D.C. United’s first foray south for the winter, two weeks in Bradenton, Florida, came to a close this week after three friendly games. There was a 6-0 cakewalk against the US under-17 national team, a 1-1 draw against the Philadelphia Union, and a 3-2 win over Swedish club Jönköpings Södra. All in all, a good trip.
Head coach Ben Olsen used the first camp to try out different combinations around the field, and to give a couple of guys some new looks at different positions. That was an opportunity afforded to him based on the amount of continuity in the team from 2016 to 2017. All of the major contributors from the end of last season have returned for this year. Sebastien Le Toux, Jose Ortiz, and rookies Ian Harkes, Chris Odoi-Atsem, and Eric Klenofsky have been mixed in as well, but they are coming into a fairly well-established team.
Despite the continuity from last year to this, there are still several questions surrounding the starting lineup. Here are the three biggest queries following the conclusion of United’s first preseason camp.
Who partners with Steve Birnbaum at center back?
Since taking over for an injured Jeff Parke as a rookie in 2014, Birnbaum has seen quite a rise in his career. He’s gone from the 2nd overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft, to being part of the US men’s national team. In the meantime, he’s consistently been partnered alongside Bobby Boswell for United. Boswell rejoined the Black-and-Red the same year that Birnbaum was drafted, and ever since then, the two have been the first choice center back partnership.
But that might change this year. Olsen did some tinkering at this camp, including giving Sean Franklin looks at center back. Franklin played as a center back in 2008, his rookie season with the LA Galaxy. Since then, he’s made his name as a right back. When Franklin re-signed with United, he and Olsen had some discussions about giving Franklin opportunities at center back, in part to prolong his career.
Against Jönköpings Södra on Wednesday, Olsen fielded two different lineups, the first of which - including Franklin alongside Birnbaum - appeared to largely be the projected starters. With Boswell turning 34 next month, Kofi Opare coming off of a rough 2016, and Jalen Robinson still trying to push his way up the depth chart, Birnbaum’s partner could be an unsettled situation.
How much rotation will there be on the wings?
At most of the positions around the field, United has a healthy mix of experience and youth. That’s not exactly the case at the wide midfield spots. United enter the season with four options for the two spots: Lloyd Sam, Patrick Nyarko, Lamar Neagle and Sebastien Le Toux. Experience is definitely not an issue with this group: as a quartet, they have 29 years of experience playing in MLS. That’s a lot! Neagle, who turns 30 in May, is the youngest of the group.
It’s not exactly ideal to ask just two of them - in this case, the presumed starters, Nyarko and Sam - to start 30+ games at their age. Not that they couldn’t if healthy, but that increases the chances of wearing them down before the start of the playoffs. That would be a big problem for a United side that has hopes of besting their last three years in the playoffs, when they failed to advance past the conference semifinals.
Le Toux and Neagle are inevitably going to get starts. There are a couple of times when United have a quick turnaround, and Olsen will have to shake things up. That’s standard. But will he - especially if things are going well during the season - split up other starting opportunities among the four more often? Or will he ride the hot hands, so to speak, of whoever performs best once the season gets rolling?
Is Ian Harkes a starter from day one?
This is the question on everyone’s mind. Can rookie homegrown midfielder Ian Harkes come in right away and start against Sporting Kansas City on March 4th? It’s safe to assume that two of the three starting center midfielders to open the season will go to Luciano Acosta and Marcelo Sarvas. Acosta’s place as a starter, and when healthy, Marcelo is still the best option at defensive midfielder. So let’s pivot off of those two assumptions.
Who then plays as the number 8? For most of last year, it was Nick DeLeon. That choice yielded mixed results, and Olsen appears more likely to continue using DeLeon as a fullback these days rather than restore him to central midfield. That leaves Jared Jeffrey, Rob Vincent, Julian Buescher, and Harkes as the options to be the third midfielder.
Jeffrey is accustomed to playing that role. Vincent, who joined the team as a wide attacker, was used more as a defensive midfielder last year, deputizing when Marcelo had injury troubles. Buescher has mostly spelled Acosta so far in his career, but he doesn’t quite operate at the number 10 the same way Acosta does.
Olsen has said that he views Harkes as a number 8. He’s capable of playing as the defensive midfielder as well, but the box-to-box midfield role seems more up Harkes’ alley, at least in his first season. And against J-Södra, it was Harkes who was given the first-team minutes alongside Acosta and Marcelo. He had a quiet 45 minutes, scooping a shot from distance over the goal while being involved in the early stages of the move that ended with Acosta’s goal. But the moment didn’t seem to overwhelm him, and that’s what you want from someone with no professional experience to speak of.
Olsen said after the game that he’s been trying out different combinations all through practice. So it may not be wise to try to read too much from Harkes’s inclusion against J-Södra. But if we continue to see Harkes with the first team in the next couple of friendlies, that would be an indication that Olsen is leaning towards putting the former Wake Forest Demon Deacon straight into his starting eleven.