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D.C. United 2019 MLS preview

Can D.C.’s dynamic duo maintain last fall’s magic form over a full season?

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MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps at D.C. United Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Is D.C. United back? What we mean here, ahead of the 2019 MLS season, is whether Ben Olsen’s squad can replicate the winning United — stylish, arrogant, and dominant — that picked up so many trophies in the 90s and mid-00s. Last year, the arrival of Wayne Rooney, Luciano Acosta’s breakout from good to legitimately great, and a long run of games at their new home all had the Black-and-Red playing like one of those past teams for a couple of months. If they can do it again over the course of a full season, the District is going to be the place to be in MLS this year.

How did they finish in 2018?

4th place in the East after a 14W-9T-11L season. Lost on penalties in the knockout round to Columbus. But that really doesn’t tell the story of how they roared back from the bottom of the table to get there, so I’ll just add that United walks into 2019 on a ten-game regular season unbeaten streak (technically eleven in competitive games, since penalty kicks are a tiebreaking procedure...sorry, this is a site run by nerds).

Who’s out?

Fan favorite Nick DeLeon ended up in Toronto, while Darren Mattocks is now with FC Cincinnati. David Ousted was shipped off to Chicago, while Taylor Kemp and Travis Worra retired in the offseason.

The biggest news in terms of the starting lineup, though, is Yamil Asad not being brought back. The story is a complicated one involving Velez Sarsfield’s shifting demands, MLS roster rules, and even Luciano Acosta’s brief adventure in France (we’ll get to that soon), but ultimately United couldn’t find a way to bring Asad back that worked for all parties.

Who’s in?

United needed a right back, and managed to land Leonardo Jara, an in-his-prime starter from Boca Juniors, on loan for the year. They also brought in Lucas Rodriguez, a young attacking midfielder from Estudiantes de La Plata that they’ve had their eyes on for years. To give you an idea on how highly rated Rodriguez is down in Argentina: Estudiantes is said to want nearly $1 million more to make that move permanent than Boca demanded when United wanted to sign Luciano Acosta.

From within the league, D.C. signed defender/midfielder Chris McCann from Atlanta, nabbed Chris Seitz and Earl Edwards Jr. to fill out their goalkeeping depth, and striker Quincy Amarikwa (though his deal hasn’t been officially announced yet, consider it done for our purposes today).

They also signed two homegrown players: center back Donovan Pines (who starred for Maryland as the Terps won the 2018 national championship) and attacking midfielder Antonio Bustamante. First round pick Akeem Ward also seems poised to get some minutes this year thanks to his ability to play both right and left back.

Projected starting XI

4231, right to left: Bill Hamid; Leonardo Jara, Frederic Brillant, Steven Birnbaum, Joseph Mora; Russell Canouse, Junior Moreno; Paul Arriola, Luciano Acosta, Lucas Rodriguez; Wayne Rooney

Rodriguez might not be the starter in the first few weeks of the season as he both gets acclimated to MLS and overcomes a preseason knock. He also might have competition for his job all season long due to Zoltan Stieber and Ulises Segura, both established internationals for their countries, also competing for that same spot.

Who is THE player to watch on your team, and why?

Wayne Rooney draws all the attention, and it’s easy to see why: he’s an international superstar, he cares deeply about winning, and he uses his technique and soccer IQ to make the game simple. It’s also cool that he can do things like this.

You know what, though? The real answer is Luciano Acosta, who nutmegs people on the regular and has an innate sense for providing goals and assists that are both impressive and important (he was directly involved in 8 game-winners last year). The real reason you should watch Lucho, though, is that he’s Fun As Hell.

What was the big rumor involving D.C. this offseason?

Normally the Asad saga (Asadga? Asaga?) would be an easy winner here, but it was left in the dust by the stunning and bizarre turn of events that saw Paris Saint-Germain come in on deadline day with some kind of interest in Lucho Acosta. The figures being tossed about went into the 8 figures. Acosta and GM Dave Kasper went to France to facilitate the negotiations. PSG had internal squabbling. Agents came out of the woodwork. Remember, we’re still getting used to this “relevant again” thing. Teams like PSG aren’t even supposed to recognize us, much less possibly change the course of the entire club because Neymar picked up an injury.

And yet, for one impossibly stressful day, that’s the situation we found ourselves in. The good news is that Acosta didn’t leave, which is to say that United still could win something this year. On the other hand, you have to feel for the guy missing out on such a gigantic, life-altering opportunity, and the question of whether United can now sign him to an extension will be in the air until he either does so or opts to leave for free.

What did we learn last season about this team?

For years, this fanbase has had an ongoing shouting match over whether Ben Olsen was a truly dour, defense-first-second-and-third type of coach, or if he had just been trying to find a way to win with largely mediocre rosters. The test was always what would happen once United spent enough to give him an indisputably good squad.

So what happened in 2018? Wayne Rooney came to town, Bill Hamid returned from Denmark, and Russell Canouse got healthy, all at the same time as United’s home-heavy schedule got going following the opening of Audi Field, and Olsen had his team playing arguably the prettiest soccer in MLS. They were also winning at a rate that simply hadn’t happened in recent years, and they hadn’t lost the ability to win when it gets scrappy (as we saw in 1-0 victories over Toronto and Dallas).

What we learned, then, was that there is a real interest in playing a compelling brand of soccer. D.C. could have sat in a low block hoping to win games on one burst from Rooney or Acosta, but they went out and took risks. But that comes with a new question: can they do it again over the course of a conventionally-structured season?

What’s the new jersey?

Alright, we’re just kidding. But honestly, we’re not off by much:

White...okay. United has had white as their secondary color forever, unlike the herd of recent (forced) converts around MLS. White with light gray though? And no other design elements that mark this out as a D.C. United jersey? Or even a D.C. team jersey? Yeesh.

On top of that, the knife got twisted yesterday, when The Athletic’s Pablo Maurer published a story that includes a glorious cherry blossom-inspired concept that got rejected along the way.

Expectations for 2019?

This team is good enough to more than simply get into the playoffs. The standard being set internally is to truly contend, and the fanbase is ready to demand that too. The midfield is among the best in MLS, the attack is keyed by two different 2018 Best XI players, Bill Hamid is Bill friggin’ Hamid, and the defense has been bolstered with a Boca Juniors starter. There’s real depth almost everywhere.

Given a reasonable bill of health, this team should be expecting a conference final and a really really close run towards some kind of trophy. At best, this team can actually win things in 2019.

Will this team care about the U.S. Open Cup?

There’s reason to believe they will. Last year, United started 7 first-choice players in their cup opener against North Carolina FC, and then went with their outright best eleven (save for goalkeeper Steve Clark starting over David Ousted) in the next round, where they went out to Orlando City on penalties.

United is hungry for trophies. It’s been 5 full seasons without winning anything, which is an eternity when you’re the team with more trophies than anyone else. Winning the Open Cup isn’t at the top of Olsen’s to-do list in a year where he could get his hands on MLS Cup or the Supporters Shield, but don’t be surprised to see D.C. field a strong lineup no matter who their first USOC opponent ends up being.

What’s new in 2019?

You just read about them. There are real expectations around United this year. Not hopes, not maybes, but genuine expectations from fans, neutral observers, and from within the team itself. That hasn’t been the case in a long time.

What’s the biggest concern for this season?

Rooney suddenly looking old (it happened with Dwayne De Rosario in 2013, and he was only a year older than Rooney is now) is certainly a worry, but perhaps more concerning is the prospect of him missing significant time due to injury. Amarikwa is an experienced option who might work from a hold-up perspective, but he’s not going to win games on his own like Wazza.

Closely behind this: Acosta leaving mid-season so that United doesn’t lose him for free next winter. They’re trying to get him signed to a new deal, but until that’s resolved, it’s a situation that has left plenty of fans fretting.

Anything new at your existing stadium this year?

It looks like construction is ongoing at Audi Field, with reporters at an open training session noting efforts to hang panels (likely some kind of mesh that still allows air through) on the west side of the stadium, which would theoretically allow the team to schedule games during the summer months without having to worry about cameras being blinded by the setting sun.

Fans do seem quite happy about the team’s alteration of a deeply unpopular bag policy as well. Other than that, everything is brand new. We don’t even have a full year’s worth of games to look back on!