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D.C. United 2017 season review

Bad start, bad middle, maybe a couple fun days, and then a bad end

D.C. United had a 2017 season to forget. Some key players failed to perform, others got hurt, and a couple did both. The team’s mentality, front to back, was a problem all year long. While the Black-and-Red did do a good job in the summer transfer window, the season was simply too far gone to save by the time August rolled around. Let’s take a brief look back at what was a miserable slog from start to finish.

How did the 2017 season go? Badly, from beginning to end. Three straight shutouts to start, three straight shutout losses at home as the first third of the year wrapped up, a brutal 1W-1D-8L stretch that included six straight defeats during the summer, and a 1W-1D-5L run to end the season after the morale boost from a wild deadline day wore off.

What we learned: United kept the gang together after 2016’s brilliant second half, and everyone took either a half or whole step back from that level. The result: Barely avoiding the Wooden Spoon. The lesson here is that you cannot stand pat in an MLS offseason, ever (note: this lesson may be one we should have learned previously).

Game that best summarized the season: Picking a game that saw one of MLS’s worst attacks score 3 times might seem like a stretch, but bear with me here. United went to Seattle on July 19 having been shut out in five of their last seven games, yet found themselves up 3-0 after 50 minutes. It seemed unreal!

Then came the turn:

Seattle became the only team in MLS history to win a game in which they had trailed by three goals. What more can you say?

What went right: The deadline day acquisitions all appear to be good signings. Paul Arriola is a relentless two-way force, Zoltan Stieber is a versatile attacking midfielder with a heavy shot in his prime, and Bruno Miranda is an athletic spark who doesn’t look out of his depth despite being just 19. However, the best move of the bunch appears to be Russell Canouse, who could be United’s answer at defensive midfield for a very long time.

What went wrong: The offense couldn’t create chances, and then couldn’t finish once they started to create on occasion. The defense couldn’t stop making major errors. The play on set pieces was poor all year. Vital players spent plenty of time injured. Nearly everything, in other words.

Biggest surprise: D.C. United spent real money this season. The expectation was that there would be a big name brought in to open Audi Field, but most thought that move was coming this winter, or possibly even next summer. Instead, Arriola was signed for around two times the club’s previous record fee. For a team that had been to trying to compete in MLS 3.0 via only the draft, trades, and TAM, it’s like waking up in a brand new world.

Unexpectedly awesome performance: It’s got to be Canouse. Arriola and Stieber were the big names coming in on deadline day, and there were wild rumors about Nigel de Jong and Gary Medel before Canouse was signed. Instead, the 22 year old USYNT vet stole the show, providing a far stronger screen to United’s flimsy back four while also keying improved possession and an improvement on the aesthetic side.

Player who fell short of expectations: If we can only pick one, it has to be Steve Birnbaum, who went from pushing to become a USMNT regular to having sincere debates concerning whether he should start over Kofi Opare or Jalen Robinson. However, you could also make a compelling case for five or six other players.

What needs to change for 2018: United needs to add as much talent this winter as they did during this past summer’s transfer window. Specifically, they need a high-end striker, an upgrade at center back and right back, and more depth all over. There also needs to be some real work done in terms of the group’s mentality, as the Black-and-Red curled up and died too often when hit with any sort of bad luck this year.

Coach grade: D-. From a “Sean Franklin, center back” experiment in preseason that went poorly, to an inability to get Birnbaum or Patrick Mullins out of prolonged slumps, to Luciano Acosta seeming to plateau despite his youth, to seeing an overall gameplan undone by Patrick Nyarko’s concussion, there’s little positive to say here. So why not an F? The roster was, realistically, the 10th or 11th best in the East for most of the season.

Overall team grade: F. Too many players had disappointing seasons as individuals, and this team went from being “wow, they could be really dangerous in 2017” to basically done for the year once they were knocked out of the Open Cup on June 28th. The roster needs major upgrades up front, defensively, and in terms of depth, and they need to do it while also coping with the loss of their best player in Bill Hamid.