D.C. United has understandably been busy since the MLS season ended. The Black-and-Red cleaned house after just barely avoiding last place and have added five players, all of whom project to be either starters or see a steady stream of appearances off the substitutes bench. While the club has not made a classic Big Signing, they’ve been busy doing a ton of work in terms of bolstering and improving their roster.
With the MLS Superdraft taking place this Friday, this is the week that clubs around the league start to pick up the pace when it comes to deal. The combine brings everyone together in one place, provoking trade rumors and discussions, and a collective craze tends to seize GMs once you put them all in a convention hall for four hours while loud music plays. It happens to the best of us.
On top of that, teams strongly prefer to have as many players in place as they can before the start of preseason. United will have players reporting for initial testing one week from today, so this coming week might be a busy one given that that D.C. has just 21 players under contract at the moment.
What does United needs to address? Here’s a position-by-position breakdown, assuming that Olsen will either carry on with the 4231 formation or revert to the 4141 (or extremely similar 433) that he had in place at this time last year. Each position will have players listed in the rough order of where we think Olsen would place them on the depth chart today. The positions will be listed from where United is deepest to where they’re thinnest.
Already in place: David Ousted, Steve Clark, Travis Worra
There’s no need to do a Philadelphia Union and carry five goalkeepers, so this spot is at the bottom of the list. Ousted will enter camp as the favorite due to his organizational ability and steadiness, but Clark is a ferocious competitor capable of big things. This is one of the biggest battles D.C. has for playing time right now.
One thing to keep in mind: Worra showed in 2016 that he has it in him to play up to the standard required of a second-choice MLS goalkeeper. If he can be that version of himself on a consistent basis with the Richmond Kickers, United might find themselves able to offload whoever loses out in the pursuit of a starting job. That’d save some cap space and probably net some TAM ahead of the summer window.
9. Center midfield (a.k.a. the #8)
Already in place: Ulises Segura, Russell Canouse, Ian Harkes, Junior Moreno, Jared Jeffrey, Nick DeLeon, Chris Durkin
Ben Olsen has a ton of options here. Segura is apparently being looked at in this role first, though I still suspect he ends up playing more time in the attacking midfield line than in this more defensive role. Interestingly enough, despite the depth here, I think United is going to end up with Canouse (who strikes me as most comfortable playing as a 6) being the starter here. However, that hinges on Moreno a) hitting the ground running and b) translating best in MLS as a 6 rather than as an 8.
If Moreno pans out (and he should), and Segura ends up being seen as a box-to-box midfielder more than anything else, the path to playing time for United’s homegrowns here is very difficult. Harkes showed that he’s got the goods last year, but United couldn’t keep goals off the board with him on the field even after Canouse arrived, and Segura is right on the bubble to join Costa Rica’s World Cup squad. Put it this way: if Harkes can force his way into the lineup, things are either going extremely well or both Moreno and Segura were not good signings.
As for Durkin, we’ll get to him in a couple of other spots, but here’s hoping he ends up seeing more time than Jeffrey in this midfield.
8. Right wing
Already in place: Paul Arriola, Zoltan Stieber, Ulises Segura, Bruno Miranda, Nick DeLeon
Emergency cover: Darren Mattocks
Possibly on the way: Eryk Williamson
Another very deep position. Arriola is a USMNT starter whose impact in the District was visibly improving in the final weeks in the season; along with his speed, work rate, and ability to beat left backs, he’ll be under pressure to produce assists (think 8+) and the occasional goal (3+).
Stieber is better on the left but could be a real problem playing inverted on the right, given his shooting ability. I really like Segura as an outside-in right winger who drifts inside to combine, and if Ben Olsen doesn’t like him as an 8 (or if he can’t push Canouse or Moreno aside), this is probably where he’ll get most of his time. Miranda is probably best as an inverted left winger, but he is fast and can get down the right as well.
DeLeon will probably appear here a few times as an in-game adjustment to protect the lead. Mattocks, as a goal-scoring wide forward rather than a winger, is a bit of a stretch here but could still see minutes making back post runs for Taylor Kemp crosses. Williamson would be 4th on the above list and get probably 500 or so minutes between league and Open Cup if he signs, but that seems doubtful.
7. Attacking midfield (a.k.a. the #10)
Already in place: Luciano Acosta, Zoltan Stieber, Ulises Segura
Emergency cover: Ian Harkes, Nick DeLeon
Possibly on the way: Eryk Williamson
Lucho should hopefully bounce back after carrying an ankle injury for all of 2017 and generally being frustrated by the players around him. With improvements on the wings and more time to build an understanding with the new faces, he should be expected to get himself above 16 combined goals and assists, and if his ankle has healed up he’ll be able to improve on his 2.6 successful dribbles per 90 minutes (which lead MLS if you don’t include John Goossens, who played literally one game in 2017).
Stieber also seemed very comfortable shifting into this spot in a couple of short appearances when Acosta was subbed off. He’ll play it differently, looking to combine and shoot more often and dribble a lot less, but could still be quite dangerous. Segura is also a capable playmaker, and in fact Acosta’s suspension for the season opener means we could see the former Saprissa man starting here on day one.
Harkes and DeLeon are both more defensive options in this spot, but don’t be surprised if the former is also a possible starter in game one. If United is really trying to shut a game down or harass a deep-lying playmaker (like Michael Bradley), this is an intriguing card to play. Williamson would also be in line to get some minutes here if he were to sign, having spent more of his time there in the last season with Maryland than anywhere else.
6. Left wing
Already in place: Zoltan Stieber, Darren Mattocks, Paul Arriola, Ulises Segura, Bruno Miranda, Nick DeLeon
Emergency cover: Patrick Mullins
Possibly on the way: Eryk Williamson
Stieber drifting inside to combine with others is a potential joy for United fans, because the Hungarian can play in a phone booth and make the kind of perfectly weighted passes that open up massed defenses. Plus, that cannon of a left foot!
Mattocks is a good pick-up for this role, where he’s had some real success in MLS. He’s best thought of as a left forward rather than a winger or wide midfielder, and his slashing runs off the ball should be a regular threat for United whether he starts or comes off the bench. Don’t be surprised if he and Arriola link up on a few goals.
Arriola is capable of bringing his game over to the left flank, and Segura can also play here comfortably (and may be Stieber’s stand-in when rotation is required). Miranda showed some flashes of being a capable sparkplug off the bench as a left winger, and DeLeon again can play pretty much anywhere and may spend time as a defense-first left winger.
Mullins was low-key very useful setting up others on the left during his college days, and the option of using him as a target winger is not completely nuts. Williamson has shown an ability to produce goals cutting in from the left, but again it seems more likely that he signs for a European team.
5. Defensive midfield (a.k.a. the #6)
Already in place: Russell Canouse, Junior Moreno, Jared Jeffrey, Chris Durkin
This is the last spot United has strong depth in. Canouse was immediately in the upper half of MLS defensive midfielders on arrival, and should keep getting better. Moreno’s reputation points to him being good enough that Olsen can move Canouse into the #8 role, and the good news is that even if the Venezuelan doesn’t succeed in MLS, there are so many #8s available that United would still be solid with Canouse paired up with Segura or Harkes.
Jared Jeffrey has struggled to play up to the level United needs in this role, but he’s usually not completely lost as a #6 (though he’s probably better off playing as a ball-winner alongside someone like Canouse or Moreno instead). This is probably Durkin’s best role, and it’s time for him to get minutes in MLS play when/if Canouse and Moreno are unavailable. However, until we see him getting those minutes over Jeffrey, we have to list him 4th here.
4. Center back
Already in place: Steve Birnbaum, Frederic Brillant, Kofi Opare, Jalen Robinson, Chris Durkin
United isn’t exactly thin at center back, given that they have four reasonable options and a very promising youth national team standout to choose from. Rather, mostly due to Birnbaum’s very disappointing 2017, they’re just underwhelming. If United’s captain bounces back (perhaps due to the steadying influence of the veteran Brillant), this position is far less of a concern.
However, if Birnbaum can’t get out of his rut, or if he and Brillant are incompatible, this spot realistically needs work if United’s going to climb above being a playoff bubble team. Opare is a solid competitor for starts, and Robinson is probably underrated by the coaching staff (particularly against smaller, more mobile front lines). If United wants to be more of a possession-oriented team, Durkin’s skillset in the midfield would make him a really strong prospect as a center back who is given freedom to play out of the back and break lines.
One note: adding another strong aerial presence in Brillant indicates that Olsen may be planning for United’s road-heavy opening half of the season. After all, the Black-and-Red is likely to be defending deeper and countering, and teams that stay compact and drop off end up forcing a lot of crosses into the box. Brillant and Birnbaum, if they work as a duo, could be quite difficult for opposing teams to beat if they have to pump crosses in and hope.
Already in place: Patrick Mullins, Darren Mattocks, Bruno Miranda
Emergency cover: Steve Birnbaum
Probably not on the way: Gonzalo Veron
Now we get into the spots everyone is worrying about. We have seen the best of Mullins (8 goals/2 assists in 1,048 minutes in 2016) and the worst of Mullins (0 goals through the first 6.5 months of the 2017 season). I’m still expecting that United will see someone closer to the former than the latter in 2018, but it would be foolish to simply brush 2017 off as an aberration.
That’s where Mattocks comes in. He has a different kind of game than Mullins, using his speed to run the channels and make the defense chase rather than the Louisiana native’s back-to-goal approach. It’s a big positive that Olsen has the option of changing how his striker plays from game to game or from the bench, but Mattocks has proven to be an erratic finisher. With his speed and leaping ability, he’ll get on the end of plenty of chances, but they’re not going to be converted at a clinical rate.
Miranda played about 15 minutes as a striker last season, and is more like Mattocks than Mullins. It seems likely that Olsen sees him more as a winger than as a forward at this point. Birnbaum playing up top may be a throwback to early 90s Premier League tactics, but you can’t deny that “throwing the big lad up top” has worked for United several times late in games. Veron...well, signing Ousted put United at -2 in terms of international roster spots, and only Acosta and Brillant appear likely to receive green cards (a prospect first reported by Steve Goff). He’s probably going to sign elsewhere.
Just about every United fan is calling for a Designated Player signing up front, and it’s hard to argue. However, if that signing doesn’t materialize until the summer, United has a chance — not a guarantee, but a chance — to still get enough out of who they have to stay close enough in the standings during the first half of the season’s road-heavy schedule.
2. Right back
Already in place: Nick DeLeon
Emergency cover: Steve Birnbaum, Jalen Robinson, Paul Arriola, Chris Durkin (???)
Fans may really want a striker to be signed, but United needs fullbacks. DeLeon enters 2018 as the unquestioned starter at right back despite less than a full season of playing time in that role. Ideally, he should be looked at as an option to underlap (i.e. move up the field but drifting inside of Arriola, who will stretch teams to the right touchline). From there, DeLeon is an extra option in possession and can throw defenses off by being in an unconventional spot, and perhaps even driving towards the box. Think of this as a lesser version of what Columbus does with Harrison Afful.
The bad news is that he’s the entire list of right backs. Given the presence of Opare, moving Birnbaum out to the right appears to be the first choice if DeLeon gets hurt or is needed elsewhere. That’s not ideal. Robinson could also be in the running for that gig, but he’s consistently been better in the middle as a pro than as a right back. Arriola could see time here in late-game attacking emergencies, but United isn’t paying him to start games there.
Durkin is listed here mostly just as one more avenue towards playing time. Think back to Perry Kitchen’s rookie season. He was 19, United was deep at defensive midfield, and Olsen found him pro minutes in a position of need. Durkin is a similar case, and since United is painfully thin at right back, it’s an experiment worth considering if it helps one of the top young American prospects get on the field.
1. Left back
Already in place: Taylor Kemp
Emergency cover: Nick DeLeon
Yikes! Kemp should be better after gutting through most of 2017 with a hip problem that required surgery, but he is the entire depth chart here. You know things are bad when the right back entry reads as it does, and Kemp’s back-up is the only solid starter at that position. One injury or red card and we’re down to a (right to left) Birnbaum-Brillant-Opare-DeLeon back four.
So obviously this is the thinnest spot on the roster, but what should United be looking for? It seems wiser to sign real competition for Kemp rather than to end up with him as the clear starter and someone else as the clear back-up. However, domestic left backs are a rare find in MLS, and United is already going to have to acquire an international spot to accommodate, so this might be a wish that doesn’t come true.