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Looking at D.C. United’s roster going into the offseason

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We don’t know everything, but we can try to work with what we’ve got

MLS: Inter Miami CF at D.C. United Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

D.C. United’s offseason, which began yesterday evening, is probably one of their most significant in more than a decade. Figuring out whom their coach will be, how (or if) they are going to beef up their organizational infrastructure, and the building of a training facility next to Segra Field in Virginia are all major issues on the docket. But the reason United is who they are is because of those on the field, so with that in mind, let’s take a look at who will, or should, remain in Black-and Red in 2021.

A couple of disclaimers here. First, a portion of what follows is based on what has been previously reported; there could be discrepancies. Some contract information isn’t necessarily known by anyone other than one or two people. This is due to a couple of things, partly due to general MLS secrecy, and D.C.’s proclivity to keeping things under the vest when it comes to contract terms. There’s also the fact that as of this writing, there is no publicly available CBA or salary numbers for 2020.

Let’s dive in.

So what did D.C. do last offseason?

If the winter of 2018-19 had D.C. putting down the seeds of organizational permanence with Audi Field completed and a training facility/second division field underway, the winter of 2019-20 had them watering those seeds. They turned Bill Hamid’s loan from Midtjylland into a permanent move running through 2023, extended deals for Steve Birnbaum and Russell Canouse through 2023, acquired Julian Gressel from Atlanta United via trade and then subsequently gave him a contract through 2023, extended Paul Arriola’s deal through 2023 and signed Edison Flores through 2024.

Frederic Brillant’s contract expired last season, but he was extended through 2021. Additionally, they signed Moses Nyeman and Kevin Paredes to homegrown deals near the end of the 2019 and beginning of 2020 seasons, respectively, following their summer and fall months at Loudoun United. Several of these contracts have club-held options in the last year or two of the contracts, but the general point being six senior roster players (three allocation money players, two Designated Players) and four homegrown players are locked up for two more seasons after this.

Seems like a lot! So...

With all this in mind, we believe that D.C. United has decisions to make on the following players this offseason:

  • Chris Seitz
  • Oniel Fisher
  • Joseph Mora
  • Axel Sjoberg
  • Junior Moreno
  • Ulises Segura
  • Felipe
  • Yordy Reyna
  • Mohammed Abu
  • Earl Edwards Jr.
  • Chris Odoi-Atsem

While there are far more names on this list than there were around this time last year, taking a deeper dive shows there are some lower-risk deals that can be parted with easily. Sjoberg made two early starts after being acquired in August, but is currently being passed over by out-of-position players (like Canouse) for center back minutes these days. Since his acquisition in September, Reyna has played about 90 more minutes than Sjoberg (in part to a presumed Covid diagnosis and separate quarantines for that and due to the move across an international border), yet makes more than ten times Sjoberg’s salary, is an international TAM player and has a club option that I imagine would not be picked up under his current guaranteed number.

Fullback sees some small intrigue. Mora (signed at the beginning of 2018) and Fisher (extended at the beginning of 2019) may be moot; they have had one option exercised already and could possibly have one more. Given their relatively small salaries, picking up those options seems like an easy choice. Odoi-Atsem had been playing well on an off-budget contract and could retain that spot while getting a bump in salary; as a move from a reserve to supplemental roster spot gets you a 33%-ish wage hike while not counting against the salary cap. On a slightly related note, Segura was signed just before Mora, also had an option exercised last year and is also salary effective and can play several positions in midfield, so he could see his option picked up also.

There are two positions that could prove to be interesting, starting with goalkeeper. Seitz has an option that, if exercised, would be around $200,000 counted towards the senior roster. Edwards’ contract was extended for 2020 but he did not crack the lineup, while Seitz’s two shutouts in six starts are the most shutouts he’s had over the previous three years combined. So do you go with the guy who’s five years younger and cheaper, or go one more year with the veteran who seems to be outperforming the younger option? We haven’t even talked about Simon Lefebvre, who played with Loudoun United and is training with D.C., and could force the issue further in preseason.

Central midfield is the big logjam. As earlier covered, Canouse and Nyeman aren’t going anywhere. Abu is off-budget (supplemental) and on loan, rehabbing an MCL injury while Felipe is rehabbing his own separate ACL tear. However, Felipe costs north of $525,000 before the option. Moreno’s salary is a third of Felipe’s, is on an option of his own and is younger than both Felipe and Abu.

But the wrinkle here is that from that group, Moreno is easily the most attractive asset for foreign club interest. It would not be out of the realm of possibility that Moreno’s option is exercised with the purpose of giving him the chance to go to say, Colombia or Argentina to both be closer to family and be more accessible for call-ups to the Venezuela National Team, to say nothing of giving Nyeman a path to increased playing time with the first team.

So, what is D.C. United left with?

Combined with the players under longer-term contracts, Yamil Asad, Erik Sorga and Ola Kamara are/probably will be set for a bit too. Asad and Sorga have deals that expire after next season with club-held options for 2022, while Kamara’s deal expires after 2022. If Asad and Kamara have enough time in America to gain (in Kamara’s case, regain) green cards to come off their respective international spots, United would gain some roster flexibility. But barring surprise, they seem pretty set. Consider:

  • D.C. has scored 25 goals in 2020, and 22 belong to players under contract for next year and beyond.
  • If they conservatively pick up the options for Mora, Fisher, Moreno and Segura (as I think they would), that’s 15 senior roster players (and 22 total) for 2021. As a rule of thumb, MLS teams need 18 senior players to comprise a team’s budget, and anything less gets charged a cap hit for each open space, something around $90,000 per spot.

Given the uncertainly about next season at this point, who knows how much movement from international clubs will happen? Would you if you were coming from Europe and maybe still had a year or even two on your contract?

So let’s say you’re right. Where do they go, and what will they do?

Well, players can ask to go, and in the past, Dave Kasper has made accommodations for players who want to leave their contract early (Wayne Rooney being a recent notable example), and the club has been amenable to transfers away too. But based on what (we think) we know, most of D.C. United’s 2020 roster is going to return to Florida for the 2021 preseason.

What it translates to is a couple of things; first, expect D.C. to nibble around the edges as far as the roster goes. Between playing time at Loudoun United and training time at D.C., Jeremy Garay and Jacob Greene are potential homegrown candidates for additional depth at central midfield and outside back, respectively. Kairou Amoustapha worked out with the club after his successful first year at Loudoun, given his workrate and youth he could see an off-budget spot for a forward/winger option.

Perhaps picking up Abu on a permanent move and letting him and Nyeman battle for the third spot in central midfield is a possibility. Donovan Pines’ progression aside, a fourth/veteran center back pickup is still something to look at, as is a healthy and consistent right back. D.C. should have the 3rd spot in the allocation order next year (here’s the list of players) and an open Designated Player spot, but past getting an above-the-marquee name, I don’t know where they go to splash the pot. If they do it, would it maybe be at outside back?

At this point, we’re all back to where the default position on D.C. United should be at the moment, which is they have to nail the coaching hire for two big reasons: on-field cohesion is an easy one, and a choice that has a vision in place and is both prepared to implement it and allowed the resources to do so would do a world of good for the club.

The big ancillary arc to watch would be the organization’s willingness to let players go (likely at a financial loss for an already miserly franchise) ahead of good salaried contracts. It would be a barometer of how much they are willing to pull all the roots out and start anew.

And if that happens, that puts all D.C. fans in new territory.