Dane Kelly came to D.C. United a few days after the regular season opened, and it looked like he was going to have a tough time finding his way onto the field. Despite having broken into Jamaica’s national team squad just two months before, Kelly found his international teammate Darren Mattocks and MLS veteran Patrick Mullins ahead of him on the depth chart. He was essentially depth, a proven USL goalscorer who could be relied upon in spot minutes if someone got hurt.
Kelly had been putting the ball in the back of the net for USL clubs for years, and in 2017 was a starter for a Reno 1868 FC club that set a record in that league for goals scored in a year. Kelly played a big part, with 18 goals in 27 appearances, and he seemed like a very low-risk flyer for United. At 27 and in possession of a green card, there really wasn’t much for the Black-and-Red to lose.
It didn’t take long for Ben Olsen to hand Kelly the MLS debut he’d been waiting for years to get, as Kelly was the final sub in March 31st’s 1-0 loss at Sporting KC. However, due to the circumstances (United was down, chasing a late equalizer), even this occasion saw the logjam up top impact Kelly, who was deployed wide on the right in a unorthodox, desperate 334 formation. The center forward spots were being played by United’s other center forwards.
Kelly didn’t make another appearance until June, when he was somewhat surprisingly given a start up top in the Open Cup against North Carolina FC. With the writing on the wall for Mullins, it was a big chance for Kelly to really put his stamp on a game, and against a team from a level he was used to dominating.
Unfortunately, it didn’t really come off. The combination of a bunkering opponent and an unfamiliar midfield certainly didn’t help, but Kelly struggled to make particularly threatening runs against NCFC. The data on the day looked adequate (2 total shots, 1 on goal, 14/17 passing, 1 key pass, 1 successful dribble, 1 offside, 2 fouls committed), but it was not a surprise when Olsen turned to the in-form Mattocks in the 85th minute after North Carolina snagged a late equalizer.
That was Kelly’s final competitive appearance of the season. He didn’t get into the Open Cup penalty kick defeat against lowly Orlando City, and his 3 minutes at KC ended up being his only MLS appearance.
We did see Kelly play one more game, though, as he started the September 19 friendly against CD Olimpia. Faced with an even more unfamiliar midfield behind him (in this case, the right winger and attacking midfielder underneath him were guest players from the Richmond Kickers), Kelly looked a bit brighter than he did against North Carolina. Despite often getting little support and leading the line for a team that spent most of the game defending deep, Kelly was a pest for Olimpia throughout his 72 minutes.
Let’s not bury the lede here: he also scored, chasing down a ball over the top and getting enough power on an awkward shot to beat Olimpia’s goalkeeper. For the rest of the night, Kelly more or less was D.C.’s entire attack, and looked more than capable of troubling a Honduran powerhouse fielding a first-choice lineup.
The problem for Kelly with United may well be the fact that he’s pretty much a pure goalpoacher. That’s a reasonable type of player to be, but for this group, success up top requires a more diverse style of play. Wayne Rooney checks back to combine and create; Mattocks offers blazing speed and a major aerial threat. Kelly doesn’t have Rooney’s technique or vision, and he doesn’t have the athletic gifts Mattocks has.
Still, United has lost Mattocks to Cincinnati, and they have a whole USL Championship roster to fill out with Loudoun United. Kelly may not quite be the right fit on a regular basis in MLS, but he has plenty of proof that he’s a legitimate threat at that level. United has said they want their Virginia satellite to focus heavily on player development, but what if there’s no center forward in the pipeline? You could do worse than having Kelly around, getting double-digit goals and helping a new club win over a local audience by winning games.
We know Kelly, whose option was declined, is probably not getting a first-team contract in 2019. However, we’ve seen United circle back to players in the past, usually offering what is essentially a preseason trial. That’s where I’ll leave it for you fine folks to decide.
Do you want Dane Kelly back for the 2019 season?
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