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What D.C. United’s roster decisions may mean for 2023

In which we look into the crystal ball for Wayne Rooney’s first (only?) offseason as DC coach.

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MLS: D.C. United at CF Montreal Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

So a little over a month ago we took a look at where we thought D.C. United could head going into the offseason, and what their decisions looked like. You can check them out and either nod or mock us! So now, with roster decisions having been generally made, what can we gleam from Monday’s announcement? Ryan and Marc take a gander.

Ryan: Well uh, first off, glad to see I got the general number right? Bless electronic spreadsheets I guess.

First and foremost, I don’t think much of consequence is to be read into these. I mean, the team says that “The club are in conversations with select players who have had their contract option declined or are out of contract about returning to D.C. United in 2023.” So inherently you’d expect some of these guys to return. By looking at the 24 players D.C. United has under contract for 2023 presently, 13 of those are players that count to the salary budget. If David Ochoa re-signs, that’s another, if Chris Odoi-Atsem returns, that’s another. If they get Mohanad Jeahze over the line, then that’s another one. And before you know it, D.C. has to fill only two positions to get to the roster minimum (where teams have between 18-20 players count to the budget), and three (overall) to max out the roster.

What does that mean for the rest of the offseason? Three things I think:

  • The team still needs to work on upgrading the roster status of currently available players. What does THAT mean? Green cards. The team has eight international players, six of whom signed in 2022. So either Nigel Robertha and Gaoussou Samaké need to get some things done this offseason, or the team needs to pay the expedited fees to get the other players those cards, or things are right back where they were. It’s fine if they’re comfortable bringing in players that count to the budget who are consequential (they’re going to need to), but they’ll need to put in the work to give themselves a wider pool to choose from.
  • The spoon still has a perk or two. Longtime DC fans know the upside (such as it is) to sucking one year is being at or near the top of the list in things like the Re-Entry Draft and Allocation Order. The team’s been prone to use them before and wouldn’t be afraid to do so again, particularly if it meant getting a player of impact.
  • The kids will definitely get a look. I mentioned the 13 players that currently count to D.C.’s cap. Of the 11 that don’t, 8 either came through Loudoun or signed as homegrown players. Wayne Rooney liked bringing the kids along at Derby County, he’s got the chance to do it again now.

Marc: That sounds about right. With that in mind, here is my guess as to where the depth chart stands:

Note that I did not list players at multiple positions. Particularly with the expanded Leagues Cup format, depth will be a necessity in 2023 if D.C. United is to push anything close to respectable. Could Najar or Williams – hell, even Durkin – play left back in a pinch? Of course. Should the club count on that? Absolutely not.

The toughest positions to interpret were right and central midfield. I wrote about Morrison’s fit (or lack thereof) within the team a month ago, and the tl;dr is that I’m not sure what his role is. After arriving in July, he split most of his time between right and central midfield, though irrespective of his nominal position he tended to drift toward the ball. There was no better illustration of this than his D.C. United debut, in which he lined up on the right but repeatedly came inside to pick the ball off his center backs and knock it around, essentially serving as a second No. 6 alongside Sofiane Djeffal. Recognizing this redundancy in midfield, Rooney replaced Djeffal with Martín Rodríguez at halftime and dropped Morrison into deep-lying midfield, which improved the team’s spacing a ton.

Even when deployed in central midfield, though, Morrison failed to offer much outside of the occasional golazo. For as much as he got on the ball, he didn’t do enough with it to indicate that he can be anything close to the “top five or 10 talent in the league” that his coach believes he can be. That, coupled with Rooney’s fondness for Chris Durkin, leads me to believe that as the roster stands, Morrison would be the first option on the right flank.

Morrison’s ineffectiveness aside, this would be less than ideal for two reasons. For one, nobody in that potential front four stretches the field with enough regularity to make that attack potent. I alluded to Morrison’s tendency to get sucked toward the ball… well, Rodríguez prefers cutting inside onto his right foot and playmaking from central areas, while Christian Benteke is nothing but a traditional, hold-up striker at this point in his career. Taxiarchis Fountas poses the biggest threat in behind, but even he is more of a pass-and-move type of player in that he likes checking to the ball to combine with his teammates as he works his way into shooting positions. With rumors swirling around Rodríguez’s future, D.C. United could do worse than going out and getting a pacier, more direct left winger to complement Benteke and Fountas.

The second reason deploying Morrison on the right would be less than ideal is because it would take minutes away from the club’s pair of 18-year-old Homegrown attackers, Jackson Hopkins and Kristian Fletcher. I’m not sure either is ready to be a full-time MLS starter yet (Hopkins is closer than Fletcher), but both showed flashes of promise in 2022 and have the potential to be multi-million dollar exports. For a club that wants to develop academy players before selling them to Europe à la the Philadelphia Union, getting Hopkins and Fletcher a combined 2,000 minutes across all competitions next year wouldn’t be so bad, especially considering how poorly it handled Moses Nyeman’s situation.

Looking at the backline, I don’t love the idea of moving Steven Birnbaum out of that left center back position, but given the size of Derrick Williams’ contract and health status of Brendan Hines-Ike, it seems like that will happen, right? Or might the club make another move at center back?

Ryan: Honestly, I think that Williams would have to be the LCB starter because a) I can’t imagine BHI being ready to go 90 minutes from Week 1 and b) his stature and cap hit almost command it. I could envision a thing where Williams organizes and Birnbaum’s the destroyer of sorts, kind of like when he was paired with Boswell when he first got to D.C., in which case BHI could get brought along more pragmatically. He’s still younger than Williams and Birnbaum and assuming he doesn’t get shut down to injury again this year is a viable starter when healthy. With that ongoing, Matai Akinmboni can get stapled next to (presumably) Jalen Robinson in Loudoun, and get to work.

Marc: Speaking of Loudoun, D.C. United’s first move of the offseason was signing Luis Zamudio from its USL affiliate. I currently have him first on the goalkeeper depth chart, though that’s more an indictment of Rafael Romo than anything else:

Remember his D.C. United debut? Though he was only forced into one save after replacing the injured Bill Hamid, he put on a clinic. He was composed on the ball — with one of his first touches, he chipped a pass over an oncoming defender — and quick to come off his line; there was one moment in which he came out of his penalty area to knee the ball away from danger and another in which he came off his line, dove and tipped the ball away. Those were moments in which Hamid and Jon Kempin had struggled, so supporters had reason to be hopeful.

Then, 11 days later, Romo had that blunder on Alex Callens’ header and never looked the same. At this point, it would be a shock if the club wasn’t actively looking to move him.

The same can be said for Robertha and Russell Canouse, neither of whom saw much of the field following Rooney’s arrival. When Canouse did feature, it was often as more of a No. 8, which makes sense given that Rooney wants his No. 6 to sit centrally, get on the ball and dictate the tempo. That’s just not Canouse’s game. He’s a destroyer in all senses of the word, someone who will eat ground and win tackles but rarely influence the game through possession. There’s a reason he thrived in 2018 when playing behind Luciano Acosta, a No. 10 known for his ability to take the ball off his defensive midfielders, turn and eliminate defenders on the dribble as he progresses toward goal.

Ryan: Marc and I went back and forth on Canouse; I thought he should be the 2nd DM, Marc made the observation that his minutes under Rooney looked to be more of an 8. Which is fine I guess; Russ has that club in the bag, but he’s seemed more comfortable in the destroyer role and it’s benefitted the team overall.

If I had to guess, I feel like D.C. and St. Louis have a trade coming in the future for him, but he’s in this spot where he can still play but makes a bunch of money ($515,000 is a near-senior level maximum) and his contract expires next year; either the dude’s going to land somewhere as a free agent in ‘24, or Dave Kasper should (will?) move him while the team carries some of the salary for the rest of the year. A roster intricacy move is the type of thing where it’s his time to shine, or something.

The regular season starts in what, 100 days? Let’s see what shakes out.