Today we happily close the books on what was undoubtedly one of the worst years in D.C. United history. With just three wins and only 22 goals scored, United set MLS all-time records this year, and not in a good way.
And yet 2013 wasn't all bad for D.C.
The team finally made legitimate progress on its quest to erect a new soccer stadium in the District and also somehow managed to take home the U.S. Open Cup crown. Both of those factor strongly into our review of the 2013 resolutions that we set for United back in January.
1. Keep D.C. United
[...] Building a new stadium for United has been our top resolution each of the last two years, and it needs to be the team's top priority until it's done.
That's not all this is about though. I don't just want to keep D.C. United in D.C. I want to keep D.C. United as D.C. United. I want this team to remain the same team that I've been following for the last 17 years. We've welcomed Jason Levien and Erick Thohir as the new owners, and then we promptly watched them dismiss the man who led the team for those 17 years and many of his employees without giving us any assurances about how they will be replaced.We've grown quite fond of this club, and we recognize Thohir and Levien's desire to make United a global brand. Growing the fan base will be good for everybody. We just don't want it to happen at the expense of United as we've known it. Seeking new fans can't come at the expense of the existing hardcore fans. This team has won championships without signing the biggest names to the biggest contracts and will do it again too.
At the time this was written, we had serious concerns about the direction this club was taking for the future. Thohir and Levien took over and immediately started flirting with Andriy Shevchenko, prompting us to worry that this new ownership group would turn United into some sort of Redbullian enterprise. Levien subsequently fired key front office employees in cost cutting maneuvers. Unfortunately, it hasn't stopped. First Kyle Sheldon and Mark McClure, now Doug Hicks and Sarah Lerner. How can United expect to remain connected to its most devoted fans while eliminating the folks who were doing the connecting? How can United keep a positive media environment if the PR department is turned over at the end of every year? United has emerged more Chivasian than Redbullian.
But with all that aside, D.C. United signed an agreement with the District government this year laying out plans for a new home for United on Buzzard Point. That deserves some credit. So let's call this...
2. Identify the next generation of team leaders
[...] Even if Andy Najar and Bill Hamid do stay on the United roster for the 2013 season, we know that they won't stay forever. The same is true for Chris Pontius and Nick DeLeon, who are already almost too good for MLS. We must prepare for the reality of Dwayne De Rosario retiring, and our young stars chasing their European dreams.
... The team will be set again next year with almost all of our starters returning, but the long-term future of this club isn't quite clear at the moment. These worries could be set aside by signing a few new homegrown players, or some young Central Americans with potential.
Nationals fans like to point to Anthony Rendon as the heir apparent to Ryan Zimmerman's throne at third base, but we have no idea who will take DeRo's throne at RFK Stadium. Who is the Next Man Up? United does have some young players on the roster, but since we barely saw any of Rafael Augusto, Lance Rozeboom, and Conor Shanosky in 2012, it's hard to know what to expect from them.
It's entirely possible that those future stars are on the roster, but they still may be at least a few years away. We'll keep our eyes on Colin Martin, Michael Seaton, and newly rumored but unconfirmed homegrown defender Jalen Robinson.
3. Sign a core player from a foreign league
We talked earlier this week about how United fulfilled the very modest goal of having at least three international players contribute in 2012. And yet we don't really feel like the team improved in its international scouting. The two major international acquisitions in 2012 were Hamdi Salihi and Emiliano Dudar. Neither turned out to be core players, and we're not sure that either will be back for this coming season.They both contributed in some key moments, but I look at the other top teams in MLS and I see guys like Javier Morales, Blas Perez, Fredy Montero, Alvaro Saborio, Aurelien Collin, and many many more. Other teams have core players that they scouted and signed from a foreign league. Not United though. We haven't signed a core player from abroad since Dejan Jakovic came over in 2009.
Instead, United's core players have come from the Academy, from trades, and from draft picks. And while our Academy will eventually produce more core players and Dave Kasper isn't likely to quit fleecing other MLS teams in the trade market, we can't count on drafting more guys like Pontius, DeLeon, and Perry Kitchen because we don't want or expect to have high draft picks anymore.
Must we suffer through the list of 2013 international signings?
We must! Rafael Teixeira de Souza, Marcos Sanchez, and can we include Carlos Ruiz here too, please?
The good news though is that Kasper will get the chance to try again next year! Okay, that's not so good news after all, sorry. Let's try again... The good news is that we can apparently expect to have high draft picks most years.
4. Be a dynamic attacking team
United has the pieces to make the resolution happen. But it hasn't quite happened yet.
Too often in 2012 the team had to rely on elite individual performances to earn goals. That's what the undefeated streak at the end of the year was all about. The team was compact defensively and limited its opponents' chances, but the players weren't exactly playing beautiful soccer. They weren't crafting team goals on a regular basis. Many of the goals were instead coming from a few magical moments and a bit of opportunistic behavior.
With Pontius, DeLeon, Najar, De Rosario and our currently unsigned, unidentified (undead?!) forward, United should be able to assemble an attack that consistently overpowers its opposition. It happened a few times in 2012 (the home matches against the Chicago Fire and New York Red Bulls come most immediately to mind), but it should happen with regularity in 2013.
This mission was derailed fairly early in the season as United struggled all year to establish its identity. Although it wasn't the attractive brand of soccer that we all crave, United did actually have an identity at the end of 2012, as described above. But after scoring just two goals in its first six matches, United abandoned this conservative approach, and Olsen began to look for something new. The starting lineup and the tactics changed every week as Olsen desperately sought a solution when none was to be found.
United did return to its late-2012 identity though for one game in particular with everything including Olsen's job on the line. Which bring us to our final resolution.
5. Win a trophy
2012 was a great year. The team made huge progress from previous years. Ben Olsen in particular made huge progress from previous years. I want to see that progress continue in 2013.
How great a year was 2012? It was great enough to see United advance to the Eastern Conference Finals and finish in third place overall in MLS. Let's make 2013 even greater. Win the MLS Cup, or Supporters' Shield, or U.S. Open Cup. Win the Eastern Conference crown. Lock in a spot in the CONCACAF Champions' League.
This United team is young and talented, getting better every year. The team should continue to improve on its results in 2013.
Improve? No. Progress? No.
But the team did something in 2013 that it had not done since 2008. United returned the U.S. Open Cup to its rightful home in the trophy case at RFK Stadium. Winning a trophy is not something that should be taken lightly. It takes some teams 17 years to do it.