D.C. United made major progress in 2021, establishing a new style of play that won fans over while overcoming an almost comically high number of injuries. Their underlying numbers pointed to a club that was one of MLS’s best, but in the end they couldn’t fulfill that promise. The Black-and-Red came up just short in the climb back into the playoffs, missing the postseason by a single point after a late-season skid.
United attempted something of an overhaul this winter, with Kevin Paredes and Paul Arriola netting the team nearly $10 million in cash and assets, while they’ve replaced several outgoing veterans with a mix of Liga MX loans, MLS trades, and promising USL Championship players. Will it be enough to take that next step? And can they play this ultra-demanding style and still have gas in the tank down the stretch?
2021 record: 14W-5D-15L (47 points), 8th place in the Eastern Conference
Head coach: Hernán Losada
Losada came in promising a team that would high-press, take risks, and get fans excited about a club that had been more often than not a chore to watch in past years. The Argentine delivered on that front, with United’s #MAXIMUMOVERDRIVE style of play resulting in lots of chances at both ends. While only only New England and Kansas City scored more than the Black-and-Red’s total of 56 goals last season, there were only four teams in MLS to concede more than United’s 54.
Still, despite missing the playoffs, Losada’s bold approach and tactical innovations — Andy Najar playing right-center back, for example, was unlike anything MLS had ever seen, and a key to United’s best moments — rejuvenated a fanbase that needed some excitement.
Key additions: Brad Smith, Michael Estrada, Gaoussou Samaké, Jeremy Garay, Ted Ku-DiPietro, Hayden Sargis
DP Taxiarchis Fountas signed a pre-contract that would bring him in this summer, but there’s still a possibility that United and Rapid Wien reach a deal that would bring him to the District in the spring.
Key losses: Paul Arriola, Kevin Paredes, Júnior Moreno, Felipe Martins, Yordy Reyna, Joseph Mora, Frédéric Brillant, Yamil Asad, Ramón Ábila
Projected Best XI:
United only played in one preseason game where video is available, which makes it very difficult to parse what Losada — who toggled between five formations last year — has planned. We expect a back three, we expect Julian Gressel and Brad Smith to be the starting wingbacks, and we expect Bill Hamid in goal.
After that? We’re probably going to see a lot of 3412 or 352 in the first half of the season, but once Fountas arrives, we expect to see a 343 with the Greek forward joining Edison Flores and either Ola Kamara or Michael Estrada up front. Adrien Perez will probably get the starts at right forward until Fountas arrives, while Kamara, Estrada, and Nigel Robertha would vie for the two forward roles if Losada plays Flores as a central attacking midfielder. A more conservative option would see Flores pushed up as the second forward, with Drew Skundrich the likely third central midfielder in a box-to-box role.
Best offseason move: We could write a novel on how selling Kevin Paredes could be a landmark move in DCU’s position within the weird, wild world of elite DMV youth soccer, but this is a season preview. So, let’s go with Paredes’ likely replacement, Brad Smith. United may have overpaid to get him from Seattle, but they could hardly have gotten a more proven MLS commodity for Losada’s system. Smith’s not as flashy as Paredes, but he figures to get plenty of assists charging up the left flank.
Best reason to pay attention: We already tipped our hand: United’s 2021 games saw a total of 110 goals scored. Only FC Cincinnati, by one goal, had more, and they conceded 74 goals through gross incompetence. The Black-and-Red play bonkers games, while also being an actual functioning soccer team.
The point here is that while they might not give you the most elegant experience, #MAXIMUMOVERDRIVE is the best bang for your buck in MLS. You buy a ticket to have a good time, not a quiet act of contemplation as two teams re-enact the “center holds it” joke from The Simpsons. Those teams are boring! Life is too short to play 700 sideways passes.
United is forever trying to force the issue and make something happen. They’re capable of ripping good teams to shreds, or of giving some anonymous mid-table team four 3v1 breaks in a single half. They’re not the best team in MLS, but they are among the best at forcing other teams to play on their terms. That means even the most staid teams end up in wild, all-or-nothing games against DCU.
The one glaring weakness: Last year, United was trying to punch above their weight in terms of available talent, as their two DPs barely played 300 minutes together all year. This winter, they let one of those DPs, along with the most thrilling young player they’ve had in years, go for big transfer fees. It’s good business, but it’s hard to argue that United is more talented in 2022 than they were in 2021.
Will having a full year getting used to Losada’s system offset the tact that in terms of raw talent, they’re probably around 10th in the East? Will Edison Flores, who has had a promising offseason playing for Peru, finally look like a DP in MLS? Will United, who have had two of the most injury-riddled seasons in recent MLS history back-to-back, be healthier this time around?
If the answer to two of those three questions is yes, they can overcome this One Glaring Weakness and should make the playoffs. But all three questions feel like a coin toss right now, which means United feels like a team capable of finishing anywhere between 4th and 12th in the East.
One fact you can use to impress your friends: MLS tracking data showed that no team ran as much, or as hard, as United did in 2021. According to Joe Lowery at MLSsoccer.com, they lead the league in ground covered per 90, high-speed runs per 90, and sprint length per 90.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe character who most personifies this team: Spider-Man as portrayed by Tom Holland. United is very enthusiastic and going a mile a minute, they just can’t contain their enthusiasm. Sometimes that goes extremely well! Other times...well, look they’re really, really trying to do the right thing.