Yesterday we talked about D.C. United’s depth in goal and across the back four. While it’s apparent that United’s starters are strong, the club is probably in need of an addition or two (or perhaps that’s a return, in the case of Chris Korb?) at fullback. Today, we get into the midfield - an especially deep spot for the Black-and-Red - and forwards.
As with yesterday, for clarity’s sake, the presumed starter will be listed in bold, while players that will enter the year injured or away on loan will be in italics.
Defensive midfield (a.k.a. the #6)
Natural: Rob Vincent, Chris Durkin
Capable: Marcelo Sarvas, Jared Jeffrey
Emergency: Julian Buescher, Jalen Robinson
Olsen used Vincent here (with Marcelo as the #8) and vice versa numerous times, but more often went with Marcelo deep and Vincent a bit further forward when both were available. Still, this is a pretty fluid situation right now, especially as there’s at least a chance that Ian Harkes - if he signs a homegrown deal, which would be fantastic news - ends up in this role rather than as a #8. We could also see a move made here whether Harkes signs or not. If United has Harkes, Marcelo, Vincent, Jeffrey, and Buescher all fighting for time at the #8 while some TAM-level signing holds down this spot, they will be a legit MLS Cup contender. That’s right, I said it.
Jeffrey, for years, looked like he’d be at his best in this position while United played a double pivot. That didn’t really take, though, so I’m listing him as capable instead. Durkin is a natural in this role in my book, and I’m of the opinion that he could play MLS minutes this season without it being a problem. Buescher played a bit of defensive midfield at Syracuse, and I can see him being an option here in an all-out attacking situation (though we’ll probably never see it happen). When Robinson was signed, Sonny Silooy mentioned that he could play this sort of role, and I can see how it might work. Again, it’ll probably never happen, but we’re covering all our bases here.
Natural: Patrick Nyarko, Lloyd Sam, Nick DeLeon
Capable: Lamar Neagle, Jose Ortiz, Chris Rolfe
Emergency: Rob Vincent, Sean Franklin
Nyarko is the best winger on the team overall, but he’s needed on the left. Sam was a great pick-up for United and should continue to generate scoring chances for others and himself throughout 2017. Neagle is third choice here, and on the right the issue for him seems to be that he’s less of a scoring option. Being right-footed, he can’t cut inside onto his favored foot, and United’s left wingers all tend to be inverted, so there aren’t that many crosses coming in for him to be a regular back post threat. Still, he’s a very strong third option.
DeLeon is a great choice if United needs to defend a lead or kill a game off with possession. Ortiz is more comfortable up front, but in a 4141 he may end up seeing more minutes on the flank. Rolfe, if his concussion symptoms clear up and allow him to continue his career, would possibly move up the chart quickly here (but is better on the left).
Vincent was good enough on the defensive side of the ball to prevent a disaster as a right winger, but he’s not comfortable going forward in this role. Franklin last played a few minutes as a right midfielder in a 442 for United in 2015, so theoretically he could end up there again in ultra-defensive situations.
Central midfield (a.k.a. the #8)
Natural: Marcelo Sarvas, Jared Jeffrey
Capable: Rob Vincent, Nick DeLeon, Julian Buescher, Chris Durkin
There’s a ton of competition here, and that will increase if Harkes signs and/or if United decides to use some TAM on the #6 spot. Olsen seemed to prefer Vincent here with Marcelo deep, as we said, but that could change in the preseason. On top of that, Jeffrey isn’t far behind Vincent, and DeLeon - with Franklin no longer carrying an injury - will be a serious competitor here as well. And then you have Buescher, who had this role in two of the final three regular season games (including that 2-1 win at TFC). Personally I’d love to see more of Buescher in this spot at home, partnering Acosta; we’ll see what happens, but it’s a real battle for minutes even if Olsen views him only as a #10.
Durkin’s sole United appearance saw him with some of the responsibilities of an 8, and I think he could contribute in this role. Obviously there’s a major logjam of competent MLS players here, and if Ian Harkes signs United may have a long-term answer, but that doesn’t mean Durkin will never be used in this role.
Attacking midfield (a.k.a. the #10)
Natural: Luciano Acosta, Julian Buescher
Capable: Chris Rolfe
Emergency: Nick DeLeon, Rob Vincent
Lucho is running the show these days, and he should be able to improve on his goal and assist totals (3 G/11 A) pretty comfortably playing a full season in a system built for his skill set. Buescher also looked very good stepping in for Acosta, including a standout showing in United’s regular season finale last year at Orlando City. If Acosta had ended up back with Boca Juniors, I’d have been comfortable with Buescher simply taking the job over. United is stocked here, folks. So stocked, in fact, that it’s probably why they traded Collin Martin away yesterday.
If Rolfe is able to carry on playing, he could easily play as a #10 in United’s new style. We’ve also sort of seen this in the past, when United played a 4132/4141 hybrid at Vancouver in 2015. Vincent, meanwhile, would occasionally rotate into this spot while playing with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, but realistically he and DeLeon are not going to end up spending time in this role. If Acosta and Buescher are unavailable, I suspect Olsen would move back to the 442 instead.
Natural: Patrick Nyarko, Lamar Neagle, Chris Rolfe
Capable: Nick DeLeon, Lloyd Sam, Jose Ortiz, Rob Vincent
Emergency: Luciano Acosta, Taylor Kemp, Patrick Mullins
Nyarko was devastating going forward in 2016, a true scheme-breaker who also brings an elite defensive presence. With his concussion history (and injury history in general), it’s important to have a good back-up, and Neagle is a starting-quality player in that regard. Rolfe, if he’s able to return, is another starting-quality left winger who would offer a significant change-up in terms of playing style.
DeLeon will see minutes here as a safe option, while Sam will end up playing some on the left during in-game swaps with Nyarko or Neagle. He’s quite good here as well, just not as good as he is on the right. My suspicion is that Ortiz will be better on the right, but we’ll have to find out how he fits in once he arrives. Vincent scored 18 goals as a left winger in the USL, but we all know the story about him talking it over with Olsen and becoming a central player instead.
Acosta spent a couple games on the left side in the 442, and while I doubt he’ll ever start there in the 4141, he and Nyarko love to run across each other to confuse defenses, with Acosta playmaking from the wing and Nyarko attacking the box like a second forward. Kemp could play here in some kind of emergency defensive situation, though as long as there’s no other actual left back on the team, it’s not going to happen. Mullins played some left wing in college and was actually pretty good at creating chances for others, but United needs him up top.
Natural: Patrick Mullins, Alhaji Kamara, Jose Ortiz
Capable: Lamar Neagle
Emergency: Steve Birnbaum
Mullins was a revelation after coming over from NYCFC. I was originally hoping to see him get 5 or 6 goals during the 15 games United had when he arrived. In 14 appearances, he managed 8 goals, and had an instant rapport with Acosta. Over the course of a full season, he should be aiming to score at least 15 goals and 5 assists. He’s the striker United fans have been waiting years for.
Kamara and Ortiz will have a major battle to back Mullins up. Kamara isn’t really a target man, but then neither is Ortiz. In fact, while I think Ortiz has the better overall skillset, I think Kamara’s strength and his comfort with dealing out physical contact make him a more viable candidate to teach in terms of hold-up play. Still, we’ll see what Ortiz can do in this role pretty soon, and it could well be that he’s better as a lone forward than expected.
Neagle gave this job his all early in the season, and while he’s not really a back-to-goal player, he does know how to lead a high press and did snag a couple goals as a forward in 2016. Birnbaum is United’s “break in case of emergency” target man because he’s virtually unstoppable in the air. If the Black-and-Red are desperate for a late goal and are stuck hoofing the ball into the box, he’s a real weapon. It might be rustic and inelegant, but it worked numerous times down the stretch.