As pointed out by Sebi Salazar on dcunited.com, Neal completed 47 of his 51 passes in just 30 minutes of action. For comparison's sake, Sinisa Ubiparipovic and Davy Arnaud completed 50 passes combined for the Impact in 180 combined minutes.
When Neal came in for Boskovic in the 60th minute, we all expected him to play left midfield, with Dwayne De Rosario moving back to central midfield, and Pontius moving up top. Olsen surprised us by making Neal-for-Boskovic a straight swap. It paid off, and the coach had some nice things to say about Neal in his post-game press conference.
We’ve been waiting to put him in [the midfield], we know he can play here and we know he understands that position. It’s just that we’ve had more of a need for him in the left midfield at times, and left back as well. It’s just another position we know he can play now, and he’s just a versatile, smart kid. He’s been through a lot, you know - not many people know Lewis Neal. He played some real games over in England and he’s a really nice addition to the group.
This United team is deep. It just got deeper too.