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Breaking down D.C. United’s roster heading into preseason

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A position-by-position look at what United’s shopping list should include

With the MLS SuperDraft coming up later this week and training camp kicking off in under two weeks, D.C. United’s relatively quiet offseason is about to kick into high gear. Dave Kasper recently landed a major target in Lucas Rodriguez, but that’s far from the only thing he’s been up to. With only one forward on the team, a star player in need of a raise, and a defense in need of more depth, there’s a lot on his plate.

Let’s dig into the Black-and-Red roster on a position-by-position basis:

Goalkeeper

Under contract: Bill Hamid, Earl Edwards Jr., David Ousted

There is a need for action here, but fortunately it’s more of a cap management situation than anything else. Ousted, after a disappointing season, is way too pricey to stay on as a back-up. United gave him a guaranteed deal, though, so they have to either find a club in another league for him, or find a trading partner (which probably means carrying some of his salary on the team’s books for a year).

Ousted would probably be replaced by a young prospect who would spend the vast majority of 2019 with Loudoun United. Don’t be surprised if United solves this issue at the draft.

Right back

Under contract: Chris Odoi-Atsem
Can play here in a pinch: Paul Arriola, Jalen Robinson
Possibly coming back: Oniel Fisher, Kevin Ellis

This is a big issue. Fisher is months away from taking the field (and has to be re-signed), Odoi-Atsem is battling Hodkin’s lymphoma, and Ellis is probably only coming back if he wants to take a senior minimum deal (and that’s just speculation, there’s no evidence United plans on offering him even that).

All signs right now point to Arriola spending at least a third of the year filling in here, with Robinson the only back-up available. This isn’t ideal! United really should be looking to sign a right back, and while I’m quite intrigued by the prospect of Arriola bombing forward from this spot, I don’t just want to see D.C. fill out the depth chart here with a draft pick or a flyer.

While we’re on the topic, our own Donald Wine II had a really good idea to help United at right back, so I’ll let him take over for a second:

Shaq Moore presents an intriguing option at right back. A 22-year-old who broke onto the USMNT in 2018 and had 5 caps, he is presently exploring options after his loan from La Liga side Levante to Liga Segunda club Reus Deportiu was prematurely terminated due to Reus not paying any of their players in months. Moore is not on the MLS allocation list, so the Black-and-Red would not have to go through allocation to secure Moore’s services. And, it would allow Moore to get playing time to help bolster his chances of being the primary backup to DeAndre Yedlin on the national team. Much like Russell Canouse’s acquisition back in 2017, a loan deal for Shaq Moore could be affordable and it could be one that pays off in the end.

Center back

Under contract: Steven Birnbaum, Frederic Brillant, Jalen Robinson
Can play here in a pinch: Chris Durkin
Possibly coming back: Kofi Opare, Kevin Ellis
Could end up being signed: Donovan Pines

If United doesn’t want to retain Opare (who is coming back from ankle surgery), they’ve got to make a move here. Even if they do bring him back, an addition seems like the right idea. After all, the attack is probably going to be contender-quality, the defensive midfield duo is great, and Hamid is as good as it gets in goal. The question marks we have about this team are defensive, and the surest way to take United up a level is to find a TAM-level center back that can be among the top 10 in MLS in that position.

Birnbaum is coming off of his best season as a pro, Brillant and Robinson are viable depth (as is Opare if he comes back), but it sure would be great to see a high-end acquisition.

As for Pines, his future is bright, and he was Maryland’s key player en route to their 2018 NCAA title. He took a huge step forward as a player this season, and while the assumption is that he’d start the year getting starts for Loudoun, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising to see him push for MLS minutes right out of the gate. He’s that good.

Left back

Under contract: Joseph Mora
Possibly coming back: Vytas, Oniel Fisher

Mora’s solid, and Fisher can fill in (once/if he returns), but United has to do something here as well. Is the cure just re-signing Vytas to a more friendly salary? That seems like the most straightforward move, but if he has options that don’t require taking a pay cut, he’s probably moving on, leaving United in need of yet another defensive addition. In this case, the need is less of a definite top-line starter, and more of a reliable option to challenge Mora. There’s a chance we could see United thinking about this spot when they go on the clock during next week’s SuperDraft.

Defensive midfield

Under contract: Russell Canouse, Junior Moreno, Chris Durkin
Can play here in a pinch: Paul Arriola, Ulises Segura
Possibly coming back: Jared Jeffrey

United is very deep here, but with the Gold Cup, FIFA windows, and the Under-20 World Cup to navigate, and Arriola needed at right back (at least, as of now), that depth will be severely tested as spring becomes summer. That might be why Jeffrey is apparently a prospect to get a new deal, as he’s an MLS veteran who will need no adjustment to playing for United.

Don’t be surprised if United gets a bit creative here by adding a known quantity to Loudoun’s squad. After all, teams can call up players from their USL affiliate multiple times before they’re obliged to add them to their MLS roster, and the second division has plenty of players who have multiple MLS seasons under their belt. That might be the fix if Canouse, Moreno, and Durkin are all busy elsewhere for a game here or there.

Right wing

Under contract: Paul Arriola, Lucas Rodriguez, Zoltan Stieber, Ulises Segura
Can play here in a pinch: Wayne Rooney
Could end up being signed: Antonio Bustamante

United is overloaded here at the moment, which has prompted talk of transferring or trading Stieber (and his $999,999.96) salary despite being widely acknowledged as a very talented player. However, until United signs a right back, it appears Arriola is needed elsewhere, and if Stieber does end up elsewhere, you’re very quickly down to two options. Rodriguez’s pedigree is very promising, but he’s a 21 year old coming over to play in MLS for the first time. Segura is a pretty solid depth option, but it’s fair to say that his ceiling is not as high as the rest of the options on this list.

As such, don’t be surprised if United addresses this spot with more depth. Stieber’s fate is tied to whether Dave Kasper is able to structure a deal to make Yamil Asad’s deal permanent (or to extend his loan for another year?), but for now let’s assume that Asad comes back and Stieber signs elsewhere. Bustamante, a potential homegrown signing, could possibly end up being considered here despite playing centrally in college with William & Mary.

However, United might prefer to focus on speed as a primary trait for a new right winger. Without Arriola in the front four, Ben Olsen’s attack would be relying on two slower stars (Rooney and Luciano Acosta), a guy with average speed (Asad), and something of an unknown (Rodriguez). Having someone with real pace to throw on as a sub would be a nice option to have coming in off the bench.

Attacking midfield

Under contract: Luciano Acosta, Wayne Rooney
Can play here in a pinch: Zoltan Stieber, Yamil Asad (if he’s back), Paul Arriola, Ulises Segura
Could end up being signed: Antonio Bustamante

United doesn’t really need a new #10 as much as they need to finalize a raise and extension for the one they have. United fans are more stressed about Acosta getting paid than anything else this offseason, and with good reason. They also happen to have Rooney as an option here, provided they take care of the lack of depth up top.

Stieber can fill in if he sticks around, as could Asad. Arriola and Segura are more theoretical options here on my part, but would you really be surprised to see Olsen have one of them fill in that spot if there was a lead to defend and Acosta was unavailable? Think of this as like those rare moments when Nick DeLeon was in this spot.

Bustamante, should he end up signing with United, might be playing this spot for Loudoun United all season long. It hasn’t gotten much talk, but Bustamante is probably a late first round talent blessed with good balance and awareness, which help him deal with physical play despite being on the smaller side. He should be fun to watch, and might even be able to contribute some minutes in MLS in the back half of the season (again, all provided the rumors of United’s interest in signing him ends up with him on the roster).

Left wing

Under contract: Zoltan Stieber, Lucas Rodriguez
Can play here in a pinch: Wayne Rooney, Luciano Acosta, Paul Arriola, Ulises Segura
Possibly coming back: Yamil Asad
Could end up being signed: Antonio Bustamante

United is even deeper on the left wing, but it’s once again depth that disappears pretty quickly once you put a lineup on the field. If the Asad deal falls through, Stieber is probably the starter, though Olsen could easily flip him and Rodriguez. In that situation, and without a right back coming in to let Arriola play further upfield, Segura ends up being the only available option on the bench (or even on the team).

The issue is essentially unchanged if Asad does return, as Stieber is probably out the door if that comes to pass. As with many issues, United could deal with this by landing a starter at right back. Bustamante could also slot in here if he signs, though as with playing him on the right, this is more of a theoretical.

Forward

Under contract: Wayne Rooney
Can play here when it’s late and United is desperate: Steven Birnbaum

We’ve known since the moment that Kasper confirmed Darren Mattocks’ departure that this would be a major issue, and as of today it is still an issue. Rooney looked quite durable despite the heat and constant barrage of games, but he’s 33 and had to play precisely one game outside the Eastern time zone in his debut season. He also played just one game on turf, a number sure to go up in 2019.

Obviously United needs to sign a couple of forwards, but what kind of player should they pursue? Honestly, I think the ideal compliment for United’s needs is basically a player just like Mattocks. Speed and overall athleticism are crucial, particularly as Rooney’s back-up is most likely to come on either a) as a counter-attacking threat with United protecting a lead or b) to stretch the field while Rooney drops in alongside Acosta as United tries to get a winner/equalizer. United shouldn’t just be looking for someone who plays like a lesser version of Rooney (though a player like that to complete the set might also be worth looking into).

Most likely, United will deal with this via trade, though if they have enough TAM and GAM they might be able to sign an international and then add an international roster spot instead. Their current draft position, when combined with the pool of available strikers, makes it very unlikely they can address the back-up role in Chicago this Friday. That said, they could possibly fill the role formerly held by Dane Kelly if draft day involves a little bit of good fortune.

The original version of this piece stated that Oniel Fisher was under contract. This was incorrect, and the article has been amended to reflect that.