Major League Soccer is debuting its version of free agency this offseason. It's a heavily restricted version of free agency, of course: Players must be 28 or older, and must have 8 seasons of time in MLS (consecutive or not), while teams can sign a maximum of two players from the free agent pool. Still, for a D.C. United side that cut loose some veterans and may see themselves in need of more than one addition in the midfield, it's a process worth paying attention to.
Let's remember what we're talking about here, though. This being MLS, a guy in his late 20s or early 30s is a known commodity. No team is going to sign a player that has a transformative impact on their 2016 season. Instead, the idea here is to find some cost-effective players that can make solid contributions off the bench and sometimes as a starter. You're not finding a new midfield lynchpin in this pool, and you're not finding a striker who will provide 15+ goals.
The most intriguing players in the pool were Justin Mapp, who has already signed with Sporting Kansas City, and Drew Moor (who already has a deal with Toronto FC). Ricardo Clark, meanwhile, re-signed with Houston. In United 2015 terms, you're looking for the new Jairo Arrieta, or a second Chris Korb. Expecting a free agent signing to be as crucial to DC's fortunes as Bill Hamid or Fabian Espindola are is unrealistic.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the names worth considering. I'm including each player's 2015 salary to give you an idea of what sort of price tag United will be trying to negotiate:
Position: Wide or central midfield
2015 salary: $200,000 (base), $215,000 (guaranteed)
At 32, Grabavoy is admittedly a short-term fix. However, if you want United to become more of a possession team, signing him up makes a lot of sense. Grabavoy's main skill is his ability to make the game simple for himself and others. His first touch is sound, his passes get to where they're supposed to go (not just the desired player, but the desired foot, and at the desired speed). He may not get too many headlines, but he'll often be involved when someone else does.
A player like Grabavoy would be a particularly sharp signing if the rumored push for a playmaker from Argentina pans out. In that instance, United would either have to move Chris Rolfe to a winger's role in a 4231 or move to a diamond midfield. Nick DeLeon would do well in the latter set-up, but Grabavoy has lifted trophies with the Real Salt Lake sides most commonly identified with that formation in MLS.
If that rumored acquisition doesn't happen, or if the player simply isn't very good, Grabavoy would still be useful in the 442 United has played in recent years. On either flank, he'll be a hub of possession that forwards can trust to feed them the ball, and that has no problem dipping inside to make room for overlapping fullbacks. I'd also like to see him get a shot in central midfield, where his ability to connect his teammates in the passing game would improve the aesthetic aspects of United's overall play.
Position: Striker, wide midfield
2015 salary: $95,000 (base), $100,000 (guaranteed)
Scoff all you want at Barrett's history of misses, there are reasons he's gotten real minutes for playoff teams in each of the last 5 seasons. A relentless runner, Barrett makes up for his iffy finishing ability by getting himself into plenty of scoring positions. He may miss a few, but he also gets more looks per game than most players. On a team whose top two forwards are both secondary strikers who can't necessarily impose themselves physically, Barrett would serve as a nice counterbalance. Few players work harder, and his physicality and bravery would mesh well with United's current attackers as well as the team's mindset.
I'd argue that Barrett would be a slight upgrade over Arrieta, and would also take up plenty of the minutes that currently go to Conor Doyle in terms of adding a defensive presence off the bench. He's absolutely not a player that neutrals are going to love, but United needs another striker that can contribute, and Barrett will provide great value. In Seattle, Barrett scored 5 goals in 715 minutes last season (as well as 7 in 867 minutes in 2014). Those numbers are pretty representative of the last half-decade, give or take his rough 2013 season with New England.
Age: 32 (will turn 33 before the 2016 season opener)
Position: Defensive midfield or box-to-box midfield
2015 salary: $230,000 (base and guaranteed)
Nagamura is known primarily for his work rate and his hard-edged (some might even say dirty) nature in central midfield. Here's the thing, though: United's current roster is built to play 442, a formation that requires a flat-out insane level of hard work from its central midfielders to prevent the various three-man central midfields from overwhelming the Black-and-Red. Nagamura fits that bill, and we're in a world where Perry Kitchen is almost certainly headed to Europe; where Davy Arnaud may or may not carry on in 2016; and where Markus Halsti a) could still leave whether or not Kitchen sticks around and b) doesn't seem to cover a ton of ground anyway.
Nagamura is hardly some hard-working oaf who can only destroy. He won't rack up assists, but his passing and overall technical ability have some refinement due to his time in Sao Paulo and Arsenal's youth systems. If Arnaud does come back in 2016, Nagamura would provide intense competition with him for minutes alongside Halsti or a new defensive midfielder. If Arnaud is forced to retire, Nagamura is a ready-made replacement (possibly even a very slight improvement?).
He has played some time as the deepest central midfielder for KC and for Chivas USA before that, but the best use of him is to let him have the freedom to cover a ton of ground and harass anyone who might consider taking more than one touch in a central position. Nagamura has shown versatility in the past, filling in as an emergency right back and even on the right side of midfield.
Position: Defensive midfield or center back
2015 salary: $265,000 (base), $271,000 (guaranteed)
The intensely competitive former New England and Chicago man appears to be the kind of player United could replace Halsti with. True, Halsti and United both maintain that the Finn can play at a higher level, but that's still not a proven assertion. Larentowicz can bring everything Halsti brought in 2015, but with a far longer track record in MLS (not to mention his hammer of a long range shot and his strong track record as a penalty kick taker).
I wouldn't recommend using Larentowicz as a center back as Chicago did, but like Halsti he could fill in there as necessary. Instead, I think Larentowicz would suit up in central midfield (particularly in any system where he and a more dynamic partner serve as a pair of holding midfielders). United clearly needs to go out and add players in this part of the field, and while they are apparently tracking a player in Ligue 1 I'm not sure one move is enough. Larentowicz is a very solid choice here if both DCU and Halsti decide to move on separately.
That's my list. The full pool of free agents is listed here. Do you like these names, or is there someone else out there that you'd like to see suiting up for the Black-and-Red next year?