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D.C. United 2020 MLS season preview

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Will a rebuilt attack be enough for United to finally make some serious progress?

Xavi Dussaq / Courtesy of D.C. United

D.C. United enters the 2020 season looking to make up for what ended up being a letdown last year. A team that was supposed to ride 2018’s momentum into a charge at MLS Cup ended up having to bunker its way into the playoffs, and multiple departures forced a revamp to the attack. Faster and younger in key spots, have the Black-and-Red made enough changes to get beyond simply making up the numbers in the MLS playoffs?

How did they finish in 2019?

13W-11D-10L, 50 points, 5th in the East. In the postseason, they were knocked out of the playoffs at the first hurdle for the third time in four years.

What did we learn last season about this team?

It turned out the magic of LuchoRoo in 2018 was really reliant on playing 15 home games from mid-July onward. After an impressive start to 2019, one injury and one bad home loss to LAFC derailed United, who muddled along in the middle of the pack until deciding to become a defense-first, defense-second team for the last quarter of the season.

It was just barely enough to get into the playoffs, but no one was satisfied.

Who’s out?

  • Wayne Rooney (Derby County)
  • Luciano Acosta (Atlas FC)
  • Lucas Rodriguez (end of loan)
  • Leonardo Jara (end of loan)
  • Quincy Amarikwa (end of contract)
  • Jalen Robinson (end of contract)

Paul Arriola is still on the team, but a preseason ACL tear has effectively sidelined him for 2020.

Who’s in?

  • Edison Flores (brought in from Morelia on a club-record transfer fee)
  • Julian Gressel (via one of the largest allocation money trades in MLS history)
  • Yamil Asad (free agent)
  • Erik Sorga (FC Flora Tallinn)
  • Kevin Paredes (homegrown signing)

What’s new in 2020?

We’ll get into the changes on the soccer side momentarily. What’s new with United off the field? Audi Field finally looks more like United’s actual home rather than an unfurnished starter apartment, with banners honoring club legends among the cosmetic upgrades. Supporters also got one of their major demands fulfilled, as safe standing has been installed behind the north goal.

In terms of club culture, it also has to be said that there’s a major effort to connect today with the trophy-laden early days, and to re-establish connections with the region’s Latinx fans. A disastrous local broadcast deal that didn’t feature a TV option was scrapped late last year, though this season’s deal is not necessarily drawing rave reviews.

What’s the one storyline you’ll be following?

Contrary to the perceptions of both national observers and a chunk of the local fanbase, Ben Olsen has tried to play some form of aesthetically pleasing soccer in nearly every season he has been in charge. In a few years, it worked for a while before falling apart; in other years, it never got going, and United would revert to a very conservative style that (sometimes) has allowed the team to overachieve. The times this Plan B didn’t work? We’d rather not discuss those seasons, thanks.

This year, United is looking to deploy a more aggressive press, a more expansive approach to building out of the back, and to be much better at creating chances in transition. Maybe the biggest single question surrounding this entire season is whether that will work for more than a couple months. If it does, this team will finally take a step from “made the playoffs” to contending. If it doesn’t, the Olsen era is probably going to come to a close.

What’s the new jersey?

MLS: FORWARD25 Tony Behar-USA TODAY Sports

United’s previous home kit was inexplicably black and gray. This is much, much better. The shoulder stripes recall the 90s-era United dynasty, the red cuffs pop, and a club whose watchword was “tradition” for so long really managed to pay homage to its history. After a fan outcry, the club has even brought back the red shorts that they frequently wore with black shirts in 1996.

Unfortunately MLS and Adidas decided to give every team this template, but we shouldn’t let that detract from what is a very good, very D.C. United look. Everyone else looks bad, not us (okay, okay, and Minnesota).

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

Any time you crush your existing transfer record, it’s gotta be that guy, right? So let’s go with Flores, the Peruvian international who will have to be as good (or better) as he was with Morelia in Liga MX. Flores is a little less of a showman than Acosta, but he’s got far more speed to turn the quick feints and flicks into separation from defenders. He might not rack up as many nutmegs as Acosta did, but because of a more well-rounded skill set, he’s more likely to break lines and penetrate defenses.

If Flores lives up to his promise, United should be both fun and effective. If not, this probably becomes a more purely counter-attacking team, which no one really wants to see.

Who’s the coach?

Ben Olsen is in charge for what will be his 10th full season. He’s far and away the longest-tenured coach in team history, and is only behind Peter Vermes among active MLS coaches. When you factor in his time as a player, he’s been a major facet at the club for nearly a quarter-century.

A loud portion of the fanbase is not exactly thrilled that he’s back, though, and there is reason to believe that this year is a make-or-break season for him. In all likelihood, a fourth season of “made the playoffs, that’s it” in the last five years won’t cut it, and there’s a certain eye test factor here as well. United’s ownership should be looking for improved results, and a more attractive style of play too.

What’s the biggest concern for this season?

As of publication, United has 24 total players under contract, plus Sorga (who was initially signed to a Loudoun United deal to get him into the fold faster). Paul Arriola is almost certainly going to miss the whole season with a torn ACL, and Chris Durkin is on loan through June.

That leaves 22 available players, which is not enough. United’s first eleven is arguably better than it was last year (or at least, harder to gameplan for), and should rank among the best in the East. However, there are only three center backs on the team, and just two forwards. There are also depth concerns at right and left back. It’s unclear whether there are reinforcements coming before the early transfer window closes, or if Ulises Segura is going to end up playing every single position there is.

How will summer tournaments impact the squad?

United is in the Leagues Cup, but given that we just talked about depth, it’s hard to believe United will field their best 11 in mid-week, non-league games in July. Have you been to D.C. in July? It’s not really conducive for soccer, or even just existing outside.

United’s starters probably have a good chance at advancing a round or two, but every possible Leagues Cup fixture date falls between weekend MLS games, and Olsen is going to (rightly) prioritize games in the league over the dubious merits of winning this contrived exhibition tournament.

That said, after a mix of reserves and Loudoun United call-ups were torn apart by Marseille last year, Olsen indicated that he would field stronger teams in non-league play going forward. Key starters will still rest, but they might still be available off the bench rather than watching from the luxury boxes.

What’s the starting line-up going to look like?

There is still plenty of uncertainty here after United a) overhauled the attack by bringing in several versatile players, and b) streamed just one of their six preseason games, giving us precious little to go on. Flores playing wide right, after playing on the left and in the middle elsewhere, was a surprise we only discovered in the preseason finale.

This 433 could become a 4141 on the road, where Olsen is generally more cautious. In those instances, Gressel and Flores might swap spots, and if this 433 doesn’t work, the option of a 4231 with Gressel wide right and Flores underneath Kamara would make a lot of sense. Russell Canouse might find himself in the midfield if Fisher or Odoi-Atsem emerge as starting options at right back, which could leave him, Felipe, and Junior Moreno fighting for two spots.

Expectations for 2020?

This is a faster, less predictable attack that should be able to comfortably surpass last year’s meager 42 goals scored. However, it’s fair to expect some defensive regression, particularly if the more attacking style of play comes to fruition for the whole season. It feels like there’s enough here to make progress, but how much? There are so many questions that could go either way: Will the stylistic change actually work? Is Flores worth the money? Can Gressel replicate his Atlanta form here? Do all of the new pieces actually fit together?

Here’s the prediction: more aesthetically pleasing soccer leads to a good start, but a lack of depth causes a mid-season lull. United does end up making a bit of progress on the results side, getting to 53 points while making a deep Open Cup run, and they do finally win a playoff game...but just the one.