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D.C. United season review: Julian Buescher

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United’s first round pick grew in importance as the season wore on

On a blustery day in January, D.C. United added Syracuse’s Julian Buescher to their midfield. It wasn’t a straightforward pick: United sent targeted allocation money to Sporting Kansas City to get the #11 pick and snag the former Germany under-18 national team player before KC or the Chicago Fire (who were up at #12) could select him instead.

They quickly replenished their TAM stocks by moving the #13 they entered the Baltimore Convention Center with in a trade with Orlando City, and it felt like United had once again gotten their man. Buescher’s Generation Adidas status - which he will retain in 2017 - meant he would not count against the salary cap, and at the time he appeared to fill a position of need. Luciano Acosta was a month away from being officially signed, after all, and in 2015 United was crying out for a playmaker. Taking the best player from an NCAA semifinalist was a pretty decent solution to the problem.

Of course, United did end up landing Acosta, and it was clear from the start that Lucho was going to be given plenty of opportunities to be the Black-and-Red’s first-choice #10. That’s the sort of thing that happens in MLS when your resume includes Boca Juniors and Estudiantes and your competition’s resume is NCAA soccer.

So Buescher mostly played second-team minutes during the preseason, making it hard to judge what he was capable of. However, we got an early indication that the kid can play:

When it comes to the MLS SuperDraft, United lives in a weird gap between reality and perception. In the majority of drafts since he became head coach, Ben Olsen - who is often accused of "hating" or having no use for young players - has added a rookie that went on to join his regular playing rotation that year. Perry Kitchen, Nick DeLeon, and Steve Birnbaum all came to United on draft day, and all of them became starters in their rookie season.

Buescher’s numbers make it impossible for us to fit him in with that group. He played 584 minutes in MLS this season, and only started three times (plus a start in the US Open Cup). That’s on par with Miguel Aguilar’s 528 minute rookie year, but it’s also in line with Taylor Kemp playing 530 minutes in 2013. Buescher at least made those minutes count, with one goal and four assists a pretty excellent return in that small amount of time. And it’s helpful, I think, to note that one of those goals and three of those assists came in the last month of the season. That’s a sign that he’s growing as a player.

It’s also worth digging into how those minutes were doled out. Coming into his first-ever MLS start (August 24th at Montreal), Buescher had a total of 168 minutes played for the year. On September 24th, he doubled that number, and added two starts in October. In other words, even as the games became more meaningful, and as the level of competition within the squad grew due to United’s fruitful midseason trades, Buescher was becoming more of a regular sight on gamedays.

Going back a second, I brought up Aguilar and Kemp for a reason. Aguilar didn’t make any progress within United’s hierarchy on the wings. He ended up spending much of the year on loan with the Richmond Kickers, and United ended up adding a right winger during the season to boot. Kemp, by contrast, Kemp doubled his playing time in his second year and was United’s starter at left back in the playoffs.

That’s the fork in the road Buescher is at. It’s not a perfect comparison, since Kemp is a natural specialist at left back (a position that’s hard to fill in American soccer) while Buescher is capable of more than one midfield role depending on situation and personnel, but close enough. Buescher’s job in 2017 is to make sure he’s becoming a more regular part of the team rather than ending up on on loan and/or further down the depth chart than he is now.

It helps, too, that United has changed to a formation that suits Buescher (and every central midfielder on the team, really) more than the 442/4411 did. It’s clear that Olsen primarily sees Buescher as Acosta’s understudy in the #10 role, but we’ve seen him brought in as the #8 when United needs a goal. Given that United’s late-season goal outburst is likely to result in some bunkering visitors to RFK next year, we might see that look more often.

There’s one more X factor to discuss before we vote. It’s not the most pleasant thing to ponder, but the fact is that United still has work to do to keep Acosta permanently. It’s something they should absolutely take care of, and I’m confident they will, but it’s not certain. And if something comes up - say, another team in a different country offering Boca Juniors more than United can afford - it’s good to be prepared.

Buescher is United’s back-up plan if Acosta ends up elsewhere. I’m not going to tell you that you should shrug it off if that comes to pass, but I will say that you shouldn’t go full-on Chicken Little. Buescher may not have Acosta’s footwork or defensive intensity, but he’s still a capable MLS starter as a playmaker, particularly in United’s system.

To the polls!