Barring any last minute set backs, the team that will trot out onto the field at RFK Stadium for D.C. United will include eleven familiar faces. That’s not too shocking, United, after an early exit from the playoffs in 2016, decided to keep the core of the team together in the offseason. Only six new players were brought in, and none of them figure to be be immediate starters.
That said, should head coach Ben Olsen use the same lineup that he did in the preseason finale against the Philadelphia Union, two of those familiar faces will be at new positions for the Black-and-Red. As seen plenty during the preseason camps, Sean Franklin looks like he will start the season at center back, with Nick DeLeon, who spelled Franklin at the end of last year, will take over at the California native’s old position, right back.
After a preseason’s worth of getting to see the players in their new spots, Olsen says that he has no hesitation on moving forward with those two options.
“I’m comfortable with Nick [DeLeon] at right back. I’m comfortable with Sean [Franklin] in the middle,” Olsen said on Wednesday. “We have some good options. Over the course of preseason, everyone got enough minutes in the positions that we’re going to use them at for me to have some tough decisions.”
There’s still a possibility that Bobby Boswell will retain his position, at least during portions of the season, moving Franklin to right back back, and leaving DeLeon as the odd man out. But in recent weeks, at practice and in preseason friendlies, it appears that Olsen is leaning towards the changes.
Over his first five seasons in MLS, DeLeon had seen occasional minutes as a right back. He was never a starter there until last year, when Franklin went down injured late in the season, and Chris Korb was unable to return from his knee injury. DeLeon stood in well for Franklin, as United earned a playoff spot late in the season. DeLeon had started the 2016 season as a central midfielder, but fell out of favor by mid-summer. The move to right back seemed to rejuvenate DeLeon’s career.
“I prefer to be out wide, and right back is the next closest thing I can get to it. With the way we play, we have a lot of freedom, with the outside backs, to push forward,” DeLeon told B&RU on Wednesday. “It’s right up my alley. A lot of runs forward, a lot of runs back. Which I don’t mind doing. I’m looking forward to it, and locking down a position.”
And from his new perspective, Franklin believes that DeLeon brings plenty to the right back spot.
“He’s grown over the preseason. He played well last year. It’s not his natural position, but he’s picked my brain, and I’ve helped him at that position,” Franklin told B&RU about DeLeon. “Towards the end of preseason, he was getting more confident and attacking. He’s someone that I think can play that role well.”
For DeLeon, it also meant a new focus in the offseason. Primarily a wide midfielder for his first four MLS seasons, DeLeon was asked to move into a center midfield role last year with the departure of Perry Kitchen and Davy Arnaud. DeLeon excelled at certain aspects of that role, while struggling in others.
Eventually, Olsen turned to Jared Jeffrey, Rob Vincent, and Julian Buescher at that spot, leaving DeLeon as a reserve. Which meant DeLeon spent much of the offseason taking in bits of information to prep for his third position in three years.
“That was one of my main things in the offseason, when I was watching soccer. More watching outside backs, and some positional things,” DeLeon said. “As far as when the ball is in a certain location, where do I need to be? In relationship to Steve Birnbaum, Sean [Franklin] or Bobby [Boswell], and preseason helped with that. Helped me get a better sense, and I’m more comfortable being out there.”
Meanwhile, Franklin was prepping to a return to the position in which he won MLS Rookie of the Year for the LA Galaxy back in 2008. Since then, Franklin had earned his keep playing as a right back. But when Franklin became a free agent this offseason, part of his talks with Olsen and United centered around him potentially moving to center back.
The move might help United get a different look at the position. Birnbaum is an unquestioned starter in the backline, but Franklin gives United more speed, and potentially more comfort on the ball alongside the current US national team player. There was plenty of adjusting that Franklin had to do during preseason, but after a while, he started feeling more and more comfortable back in the middle.
“As preseason went on, I started to pick some things up. It got better towards the end,” Franklin told B&RU on Wednesday. “There’s still things I want to work on as a player and to get better at the position if I’m going to be there. I’m ready to start that role this weekend.”
And to his new replacement at right back, Franklin can still bring an outside back mentality to the center back position.
“He’s technical with the ball. He’ll outplay their midfield and forward lines with a great threaded pass to Patrick Mullins up top, or Lloyd Sam coming in, or Patrick Nyarko on the other side,” DeLeon said of Franklin. “He’s a savvy vet. [He’s] calm on the ball, and brings composure to the back line.”