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D.C. United’s 2017 depth chart: Goalkeepers and defenders

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The first of a two-part series looking at United’s whole roster heading into the MLS SuperDraft

Now that 2017 is underway, it’s time to take stock on what we have, what can improve, and what we need. For D.C. United, that means looking over the whole roster and putting together a depth chart. There’s still plenty of time to make moves, and we’ll certainly see changes before the 22nd MLS season kicks off, but it’s still interesting to see where the club is ahead of the Superdraft (which is less than two weeks away).

Today, we start with the goalkeepers and the back four. For clarity, the presumed starter will be listed in bold, while players that will enter the year injured or away on loan will be in italics.

Goalkeeper

Natural: Bill Hamid, Travis Worra, Charlie Horton
Capable: N/A
Emergency: N/A

No surprises here. Hamid is MLS’s best goalkeeper (dip in form as summer turned to autumn notwithstanding), and there have been no transfer rumors about him yet this offseason. Worra improved with time in 2016, holding off MLS veterans Andrew Dykstra and Tally Hall to be Hamid’s top deputy. Horton didn’t get to play much after a bad finger injury required surgery, but his US under-23 experience points towards a good future.

Right back

Natural: Sean Franklin
Capable: Nick DeLeon, Jalen Robinson, Chris Durkin
Emergency: Steve Birnbaum, Patrick Nyarko

Re-signing Franklin takes care of a position that some are expecting to see a change at thanks to DeLeon’s performance there late last season. I’m not ready to go there just yet, as DeLeon’s defensive thought process (while good for a career midfielder) is not where it needs to be to become a full-time starter. That said, I expect him to start 5-7 games at right back this season so that Franklin doesn’t find himself dealing with an overuse injury come September or October. In particular, look for these games to come at home against more defensive opponents.

Further down the list, we’ve seen Robinson do alright for this spot on the depth chart, though he’s clearly more comfortable playing center back. Durkin was quite solid when he was the mysterious #38 during preseason last year, though I’m of the opinion that his future lies in central midfield. Olsen would probably turn to Birnbaum if Franklin and DeLeon were both out due to United’s center back depth. Nyarko is only here in the “down two goals with the season on the line” sort of option.

Center back

Natural: Steve Birnbaum, Bobby Boswell, Kofi Opare, Jalen Robinson
Capable: Chris Durkin
Emergency: Sean Franklin

No shocks here. I know there’s a segment of the fanbase (and our staff) that wants Boswell to be pushed out, but Opare’s 2016 was poor and Robinson - while clearly improving - is not quite there yet. This is still a strong enough group most of the time, particularly when the team’s shape is solid enough that Boswell isn’t pulled out wide. Birnbaum, having re-signed, should be going into 2017 in pursuit of an MLS Defender of the Year award.

Opare should bounce back in 2017, and if he can take one more step beyond that, he’ll be stern competition for Boswell. Robinson should also be expected to close the gap, which by the end of 2016 might have actually seen him starting ahead of Opare if someone was required to step in. Durkin has the composure and strength to get the job done if need be.

There has been a bit of talk from some smart MLS observers about Franklin playing some center back this year; I don’t see it happening. United’s depth at the position pretty much rules out the possibility, and Franklin’s one season at center back came during his rookie year, when he relied heavily on quickness and agility to provide emergency defending for one of the worst LA Galaxy teams of all time. He’s not as quick or agile these days, so it’s hard to see a reason to go this way. I could, however, see him playing right-center back if United ever tries a 352 of some sort.

Left back

Natural: Taylor Kemp
Capable: N/A
Emergency: Steve Birnbaum, Sean Frankin, Nick DeLeon, Jalen Robinson, Chris Durkin

Kemp continues to improve on both sides of the ball, and is now one of MLS’s better left backs. The issue here is depth. Luke Mishu has retired, Chris Korb is allegedly going to come in and fight for a new contract in preseason, but right now there is only one actual left back on the Black-and-Red’s roster.

If Kemp were injured or suspended, United would have a problem. We’d most likely see Birnbaum moved there, but that would significantly hurt United going forward (not to mention moving one of the club’s best players out of position). Franklin and DeLeon could also end up there in an emergency, while Robinson is said to be able to play all defensive positions. Durkin will probably never play a second at left back, but the versatility he showed during the last preseason leads me to mention him here due to lack of other candidates.

That does it for the defensive positions. Tomorrow, we’ll tackle the extremely deep, competitive midfield, as well as the Black-and-Red’s forwards.