There had been rumblings throughout the offseason that Sean Franklin, D.C. United’s right back for the past three seasons, would play center back for the Black-and-Red in 2017. There was mention of it when United selected Chris Odoi-Atsem in the first round of the MLS SuperDraft, a right back out of the University of Maryland. And finally, when United lined up for their first preseason practice on Tuesday at the RFK Auxiliary Field, Franklin took his spot among the center backs, in a drill working with the back line.
It might have been an uncommon sight, but one that United’s faithful may grow accustomed to over the course of two preseason trips to Florida, and six preseason friendly games.
“Throughout the preseason, we’re going to take some looks at him at center back,” manager Ben Olsen said of Franklin at United’s media day on Tuesday.
“[Franklin] is a lot stronger than people give him credit for. He’s good in the air. I think he has the skill-set to play that position,” added Olsen. “He hasn’t had a lot of time in that position, so he needs some of that.”
After the 2016 season ended, Franklin was a free agent, eligible to sign with any club within MLS. Franklin admitted that while he kept avenues open, he never seriously talked with other clubs about joining them. But in his conversation with Olsen when discussing a new contract, where Franklin would play was part of the chat.
“We talked about a few things,” Franklin said of his conversations with Olsen. “The past couple of years, I have been dealing with injuries towards the end of the season. We talked about managing my minutes, and where I played on the field.”
“Kind of to extend my career, now that I’m getting a little bit older,” said Franklin. “We talked about moving to center back, and still playing right back. Wherever he wants me to play, I’ll step in and play.”
Last year, Franklin picked up a calf injury against the New York Red Bulls in September. He missed the next five games, only to come back and play the first 45 minutes in the Decision Day loss to Orlando City SC. But, days later, Franklin was not available in the playoff loss against the Montreal Impact, having suffered a set back against the Lions.
In his stead, Nick DeLeon deputized to varying amounts of success at right back. United continued their winning ways with DeLeon in defense, but he had struggles against Best XI winger Ignacio Piatti in the playoff loss to the Impact.
Having just moved to central midfield after primarily being a wide manfor the whole of his MLS career, it now seems that the former first round SuperDraft pick is due for another position change.
“He’s a right back. And a midfielder?,” said Olsen of DeLeon, in his best Ron Burgundy impression. “ Nicky, primarily, will be working on both defensive flanks,” Olsen said of DeLeon’s preseason workload.
DeLeon, 26, was not a participant at Tuesday’s practice due to a slight back issue. With practice on artificial turf, Olsen said it was best to keep DeLeon off of the field, noting that the first couple of days of practices were not of the utmost importance.
Still, it appears that once DeLeon does make his return, he will be working towards a new position for the second consecutive year. His versatility might have extended his MLS career, but it’s also been a grind to find a spot with United that has some staying power.
“It’s been a frustrating process for [DeLeon], to have not nailed down a position at this point of his career,” said Olsen. “But he’s played a lot of games. He looks forward to nailing down one position and staying there for a couple of years.”
Meanwhile, Franklin isn’t totally foreign to playing as a center back. Way back in 2008, when Franklin was drafted by the LA Galaxy, Franklin spent most of the season playing as a center back, in what he called one of his more successful seasons as a player. Franklin appeared 27 times in ‘08, starting 26 games, and was named MLS’s Rookie of the Year.
Still, having plied his trade as a right back for most of his 9-year MLS career, Franklin knows that he will have some adjusting to do, especially mentally, as to when he can make his runs forward.
“You’re seeing the game from a different angle. Different runs and stuff like that,” said Franklin “You have to be conscious, someone like me, who likes to run and get forward, I have to remember to chill and hang back and hold down the fort.”
And maybe more importantly, Franklin, who turns 32 in two months, is completely healthy, and raring to go in 2017.
“I feel 100%, and hopefully I’ll be able to maintain that through the whole year.”