I won’t even try to hide the ball: Dave Kasper had himself a good 2016. A very good 2016, in fact.
Before we go through the GM’s year, though, let’s take stock of where D.C. United are heading into 2017. They have a United States men’s national team centerback locked down for most of his prime years. Three starting-quality wide midfielders are vying for two spots. The starting forward spot looks set with a young American talent. And the centerpiece is a 23-year-old Argentine attacking midfielder who brings flair and cheek along with the goals and assists and who grew into the role over the course of his first MLS season.
I mention these specific positions not because they are where United is best placed this winter — though, arguably, they are — but because those are the major personnel changes the Black-and-Red have made over the last 12 months. And the man primarily responsible is Dave Kasper.
Now, let’s look over the tape.
The offseason started, as it always does, with departures. Perry Kitchen refused a near-designated player contract to try his luck overseas, eventually signing with Scottish team Hearts. Philadelphia offered to take on Chris Pontius’ hefty salary and give him the fresh start everybody knew he needed (and deserved). Eddie Johnson and Davy Arnaud retired, the latter to join the coaching staff. Conor Doyle decamped for Colorado.
Cap space cleared, it was time for some moves. Trades for Lamar Neagle, Patrick Nyarko and Marcelo Sarvas were reminiscent of the M.O. Kasper and Olsen had used to turn the team around after essentially re-interviewing for their jobs following the disastrous 2013 season. (Aside: what a different time it was three years ago, for Kasper no less than anyone.)
Then things got... different. United were linked to a Boca Juniors and Estudiantes creative midfielder as well as an Italian national team midfielder. And both stories had legs. Los Capitalinos would ink a loan for Luciano Acosta, which has since been converted to a full transfer. And while some meddling from Adrian Heath and his erstwhile charge Kaka prevented United from signing Antonio Nocerino, the resources they squeezed out of Orlando City and Nocerino’s play for the Purple Lions give D.C. the better of that transaction.
Rob Vincent joined the team from USL side Pittsburgh. Julian Buescher and the quickly departed Paul Clowes came via the SuperDraft. Charlie Horton arrived from Leeds. In May, Markus Halsti returned to Scandanavia, while Alhaji Kamara came the other direction, looking for a fresh start after a medical scare had kept him on the sidelines for most of a year. Tally Hall came on board for a few months to stem a goalkeeping injury crisis before retiring to pursue a career in law enforcement.
U.S. under-17 defensive midfielder and center back Chris Durkin signed a homegrown deal and shone brightly in his one performance for the Black-and-Red. He’ll continue his tutelage in the Bradenton national team residency program through next spring’s U-20 World Cup before joining United full time.
But it was July that defined United’s 2016 on the personnel side, and therefore for Kasper. Out went the team’s attacking centerpiece, Fabian Espindola traded to Vancouver before signing with Necaxa in Mexico. In came United-killer Lloyd Sam from Hudson River West, Patrick Mullins from Hudson River East and Kennedy Igboananike from the shores of Lake Michigan.
It was a risky move, and United probably gave up plenty for Sam and Mullins. But whatever the amount, it was worth it. United’s identity changed over the rest of the season from one of the league’s most defensive-minded teams to one of its best attacking sides, and they entered the playoffs scoring goals at the best rate in MLS.
Since the season ended, Kasper has accomplished the consensus top two priorities for the offseason, inking Acosta to a permanent transfer and signing Steve Birnbaum on a long-term deal to keep him from following Perry Kitchen across the pond on a free transfer after 2017.
It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, of course. I’m sure Kasper would have preferred to keep Kitchen in the fold. While the Nocerino saga ended well for United, one wonders whether he could have succeeded at RFK given his showing at Camping World Stadium. Let us not forget that Andrea Mancini spent most of the year on the roster.
And United’s playoff exit in the play-in/knockout/wild card/whatever round was a step back from 2015 and 2014.
Nevertheless, to my eye, the roster is in the best shape it’s been in for a long time. Over the course of the year, United got younger, more stable, deeper and better. It’s because Dave Kasper had himself a good 2016.
And now, we vote. Have your say on whether the GM should return next year for his tenth full season in the role (and his fifth out of the shadow of Kevin Payne). And then take to the comments.