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What is D.C. United going to do in this transfer window?

The Black-and-Red clearly need to make a splash. Let’s discuss how likely that is

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DC United and the Portland Timbers Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The FIFA window has been open for 8 days as of today, and D.C. United very clearly needs to make it count. The Black-and-Red, after a very good start to the season, have been trundling along, scraping out wins almost entirely based around a combination of Wayne Rooney doing something special and mostly good defending inside the 18. A malaise has settled in, and the easiest way to break out of this funk is new players adding to the starting lineup.

United GM Dave Kasper has exactly three weeks from today to bring players in. What can he actually do, though? Is D.C. even in position to change the trajectory of their season?

Let’s talk about it:

How much roster space does United have?

We think the answer is four total spots.

This should be an easy question, but this is MLS, and roster questions are never as straightforward as they should be. Without getting bogged down, the information we’ve heard over time about United’s roster does not match what’s on the league site in a few different spots. Now, normally you’d think “well, the league would know, right?” and be done with it, but the league site has had more than their fair share of errors on this front over the years. But, they’re right often enough that we can’t pretend that our conflicting information is flawless.

We reached out to D.C. United multiple times to clarify our discrepancies, but as of now no one from the soccer side of the organization has given us a response.

So, the answer: Four total roster spots, and almost certainly an even split between senior roster (i.e. the guys whose salaries count towards the salary cap) and non-senior roster (players who don’t make a ton, but are also free as far as the budget goes).

Obviously this is subject to change if someone leaves, or if someone is added to the Injured Reserve (which offers roster space, but not cap relief, but requires the player added to stay out for at least six games), but at the moment, United can realistically only add two players that can be fairly expected to make an instant impact.

What about international roster spots?

At the moment, United has used all of theirs. Leonardo Jara, Joseph Mora, Junior Moreno, Marquinhos Pedroso, Lucas Rodriguez, Wayne Rooney, Ulises Segura, and Zoltan Stieber are taking up the 8 spots the Black-and-Red have at their disposal.

However, as we learned at training a week ago:

If United is going to do business in the international market this summer, they’ll either need to a) find an American abroad (like they did with Paul Arriola and Russell Canouse), b) have Mora’s permanent residency paperwork cross the finish line in the very near future, or c) endure yet another trade for an international spot.

There has been plenty of speculation about who, beyond Mora, is close to a green card. First, a quick note: time spent in the U.S. is only one of a myriad of considerations that go into this sort of thing, which has apparently gotten more complicated under the current administration than it was in past years.

However, length of time since being signed is the one thing we can actually note with certainty, so here’s a very rough guideline on the likelihood of a given international getting a green card soon:

  • Segura and Moreno both signed a few weeks before Mora, so it stands to reason that both are next on the list for United. However, with the window closing on August 7, there’s not much time left for either to get it done in time to make an impact on United’s current transfer plans.
  • Rooney signed just over a year ago. His personal wealth, name recognition, and connections could (this is barely educated speculation, so take it with a few grains of salt) make a difference here. It seems more like a situation that will free up an international spot for this winter’s transfers rather than anything today, but we’re in uncharted territory with a player like Rooney.
  • Pedroso’s “time served” total is virtually exactly the same as Rooney’s. However, being traded in the middle of all that is probably the source of at least some small delay. His situation is probably similar to Rooney’s, but with an even lower chance of something shaking loose in the next 3.5 weeks.
  • Zoltan Stieber arrived in August of 2017, so he seems to have been here long enough to get this done. However, we have heard nothing about any movement towards a green card for the Hungarian, and with most speculation pointing towards United trying to move him along in this window or letting his contract end this winter, it seems highly unlikely that he’s going to get a green card this month.
  • Jara and Rodriguez are both on one-year loans that started in 2019, so their chances are effectively zero. If one or both end up being permanently signed, this time spent on loan might help shorten their process down the road...but it might not.

Is there cap space to do anything of note?

Who knows! There is probably some, but what does “some” even mean? MLS purposefully keeps this information obscured.

Let’s turn to B&RU cap guru Ryan Keefer for more:

We know that the cap is $4.24 million.

Here’s what we think we know:

D.C.’s guaranteed money (the money counting towards cap) is approximately $5,829,570, spread over 18 players. This includes paying Chris McCann and Chris Seitz close to minimum deals, and assuming the bulk of responsibility of David Ousted’s budget charge for 2019.

Where it gets tricky is when we get into allocation money in its various forms. D.C. got $1.2 million worth of TAM per year in 2018 and 2019, and $300,000 of GAM in both years. So, figure about $1.5 million added onto the cap number. If Steve Fenn’s visualization is close to accurate, D.C. has traded away about $200,000 of Allocation Money since May of 2018, so we’ll knock the number down to $1.4 million, bringing things up to about $5.6 million accounted for in salary and allocation. That assumes D.C. is maxing out their allocation money on the two players they’re using TAM on now (Steven Birnbaum and Zoltan Stieber), while Marquinhos Pedroso’s situation is murkier (Dallas brought him in using discretionary TAM).

That’s also assuming the guaranteed numbers are correct, which they likely are not, and also assumes that TAM is being used on contracts only, which doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.

What if Luciano Acosta leaves?

It doesn’t appear to be a major thing to worry about, as the signs point more and more towards Acosta opting to leave on a free transfer at the end of the season. That’s bad news financially for United, but all things considered it might end up being the best outcome from a purely soccer perspective. After all, finding an Acosta-caliber player who is ready to play in MLS in the next three weeks, and getting that deal done in time for him to play this year, is not easy at all.

Pablo Maurer reported in The Athletic that United has offered Acosta a four-year contract with a release clause, and there is at least some chance he takes that deal (after all, with a release clause built in, Acosta’s justifiable concerns about United not selling again are addressed by a contract forcing the club to let him go for an agreed-upon amount). Acosta leaving on a free transfer this winter is the most likely outcome, but Acosta re-signing feels like a close-ish second right now.

So while it’s doubtful that Lucho is headed out, it’s important to note that with the season going the way it’s going, United might not be in “take risks to possibly win trophies” mode any more. That’s a major letdown, but the Black-and-Red have one moderately convincing victory since April; we might as well be honest about the way the season is shaping up.

That informs United’s moves, and with regards to Acosta, it might boost the idea of selling today. If you’ve figured the season isn’t one where you’re going to win anything without major good fortune, there’s a solid financial argument that selling a starter (even for a very low figure compared to what they could have gotten) could help you for next year. Obviously that would go down like a lead balloon with the fanbase, but Dave Kasper doesn’t seem that invested in being popular. If he gets an offer that makes sense and he evaluates it as the best option, he’ll probably make the move no matter how it’s received in the stands.

What makes sense for United?

Let’s start with departures. Stieber isn’t playing, and at his age, that’s a major detriment when negotiating what is most likely one of the last pro soccer contracts he’s going to get. He probably wants to leave, or at least has good reason to want to. For United, using that big salary on a player that can reliably contribute within the current system is a must, and it would free up an international spot to boot.

As for incoming players, you probably know where this is going. Yamil Asad makes a ton of sense. As a reminder, United wanted him here all season long, but ran into obstacles in the winter. MLS rules prevented them from signing him, as the transfer fee in his initial loan contract would have put him into Designated Player range, and Velez Sarsfield was not willing to change the structure of how that fee was paid in a manner that would solve the problem.

Things have changed. Asad was granted a release by Velez, making him a free agent. United holds his MLS rights, and he seemed to enjoy his time in the District. While D.C. isn’t the only interested party (The Athletic’s Pablo Maurer reported that multiple other MLS clubs are interested), their attack badly needs the kind of boost Asad would bring. Of course, they need that boost ASAP, and Asad was barely able to get a game in the first half of 2019 after the coaching staff at Velez preferred other players. Even if United announced Asad tomorrow, you’d have to assume he’d need a couple of weeks at a minimum to get up to speed and start contributing.

Asad isn’t the only game in town though. As we reported yesterday, Mateo Garcia (another Argentine wide man) is also very much on United’s radar. It’s good that United isn’t putting all of its eggs in the Asad basket...but it’s also a sign that maybe there are hang-ups with acquiring Asad that we don’t know about.

Beyond that, adding a true striker with some speed feels like a must. Quincy Amarikwa has done well as a game-killing defensive forward, and he always brings energy, but United has desperately missed Darren Mattocks, and could use someone of a roughly similar playing style. There’s also room for one more winger/attacking midfield type if Stieber departs — which could mean adding Asad and Garcia — and an experienced utility defender to compete for a spot in the gameday 18 would not be a bad idea either.

What can we actually expect?

Definitely something, as Ben Olsen has said more than once that there are one or two players coming in. Most likely, though, it feels more like a window where we might see a maximum of one player acquired from abroad, and the rest coming in via trades or “promotions” within the organization

My guess: Asad signs as a free agent, plus some TAM/GAM brings in an MLS-based domestic attacking player, and maybe one more move from outside of the organization. United could also sign a homegrown player — Steve Goff reported that Bryang Kayo has an offer in hand already, though he’s considering going to Europe instead — or give a non-academy Loudoun United player (someone like Connor Presley or Orlando Sinclair, perhaps?) an MLS deal.

All in all, this isn’t the most thrilling outlook, even if we end up with a best-case scenario. Asad, if he’s the big move, has essentially not played competitively at all since United got knocked out of the playoffs last year, so while he’d be a great addition, he wouldn’t be an instant boost in the upcoming games. Garcia, if it’s him instead, would need to acclimate to MLS while coming out of his offseason without any preparation. A trade for an MLS attacker probably involves adding a player who either isn’t starting elsewhere in the league or was starting for a bad team and thus might have low confidence.

For United’s sake, let’s hope Kasper has another big surprise up his sleeve.