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MLS Preview 2018: The Outsider’s Guide to D.C. United

Can United survive a major overhaul and their early-season road game gauntlet?

Courtesy of D.C. United

The 2018 MLS season is upon us, which for D.C. United is hopefully a sign that better days are coming soon. For most of our readers who live and breathe Black-and-Red, we’ve been neck-deep in details and minutiae for weeks, but not everyone that stops by here knows the directions to the pupusa stand by heart. Some folks need a preview that’s more pocket guide than encyclopedia.

With that in mind, today we’re looking out for fans of other teams, or even people who don’t have an MLS team. Here’s what we think you need to know about United in 2018:

How did last year go?

I’d rather not.

C’mon, context is important

Okay, fine. D.C. United finished dead last in the Eastern Conference, and avoided being the worst team in MLS via the games won tiebreaker. Incidentally, the LA Galaxy finished last, and it is perfectly fine to laugh at them for doing so.

United’s record was a woeful 9W-5D-20L, with a league-worst -29 goal difference. This included going 2W-2D-12L during the middle of the season, and a 1W-1D-5L finish to the season. They were dumped out of the Open Cup the first time they faced a professional team, and in fact briefly trailed against local amateur side Christos FC.

In short, it was never good. There were some fun moments — particularly the summer transfer window extravaganza that saw Paul Arriola, Zoltan Stieber, Russell Canouse, and Bruno Miranda all signed in short order — but ultimately it was demoralizing and unpleasant.

Who was brought in to fix all that?

United has remodeled their entire squad, shedding some aging veterans and ineffective attackers to get younger and faster. On opening day, United is probably going to start no fewer than seven players who weren’t on the team last year.

David Ousted, Frederic Brillant, Oniel Fisher, Yamil Asad, and Darren Mattocks are all established, respected MLS players who came in via trade, while Ulises Segura and Junior Moreno, both emerging regulars with their national teams (Costa Rica and Venezuela, respectively) were signed from abroad.

Did any noteworthy players leave?

Chris Rolfe made his long-rumored retirement official, while winger Patrick Nyarko might be heading towards a similar choice. Veteran midfielders Marcelo Sarvas and Lloyd Sam were allowed to leave, as were Chris Korb, Julian Buescher, Rob Vincent, and Deshorn Brown (though at least Vincent was given a shot to earn a deal in preseason).

However, most of the talk around these parts has been about homegrown goalkeeper Bill Hamid, who opted to turn down an offer from the team to sign a deal with Denmark’s FC Midtjylland. Hamid was a fan favorite with deep roots at the club, and he was also the best goalkeeper in MLS.

Alright, what will the lineup look like to start the season?

Mattocks and Ousted appear to have won a preseason competition for minutes with Patrick Mullins and Steve Clark, respectively, though a dip in form for either one could quickly see Ben Olsen make a switch.

Newcomers Fisher and Moreno are in line to get the first couple of starts due to injuries to Canouse and Taylor Kemp, with the former closer to getting back into the lineup than the latter. Luciano Acosta will not start the season opener due to a suspension carried over from last year, which will open the door for Stieber (who has been in tremendous form throughout the preseason) to keep himself in the lineup despite initally seeming like the odd man out once United acquired Asad. If Stieber keeps producing, he may survive the return of Acosta by replacing Asad on the left if the Argentine isn’t at his best.

What’s going on with that new stadium we keep hearing about?

While waiting for Audi Field to open, United faces a daunting early-season schedule. March features three road games against playoff teams, another road game against what appears to be the most improved team in the league, and a “home” game (to be played at the Maryland Soccerplex) against a dangerous Houston side. April is less busy, but still features an away game against the defending champs, a trip to Philly to face a Union side that always makes it tough on United, and a “home” game against Columbus that will actually take place at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium in Annapolis, MD.

All in all, before United opens up their new stadium on Buzzard Point, they’ll have played 12 road games with just 2 at home to balance things out. It’s the kind of fixture list that could completely derail their season...unless they come through the other side with a fighting chance. If United stays afloat, they’ll have 15 of their final 20 games at their brand new home, which could serve as a great springboard for a late-season run at a postseason berth.

What are your expectations for the season?

If things go ideally, the new players will bed in quickly, and United will pick off a few wins and draws before the stadium opens with July 14th’s game against Vancouver. Having avoided a slow start, they’ll turn the huge backlog of home games into a long winning streak. Getting hot around August and storming into the playoffs has a long, storied tradition among MLS Cup winners, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This team’s ceiling is probably not league champions, but it’s not impossible for them to make the playoffs, even with the East being the league’s power center.

If this is a disaster, the new faces won’t adapt to Olsen’s style, and the Black-and-Red will find themselves with few points and no momentum when the new joint opens. If the group isn’t functioning, the schedule getting friendly won’t really matter, and any team that has this much turnover might just need more time to truly gel. The floor is probably still higher than last year’s abysmal efforts, but it’s not that much higher.