Perry Kitchen is gone, and there's nothing reasonable that D.C. United can do about it. Yes, they could offer him more money, but as has been repeatedly established Kitchen's mind was made. United would have had to go well into DP territory to overcome the fact that MLS is not a European league. Overpaying for quality is sometimes acceptable - see: DC's 2013 offseason moves - but there has to be a line somewhere.
So let's put aside the "how much should DC have offered Kitchen?" argument for today and focus instead on what the Black-and-Red should do now. With Davy Arnaud looking more and more likely to retire, United has no choice but to make some significant moves. It's not every year you have to replace your top two central midfielders, but here we are.
So far, they've cast a wide net in finding replacements. On draft day, Julian Buescher and Paul Clowes were both added, though Buescher is more attack-minded than either Kitchen or Arnaud, and Clowes thus far looks like a player somewhere between those two in terms of style. Those picks were followed by trialist announcements that saw former Alajuelense man Ariel Rodriguez and ex-Columbus midfielder Kevan George added to camp. These two are perhaps more in line with Kitchen's game, but both players might be better as an anchor midfielder than as the more defensive member of a double pivot.
That doesn't include United's attempted move for Leonardo Gil, or the pursuit of Antonio Nocerino. Those were both players that would fit in more as Arnaud's replacement than Kitchen. Speaking of which, yesterday's news that United is on the brink of trading some cash to Colorado for Marcelo Sarvas underlines both the need to find someone ASAP for central midfield and the low probability that either the Argentine or Italian is coming to DC.
None of this even factors in things like the ongoing experiment to play Nick DeLeon as a #8, or the camp invites for Paul Torres - who played on the left Friday but can play centrally - or Santiago Dittborn (whose situation is the diametric opposite of Torres).
So clearly it's the major focus of this offseason, even more than finding someone who can stand in for Bill Hamid until late spring/early summer (spoiler: the GK situation is simpler in that Hamid can't be replaced for a price that United would be within $500,000 of paying). All of these players are or were intended to compete with a group that includes Markus Halsti, Jared Jeffrey, and Collin Martin.
All of this comes in an offseason that started in the halls of Red Bull Arena with an important question in the air: Has this group peaked? That doesn't just mean the core of the roster. It means the style of play and the formation. In the East, eight teams are definitely going to start the season with some kind of 451, 433, or a diamond (with Chicago probably joining the rest). Playing a 442 means being outnumbered in central midfield just about every week, and that's a hard battle to fight 30 or so times in a season.
So it's worth wondering whether the solution to Kitchen's departure and possibly Arnaud's retirement is to shift into some kind of 451. We saw that look in Friday's 1-0 loss to IF Elfsborg, where United showed some fluidity between a 4141, 4411, and 4231 as the game wore on. It's not a perfect look for this roster due to Fabian Espindola being a) clearly the best forward on the team and b) a roaming central winger of sorts who doesn't spend all that much time in the central channel. It also means Chris Rolfe, who looked better as a forward in 2015, having to play somewhere in the midfield instead.
However, adding an extra central midfielder may be the only solution for United. Playing a 442 with anything less than Kitchen and Arnaud at their best or something equivalent to that means United is taking a step back, and the Eastern Conference appears to have improved this winter. It's not going to take a whole lot for United to go from "yeah, they'll make the playoffs" to "uh, no, they probably won't make the playoffs." It could also have the added benefit of getting one more technical player into the lineup (or at least, a technical player playing centrally).
Last season, Halsti has said time and again that he was not at his best and that he intends to prove what kind of player he really is this season. Even if that's accurate - I think it could be, but I have talked to more than one trustworthy observer who isn't buying it - the Finn still doesn't appear to be a straightforward replacement for Kitchen. Despite the moderately redundant roles they held down the stretch last season, Halsti doesn't cover as much ground or put his physicality to good use as Kitchen did.
What that means is that United needs someone who can cover a lot of ground either alongside Halsti (in a 4231) or ahead of him in a 4141. This might be where DeLeon fits in should Ben Olsen move away from the 442. DeLeon is a hard worker and physically strong, which means he can make tackles and disrupt play effectively. "Can" does not mean "will," though; DeLeon's central presence is still very much an experiment. I will note that his passing accuracy was second-best on the team last season, which is a good sign for his adaptability in this case.
However, the trade for Sarvas (not to mention targeting both Nocerino and Gil) points to Olsen thinking of DeLeon as one of his options rather than the answer at this point. Sarvas would fit the worker role perfectly if he's still got the legs for it; at 34, that's a legitimate question that won't be answered until we see him playing games. Clowes actually showed some instincts for this kind of job in Friday's game, but I think everyone involved would want more evidence before we pin our hopes on a rookie 2nd round pick who requires an international spot. He's at least keeping his name involved, regardless of formation, which is all you can ask.
A 4231 requires a #10, and that might be where United runs into trouble. Martin and Buescher are more distributors than guys who get assists; they make smart passes in the build-up, but aren't known for slipping runners into the 18 yard box to score. Playing them would a) run the attack through a very young player and b) require noteworthy goalscoring from both wings. That last part is not likely given that the best two right wingers on the team - DeLeon and Patrick Nyarko - are both widely known to not score many goals. Rolfe could be played as a #10 in theory, but that would task him with more running than he did in 2015.
The other option is a 4141, which might be a better fit. Halsti could sit in front of the center backs, leaving him with more thinking and less running to do. DeLeon or a new acquisition could fill the connective tissue role as a #8, and I think both Buescher and Martin would both be more comfortable in this alignment than closer to the striker in a 4231. It would still require goalscoring from both wings, but it would shore up central midfield and likely see United keep more of the ball. That in turn would result in fewer chances conceded and a more pleasant aesthetic. On paper, it could work. Again, though, we're talking theory and not reality at this point.
If the 442 remains in place, United is probably going to have to put it together a little differently than in the past. A Halsti-DeLeon pairing seems risky, but without a signing it might be Olsen's first choice. If Buescher pairs with Halsti, it wouldn't surprise me to see more of an empty bucket than the flatter midfield the Black-and-Red have preferred in recent years. Buescher and/or Martin could play in front of Halsti in a Y-shaped midfield, but that would leave both central players with more ground to cover than suits them or the team. Players like Clowes and George may actually fit into the 2015 version of the 442 better than anyone else mentioned in this paragraph, but then you're not putting your best players on the field.
In other words, the formation that best fits the key attacking players on the team - that's Espindola, Rolfe, and Nyarko - does not really fit the available central midfielders. Unless Halsti takes a big step up in terms of ground coverage, or United actually lands one of these promising central midfield targets, Kitchen's departure and Arnaud's retirement will loom over everything that goes on in the early months of the season. Olsen has a very tough task on his hands finding a balance between what his attackers need and a midfield that seems to require the extra player on both sides of the ball.