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D.C. United’s 2019 roster should look a lot like it did in 2018

Breaking down why we’re not expecting too many changes this winter

After D.C. United’s 2017 season, in which the club finished with the second-worst record in MLS, the club saw 11 players say their goodbyes. Of that group, 8 held senior (or on-budget) roster spots. Over the winter they brought in 10 players, including 7 taking senior roster spots, to fill out the squad. So, in the wake of the Black-and-Red’s furious half-season sprint to a playoff berth, should you expect a rate of turnover similar to the 2013 and 2017 off-seasons?

Before we get into that, a couple of rules of the road here: we’re going to get into details about MLS contracts, which are few and far between. While there has been an increased level of transparency in the last year or so, there is ultimately an ‘MLSness’ to exercises like this, so think of this more as translucence than true transparency. Second, D.C. United has been a tight-lipped operation in recent years when it comes to acquisitions, so if there are other improvements being made that go unmentioned here, they are certainly off most radars.

In other words, this might not be 100% accurate, but I feel it’s a pretty good guide to the offseason.

There are several reasons to doubt a major overhaul:

There’s a stable core. Go to the MLS page and look at the final starting lineup of the season. Go ahead, we’ll wait. Of those starters, at least four (and possibly five) players are signed through 2020: Luciano Acosta, Paul Arriola, Steven Birnbaum, Russell Canouse and Wayne Rooney. Behold, your D.C. United core.

In fact, the only starter from that lineup whose contract expires after 2018 is Yamil Asad’s, and given the expense put into acquiring Asad combined with his subsequent production, the previously reported $700,000 fee United would have to send to Velez Sarsfield to make his loan a permanent buy seems like a formality.

Most of the guys who could be going out the door are replaceable. Here are a selected group of guys whose contracts either expire or have a team option for 2019:

  • Vytautas Andriuskevicius (aka Vytas): Hip and other injuries meant no appearances for the Lithuanian after his summer arrival.
  • Jared Jeffrey: 2 appearances for a total of 2 minutes in 2018.
  • Bruno Miranda: On loan from Universidad de Chile, 7 games played, 86 minutes played, 1 assist.
  • Jalen Robinson: 5 games (all starts), down from 7 in 2017.

Of this group, Vytas had the largest budget hit at $125,000 (the Portland Timbers picked some of the tab up in the trade). He and Jeffrey are two senior roster spots that could be filled by someone else. Should Miranda’s loan not get extended or be made permanent, an international roster spot would open up.

Another group which we’ll call the Walking Wounded could be (are?) likely long shots. There are some other folks who haven’t played/won’t play in a bit, and therefore could be in question for next year:

  • Chris Odoi-Atsem: A single 12-minute appearance in 2018, Odoi-Atsem’s season was derailed by “fatigue” on the MLS injury report until an October diagnosis of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. His chemotherapy regimen will carry on until February, and then the long path towards soccer fitness begins.
  • Oniel Fisher: Suffered damage to three ligaments and his meniscus in September, had surgery in October. He experienced a resurgence after coming over from the Seattle Sounders and held his own at right back. His rehab looks like it could be as many as 8-10 months. It’s worth mentioning that Fisher is on his entry level contract after being drafted in 2015.
  • Kofi Opare: Played 11 games (10 starts) in 2018 and had surgery on his foot in October that will see him out until sometime in the preseason, or possibly even after the 2019 season begins.

Two of these three held spots on the senior roster (bump both numbers up by one if you wanted to count Taylor Kemp, who retired in early November after having not played a game in 18 months). Depending on his rehab progress, Opare could get a look in preseason, given his familiarity with his teammates and his budget-friendly number of $118,125, though if we were guessing, each will get long looks before any offer were extended.

The only other decisions are probably not THAT tough. This brings us down to three guys, in rising level of importance:

  • Travis Worra: Worra presumably has an option and split time between the Richmond Kickers and appeared as backup in D.C. to Bill Hamid after David Ousted went down to elbow surgery in August. If picked up, Worra is presumably headed to Loudoun United.
  • Darren Mattocks: Picked up to compete with Patrick Mullins for the starting job last winter, Mattocks led the team in scoring until Wayne Rooney took over the lead in October. At $400,000, Mattocks would presumably have to look abroad for takers to his salary demands, though with Rooney here for a year over a normal schedule, perhaps Mattocks stays on at a reduced salary?
  • Nick DeLeon: Re-signed after the 2015 season, DeLeon had his option picked up after the 2017 season, though his playing time has reduced to injury (playing 32, 19 and 15 games in the subsequent three seasons), and his budget hit of $275,000 is an awful lot for a part-time right back.

That’s two more senior roster spots opening up if either side decides they don’t want to see the other anymore. In total, United has the potential for as many as seven senior roster spots to open up without having the need for a major rebuild, plus five supplemental/reserve spots. That’s without knowing the contract situations of Kevin Ellis or Dane Kelly, and with Loudoun United coming online for 2019.

So, where does that leave us? Well, given what we think we know about the roster and their job status, I’d think Dave Kasper does a few things here:

  1. On returning players with expiring contracts, take the under (pending rehab progress on a couple of them).
  2. Likely upgrade at right back and possible upgrade at left back.
  3. Some maneuvering in the background, including but not limited to accommodating Arriola’s salary from Young Designated Player to Designated Player (which is another $300,000 or so to the budget), TAM usage on players old (Zoltan Stieber, Asad, Birnbaum) and new, and pursuing green cards for internationals.
  4. A slight uptick in homegrown player signings. With roster limits at 30, a team that is turning around their financial fortunes, and the flexibility to move players between parent and USL clubs, I’d hope imagine D.C. takes advantage of their new circumstances to increase the use of the Pathway 2 Pro that they tout.

Most importantly, the folks you saw in D.C. United shirts in 2018? You should expect to see most of them in 2019, because identifying and retaining a core group of talent is something that D.C. United has wanted to do forever. With that apparently done, the next step is building on it.