We've known for a few days that Bill Hamid was going to miss some of D.C. United's early schedule. First it was a couple of weeks, then it was maybe going to last into April. That was bad enough. Now, though, we know the full truth: Hamid's surgery fixed a lateral meniscus tear, and he will be out for 4-6 months.
I don't think it takes a particularly sharp soccer mind to figure out that this is bad. Really bad. As we've said on the site many times, Hamid is United's Sebastian Giovinco, or Robbie Keane, or Kaka, or whichever elite player you can think of. He's the Black-and-Red's biggest advantage over any opponent they face. No player on the roster is worth more points in the standings.
This is a different situation from Fabian Espindola missing the first 6 games of 2015 due to suspension. For one thing, Espindola only missed 6 games; Hamid, if he returns to full fitness in the fastest realistic scenario, will miss the first 11 games of the season. If it's 6 months, Hamid could miss 18 or 19 regular season games.
It's also different because of the nature of soccer. You can win games without your best forward by keeping clean sheets and hoping the rest of your attack can produce a goal or two. United did that fairly effectively when Espindola was out. However, when you're already not a particularly potent offensive team, and the main factor in your ability to shut teams out is gone, you're in a real bind. Getting into shootouts is already a high-risk approach to soccer, no matter how fun it might be. Getting into shootouts when you don't even have a superstar attacking player? Not great, Bob.
At the moment, United will have to turn to Andrew Dykstra. The veteran was briefly out of contract but signed a new pact with the Black-and-Red just 10 days ago. Dykstra is fortunately not going to miss this year's preseason rehabbing a serious injury of his own (as was the case last year). He's been a solid enough back-up GK for a couple of years now, impressively jumping over Joe Willis on the depth chart before the well-liked Willis was traded to Houston last winter.
Nonetheless, if we're being honest it would seem that United has to find a starter rather than relying on a solid back-up for half a year. United seems to be thinking that way per Steve Goff's piece in the Washington Post, and is said to have spoken to former Houston Dynamo and Orlando City 'keeper Tally Hall. However, Goff said Hall's off the table while I was writing this piece:
He's rehabbing a knee injury. Not an option at this time. https://t.co/6JPfZOdghY— Steven Goff (@SoccerInsider) January 22, 2016
As we discussed earlier today, United already has two MLS free agents coming in on trial. Chris Konopka did well enough for Toronto FC this past season, but I'm not sure he's any better than Dykstra. Increased competition has brought the best out of Dykstra in the past, though, and having 3 fit goalkeepers will allow Travis Worra to play for the Richmond Kickers on loan (which is vital for a young player). Paolo Tornaghi has looked fairly solid when he's played, but at 27 his Wikipedia page lists just 25 first-team professional starts.
There's also the possibility of pursuing an intraleague loan, but it's important to remember that these loans come with certain requirements. If United gets a player on loan from another MLS club, he has to be here for the full season. You can't bring someone in for a few months, which means that United would either a) be stuck with one fewer roster spot for field players when Hamid comes back or b) have to get rid of either Dykstra or Worra. Neither is an ideal situation.
None of this really gets at the main issue, though: United has to be better at reducing the number of chances they give up. That's something they really needed to improve upon anyway; as amazing as Hamid can be, it'd be a lot better for United if we weren't seeing him tested so regularly. If your GK is making big save after big save, it means the rest of your players aren't doing their jobs well enough. It means your team, across the board, needs to be organized better.
For starters, United is going to have to keep more of the ball. Slowing games down via possession is a reliable way to reduce the number of shots opposing teams fire on United's goal. Given that DCU was conceding 16 shots a game away from home, that's a major concern. Adding a player like Julian Buescher is probably going to help in that regard, but United's back four is going to be a big factor here. If they're playing as many long balls as they did in 2015, United's possession numbers aren't going to improve.
United is also going to need to play higher up the field. They can't spend long stretches of games defending deep in their own defensive third. Adding speed in the form of Patrick Nyarko and Lamar Neagle will help keep teams from moving their line of contention up so high as we often saw last season, but United has to respond in kind. There has to be an attempt to do more of the defending in the middle third. That means taking the risk of playing a higher line than we saw in 2015. It's a gamble, but the style we saw for the back half of last season is pretty much unsustainable without Hamid or someone just as good as him playing the hero every week.
Ben Olsen may also need to consider a formation change. Increasing possession and being able to defend more in the midfield are both things that a move to some kind of 451 would help with. It's a simple matter of numbers: It's easier to connect passes and retain possession with an extra midfielder, and it's harder for opposing teams to play through five midfielders than it is four (particularly when your most mobile defensive midfielder is in all likelihood headed for Europe).
Of course, that's easier said than done. United can look at a 4231 or 4141 all they want, but right now they don't appear to have enough central midfielders to be sure they can pull it off. Even if Davy Arnaud does continue his career, United's central midfield is full of risks. If Buescher starts, United is relying on a rookie to be the brains of their attack. If Nick DeLeon is one of the trio, they'd be relying on a player who has never been a full-time central midfielder to do exactly that. If Arnaud is a starter, we're talking about a guy that turns 36 in June needing to play a very physically demanding position 25+ times. Markus Halsti would have to make good on his assertion that he is a better player than we saw in 2015.
Naturally there's talk of adding central midfielders, but that's a gamble too. United has been pretty poor when it comes to adding players from outside of MLS. The rumors of Leonardo Gil coming from Argentina aren't completely dead, and there were previous reports of a player currently in Ligue 1 coming in. Those options both sound good, but in this case they'd need to hit the ground running.
All in all, Hamid's injury will reveal a lot of flaws in how United plays. If they are no better than they were in 2015, it will be extraordinarily difficult to make the playoffs. DCU is going to have to improve significantly in several categories to prevent that unpleasant prospect from becoming a reality. Signing another goalkeeper isn't going to save the day, and Hamid will miss too much of the season to simply hope to stay afloat and then stage a late-season charge up the standings. If United isn't proactive on multiple fronts, this could be a very long season indeed.