As D.C. United’s transformation from grinding games out to winning with style was in full swing in the second half of the 2016 season, several players had integral contributions. Luciano Acosta, given some time to adjust and a formation that suited him more, thrived. Patrick Mullins joined in July, and immediately linked up well with Acosta, making the striker position his own. Lamar Neagle became a huge scoring threat, whether from the bench or in spot starts.
But maybe the biggest revelation came out wide in the form of Lloyd Sam and Patrick Nyarko. Sam joined the club in a shocking trade in July, just as Nyarko was returning from a concussion that he picked up in May against the Philadelphia Union. In United’s final 16 games of the season, the two combined for 7 goals and 14 assists. In other words, the duo became one of the league’s deadliest sets of wingers.
Now, after an offseason with little change, the goal is to keep the good times going.
“I think as a team, we were playing some good stuff when me and Patrick Mullins, came in,” Sam told B&RU during the team’s second preseason camp. “Everybody picked up their game. It will be great if we can pick up where we left off.”
United deciding to keep the same group of players around for 2017 means that not only is the team capable of carrying on as an attacking juggernaut, but that there are elevated expectations. After failing to get past the conference semifinals in each of the last three seasons, United is aiming higher.
“Expectations are very high. You want to be a top level, and have a no excuse policy,” Nyarko said of keeping most of the 2016 team together. “Overall, we’re comfortable with each other. Since the middle of last year, we are pretty familiar with each other. We’ve developed an identity that we want to play with. We’re lucky to have everyone of the core back.”
Nyarko was acquired last offseason from the Chicago Fire, a month or so after Neagle was added from the Seattle Sounders. The two figured to feature prominently, as Nick DeLeon, the incumbent at right wing, was moved into the center of midfield.
A Virginia Tech alum from Ghana, Nyarko, got his United career off to a strong start. Though United struggled out of the gate, Nyarko scored three goals and assisted one other in the first 11 games of the season. But Nyarko missed the second game of the season against the New England Revolution, after picking up a concussion against the LA Galaxy in the opener. And in the waning moments on May 20th, just seconds before the Union would score a late winner, Nyarko was accidentally punched in the back of the head by goalkeeper Travis Worra. Nyarko would go on to miss the next six league games, not returning until a July trip to Columbus.
In the meantime, United continued to flutter. That prompted the formation change form head coach Ben Olsen. Fabian Espindola, the team’s most influential attacker the previous two years, was traded away. Mullins and Sam were brought in.
And as Sam and Nyarko took the field together, it became evident that both would excel under Olsen’s new system, with each bringing something different to the table from opposite sides.
“Experience. Calmness. And chance creation. We know what he’s about,” Nyarko said about Sam, both of whom have been capped by Ghana. “He’s an unbelievable player. He’s different from how I play. So we have a dynamic going on.
“When he gets the ball out wide, he has the ability to beat anyone on any given day. It’s up to us to get into position, and get on the end of his crosses, Nyarko told B&RU in Florida. “Pretty much a complete player, and one that fit into our system perfectly.”
Sam, likewise, is full of praise for his counterpart.
“He’s the best winger in the league at combining and coming inside, and getting in those pockets, which is a dangerous position,” said Sam. “He does a lot for the team. There was a period last year where he was carrying the team. He’s underrated.”
But while both will enter the season as the Olsen’s preferred starters, there is plenty of competition for their places behind them. Neagle, despite ending the season as usually the first substitute off the bench, led the team in goals last year. United also added Sebastien Le Toux this offseason. Le Toux has had a nomadic career in MLS, with United being his sixth club in the league. But over the course of his career, he has chipped in 57 goals and 57 assists, one of the few players in league history with over 50 in both categories.
The Black-and-Red also brought in Jose Ortiz and Maxim Tissot. Both figure to feature elsewhere, with Ortiz backing up Mullins and Tissot the stand-in for Taylor Kemp at left back. But both are capable on the wings as well, and Olsen gave both players preseason minutes in those spots. As such, Sam and Nyarko are both taking nothing for granted.
“It’s a healthy competition. The one thing we know, is that there is trust in each and every one of us. As players, it can only make us better,” said Nyarko. “If any of those guys are starting in front of you, you don’t feel slighted. You know the quality that they have. You have to accept it, root for them, and be ready to go when your number is called.”
“Lamar was our top scorer last year. He’s a valuable player for us He’s always a goal threat. He’s always lively in and around the box,” Sam said of Neagle. “He’s scored so many important goals. That’s invaluable to have. [Le Toux] brings a lot of experience. He’s done very well in this league. It’s a great core of wingers to have.”
While both were added via trades, Sam and Nyarko had different paths to the nation’s capital. Approaching 30 years old and looking at a rebuild under a new regime, it was not much of a secret that Chicago was looking to move the winger on.
Sam’s arrival, however, was much more out of the blue. Sam had been first choice for the New York Red Bulls since his second season in MLS. But just before he was traded, he fell out of favor with head coach Jesse Marsch. Still, there was some element of shock for the England-born winger when the trade was announced. But with his career rebounding nicely with United, he knows now that it was the right move for him.
“It’s a blessing in the end. I’m happy everything happened how it did. At the time, I didn’t know that,” said Sam. “Seeing how everything turned out, I’m happy here. I would rather be here than on that side.”
As with any season, United’s first goal, despite raised expectations, is to make the playoffs. It’s a goal that should be attainable for a team that was one of the best during the final stretch of the 2016 regular season. But 2017 in the Eastern Conference won’t be any sort of cakewalk, according to Sam.
“When I look at the Eastern Conference, it’s the toughest it’s been since I’ve been here,” said Sam. “It’s not going to be easy. But we have to win our home games. No one likes coming to RFK and playing us. That’s something we have to concentrate [on].”