It’s just a few hours before D.C. United gives us the first glimpse of this year’s team, as the Black-and-Red kick off their seemingly traditional preseason friendly against Malmö FF at 2:30pm. It’s an exciting time, as we get to evaluate all the new faces (and there are a lot of them this year) and try to decipher the runes that are preseason lineups. It’s also a handy reminder that we’re just barely over three weeks away from the start of actual, real games, but let’s focus on where we’re at right now.
With that in mind, here’s what this writer is expecting the team’s depth chart looks like right now. This will be invariably wrong, but that’s kind of the point: we learn from the mistakes more than the choices that go as expected. These predictions are based around an assumption that United will play a 4231 or a 4141:
Potential starters: David Ousted, Steve Clark
Depth: Travis Worra
In camp: Dane Jacomen
Since we last did something similar to this exercise, nothing has really changed. Ousted appears to be the favorite to get the starting gig right now, but until we see otherwise let’s consider his edge over Clark to be a narrow one. Worra is a solid option for a third-choice GK, and he’ll likely be starting for the Richmond Kickers throughout the season. Jacomen, a 17 year old United academy player, is in camp as well, but think of his presence as very similar to any time an academy player joins a training session.
Potential starters: Nick DeLeon, Oniel Fisher
Emergency options: Steve Birnbaum, Jalen Robinson, Paul Arriola
Trialists: Sheanon Williams, Chris Odoi-Atsem
Yesterday’s acquisition of Fisher solidifies a position that was near the top of our list of worries last month. DeLeon may have a slight edge here, but the more I think about it, the more I think the Jamaica international might actually pip him for the starting job. Fisher is faster and a natural, experienced right back, so if DeLeon has any issues he might be displaced. On the other hand, DeLeon has been able to keep himself in the lineup since 2012 for a reason.
Beyond those two, United is still thin. Moving Birnbaum or Robinson over is pretty much the only choice if DeLeon and Fisher are unavailable. I brought up the possibility of Chris Durkin getting minutes here last month, but until we see it happen, we have to hold off from putting him on this list. Arriola could play RB in a late-game, throwing everyone forward sort of situation, but realistically he was acquired at great expense to play as a winger.
That’s why United has multiple trialists in camp. When the initial camp roster came out, Williams had a pronounced edge. After all, we were talking about a longtime MLS starter going up against a player United opted not to renew despite his being on a rookie deal. However, this week’s moves have left United with just two senior roster spots, giving Odoi-Atsem (who, we assume, would be given a supplemental roster spot instead) a path to make the team instead.
Starter: Frederic Brillant
Potential starters: Steve Birnbaum, Kofi Opare
Depth: Jalen Robinson, Chris Durkin
Trialists: Sheanon Williams
This might read as a mild surprise, but it seems highly unlikely that United traded for a 32 year old veteran unless they want him to be a full-time starter. There have been no indications that Brillant is anything but first choice for Ben Olsen, and this list reflects that.
The competition, then, is mostly between Birnbaum and Opare. Normally the team captain with multiple USMNT caps would have a substantial edge here, but Birnbaum’s 2017 drop in performance saw Opare start over him more than once. On top of that, and getting to the rune-reading portion of our program, the team is running articles about center back play that focuses on Brillant and Opare, but not Birnbaum. Thinking face emoji, indeed.
Robinson was also competing for time last year, while United’s midfield depth might mean Durkin gets time as a center back as often as he does defensive midfield. Finally, Williams has pretty solid experience as a center back, despite it not being his natural position. Versatility might make a difference when it comes to handing out the last roster spot or two.
Potential starters: Taylor Kemp, Oniel Fisher
Depth: Nick DeLeon
Trialists: John Requejo Jr., Sheanon Williams, Chris Odoi-Atsem
Following hip surgery last September, Kemp only just returned to full, unrestricted training on Monday. The potential rust there leaves the door at left back ever so slightly ajar, as Fisher has played there just as often as he played on the right for the Seattle Sounders. Still, Kemp was United’s least-bad defender last year despite playing with that hip issue for much of the year, and he’s a natural left-footer. He’s a solid favorite here.
DeLeon got a few starts at LB after United shut Kemp down for the year, so he’s the clear third option right now. Williams and Odoi-Atsem can both play here as well, with Williams probably more comfortable moving over. The most interesting name in this group is probably the former Club Tijuana defender Requejo, a U.S. youth national teamer. Being the rarity that is a natural left back born in the United States, it’s not hard to imagine the 21 year old earning a deal with an eye on the future.
Defensive midfield (#6)
Potential starters: Russell Canouse, Junior Moreno
Depth: Jared Jeffrey, Chris Durkin
Trialists: Rob Vincent
This is going to be a position to watch. Canouse was a revelation upon his arrival last August, but in Moreno United has acquired a player whose profile (including starts for Venezuela in World Cup qualifying) indicates he’s a potential MLS starter as well. We could end up seeing Moreno and Canouse play as a duo, but much depends on how the various partnerships in the midfield develop, and we should also take note as to whether Olsen brings back the 4141 or moves to a true 433. In those latter cases, there may only be one spot for these two.
Jeffrey and Vincent may well be playing for one roster spot at this point, with Jeffrey having the advantage of actually being on the roster at this point. Still, it seems safe to guess that most fans want to see Durkin get any minutes at the #6 spot that don’t go to Canouse and Moreno.
Central midfield (#8)
Potential starters: Ulises Segura, Ian Harkes, Russell Canouse, Junior Moreno
Depth: Jared Jeffrey, Nick DeLeon, Chris Durkin
Trialists: Rob Vincent
Speaking of positions to watch, Olsen is spoiled for choices in the linking midfield spot. Segura is a versatile Costa Rica national teamer that United says they’ll evaluate first as a central midfielder. He has a World Cup roster to fight his way onto, so you can bet Segura is going to be giving his all to get starts and stay in Macho Ramirez’s good graces.
However, Harkes is a major challenger, with Olsen praising what he’s seen since the Homegrown player joined United in Florida following his first-ever USMNT camp. With Segura able to play further forward, Harkes has the talent to still end up being a starter if he makes the improvements United wants out of him on both sides of the ball.
Of course, if Olsen prefers a more defensive look, he can pair Moreno and Canouse. It’s not clear who the #8 would be if they both start, but Moreno wearing the #5 jersey (a choice often preferred as the most defensive midfielder in CONMEBOL countries), we might have a hint. Here’s hoping the competition for this starting job gets the best out of everyone.
Jeffrey is probably best in this role as well, deployed as a conservative ball-winner. DeLeon probably won’t get minutes here due to the depth at this spot and the thinner fullback corps, but we know Olsen has no hesitation about playing DeLeon here if needed. Durkin largely played in this spot in 2016’s Open Cup game against the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers, and did quite well. Finally, Vincent makes more sense as a #6, but we’ve seen him play this role for this team before.
Starter: Paul Arriola
Depth: Ulises Segura, Zoltan Stieber, Bruno Miranda
Emergency options: Nick DeLeon, Oniel Fisher
Not yet on the team: Yamil Asad
Like we said, Arriola appears to be ensconced as this team’s right winger of choice. There is strong depth behind him, though, with Segura a legit option (in my opinion, this is his best spot, but that’s admittedly based off of watching a few games with Saprissa and the national team in which he was not my specific focus). Stieber could also adapt on the right flank without much trouble, while Miranda would likely have to alter his game slightly by being more of a pure winger rather than the slashing presence he is on the left side.
DeLeon could move up here, particularly when United is protecting a lead, while Fisher has been used in a very similar fashion off the bench in Seattle. Asad is probably far better on the left or in the middle, but United is deep enough and has enough positional flexibility throughout the team that we’ll probably see him pop up here at some point as an in-game switch.
Attacking midfield (#10)
Starter: Luciano Acosta
Depth: Zoltan Stieber, Ulises Segura
Defensive options: Ian Harkes, Nick DeLeon
Trialists: Rafael Andrade Santos
Not yet on the team: Yamil Asad
The team is built around the talents of Acosta, and despite the slew of acquisitions he’s going to start whenever he can. However, United will face Orlando City on March 3rd without him, so prepare to see at least one starting lineup without him later in training camp.
Most likely, the choice to replace him will be Stieber, who got a few minutes of spot duty here last season. This won’t be a problem, as Stieber has the creativity and technical ability to thrive centrally. It will be intriguing to see whether he or Asad — who was said to be a #10 who could play wide left before arriving in Atlanta and doing so well as a full-time left winger — ends up being the back-up for Acosta, and it may well be that Olsen gives them freedom to swap roles on the fly.
Segura is also a capable option to fill in, particularly if a conservative lineup is called for on the road or while hanging onto a lead. Similarly, we’ve seen Olsen use Harkes and DeLeon (yes, this really happened last year) play in this spot when United has gone very conservative. However, with Asad’s defensive chops and Segura in the fold, Harkes and DeLeon probably won’t see much time here at all in 2018.
Finally, we come to Santos, who tore it up at VCU but fell into the 4th round of the draft due to his status as an international status (which may not be a long-term issue given how long he’s been in the U.S.) and his size (5’7”, 140 lbs). Landing Asad is probably not a good omen for his candidacy for a spot on the squad, but if he proves himself in preseason, there may be a spot for him on loan in Richmond available.
Probable starter for now: Zoltan Stieber
Depth: Darren Mattocks, Ulises Segura, Bruno Miranda, Paul Arriola, Luciano Acosta, Nick DeLeon
Trialists: Rafael Andrade Santos
Not yet on the team: Yamil Asad
United is so deep on the left that I’m not even including players like Patrick Mullins or Taylor Kemp, both of whom have pro minutes on the left flank. Stieber is a very strong option as a starter, but realistically United’s expenditure on Asad means that once he’s announced, he is the presumptive favorite to start. This is a great problem to have.
Mattocks probably won’t see much time on the left as a result, but I’m holding out hope that Olsen keeps it in his back pocket as a late-game, “we need a goal” gambit. He’s done damage slashing in from the left in the past. Miranda is a similar, if less proven option for that sort of job, while Segura would likely play as a left winger in the same outside-in (read: nominally wide, but drifting inside regularly) style that Asad and Stieber will bring to the table. Lucho has spent time on the left here and there, so let’s include him despite the long odds of it actually happening this season.
Santos is not a natural left winger, but he has played wide in the past (including some left back, if you go back to his time in high school). Versatility is always a plus when you’re going for the last spot or two on an MLS roster.
And of course, DeLeon is on the list because he can play any position. He can probably come to your office and adequately fill in for you at your job, regardless of training or expertise.
Potential starters: Patrick Mullins, Darren Mattocks
Depth: Bruno Miranda
Trialists: Afonso Pinheiro
Late game Hail Mary: Steve Birnbaum
Nick DeLeon: Nick DeLeon
As you’re probably aware, there’s not much depth here. There’s been talk about Asad or Stieber playing as a false 9, but neither has any track record as a forward. I’d be closer to listing Acosta here, since we’ve seen Olsen use him up front in a 442. However, one never really knows, so I’m prepared for this to be a category where I’m proven wrong.
Mullins comes into camp with roughly the kind of edge over Mattocks that Ousted has over Clark in goal. When both have played their best, Mullins has been better than Mattocks. However, it’s safe to say this competition will be very close, and we may even see Olsen cycle between these two very different strikers based on opposition or tactical need.
Miranda only played about 15 minutes as a lone striker for United, so it’s hard to get a read on what he can do in MLS play. However, much like his play on the left, it’ll be based around his explosiveness and energy levels. If Mullins and Mattocks both stay healthy all year, he might not play 100 minutes as a striker, but you never know. He’s not already in Bolivia’s national team set-up on accident.
Pinheiro, said to be close to his green card, actually has a shot at making the roster as a result of the thin options here. He’s a capable forward who will play more like Mullins than Mattocks, and if he does make the squad he will likely be a regular for the Kickers. On a team with only three actual forwards on the roster, his odds are probably better than those of his fellow 4th round pick Santos.