D.C. United comes into the game against the best team in the league right now on a streak of poor performances unmatched in recent memory. United’s playoff hopes, which were minuscule just a few games now, are now effectively impossible. So what should United do with the rest of its season? What are the goals for a team that can’t make the playoffs?
The main goal should be to give players who need experience and playing time to develop into MLS starters that experience and playing time. Part of that, though secondary in my opinion, is getting players playing well together in advance of next season.
At the top of that list is center back. While Bobby Boswell may be one of the best two center backs on the team right now, he is not going to be the starting center back in March of 2018. That leaves Kofi Opare, Steve Birnbaum, and Jalen Robinson, and Robinson has, by far, the least MLS experience of all of them. We have already seen what Opare and Birnbaum can do together this season, and it hasn’t looked very good; it is time to give Jalen Robinson a starting role these last 12 games. I would pair him with Birnbaum because, at his best, we know that Birnbaum is fringe national team caliber.
Related to the defense, Ben Olsen needs to decide what he thinks Nick DeLeon’s best position is. Is he the heir apparent to Sean Franklin ahead of Chris Odoi-Atsem? Will he reclaim his spot on the wing instead of Lloyd Sam or Patrick Nyarko? Or is he a central midfielder who could replace the injured Ian Harkes? I have him replacing Sean Franklin and giving a new look to half of the back line, since I think his frustrations at scoring goals make him more suited for fullback; though, Chris Odoi-Atsem needs to get significant minutes as well.
Central midfield is another conundrum that needs to be solved. We have all heard the rumors about potential targets for defensive midfield, but none of them are here yet. Rob Vincent would have been serviceable this season, as he was at the end of last season, but the fact that a converted attacker and a 37 year old were the team’s only DMs was a problem that derailed the season. Until that signing is made, it looks like it will be either Marcelo or Jeffrey, though; Chris Durkin is most likely headed to the U-17 World Cup in October.
The other central midfield spot, next to Luciano Acosta in the early season 4-1-4-1, should go to Julian Buescher. Ian Harkes has performed well there most of this season, but with him out the temptation will be to slot either Jeffrey or Nick DeLeon here. Buescher needs this extended runout more, because we basically know the ceilings of both of those other players and we have not yet seen Buescher’s.
All of United’s wingers are over 30, and so we will likely see the same group of Lloyd Sam, Patrick Nyarko, and Lamar Neagle, with Nick DeLeon either pushing up late in games when Odoi-Atsem comes in or sometimes starting there himself. If United can sign Eryk Williamson this summer to a homegrown player deal I would throw him right in, but it is still unknown if that will come to fruition.
Finally, the battle at forward is the only straight-forward regular competition: Deshorn Brown and Patrick Mullins are both very good forwards when on, and so they’ll each get starts going forward. This leaves me with the following lineup:
If the team signs new players they should immediately start upon becoming 70 minutes fit; time spent acclimating now will make things easier during this offseason’s roster overhaul.
What do you want to see Ben Olsen do?