Being a good team heading into an expansion season in MLS is always a difficult task. With both Orlando City SC and New York City FC coming into the league for 2015, D.C. United entered this offseason knowing they'd probably be losing at least one player in the expansion draft. Unfortunately, the news was worse than that: Orlando City picked midfielder Lewis Neal with their 5th pick, while NYCFC grabbed Thomas McNamara with their eighth selection.
For the glass-half-full types, the draft will count as a minor victory. While Neal's tendency to score important goals and his status as an oft-used substitute capable of playing a variety of roles will be missed, he was not a starter for Ben Olsen. It's also regularly forgotten that Neal came to United towards the end of his career; the Englishman - and former Orlando City USL-PRO player - is 33.
McNamara, meanwhile, will never get a chance to become a cult hero like Neal did. United did very well to select him in the Chivas USA dispersal draft a couple of weeks ago, but unless United makes a trade to re-acquire him he'll depart without ever so much as going through one United training session. If you are inclined to view this from an optimist's perspective, United lost a player that had not proven to be a crucial member of the squad and a 33 year old that was not crucial to the club's success in 2015.
For the pessimists out there, though, this will sting. Neal didn't score often, but he departs having finished the two biggest goals of the Ben Olsen era. First of all, there was the playoff-spot-clinching goal in stoppage time against Columbus back in 2012. That goal guaranteed United their first playoff appearance since 2007. It also featured a no-look Branko Boskovic pass that is still one of my favorite things of all time. Let's watch, shall we?
There's a reason that Neal has become "LEWIS NEAL!" on B&RU, and it's this goal (and the call from Dave Johnson).
The other goal? The only goal of the 2013 US Open Cup final, of course. United suffered through a season of abject misery but somehow repeatedly produced their best soccer in the Open Cup, and Neal's goal capped that unbelievable pattern. The USOC victory not only added to United's trophy case, but also brought in allocation money that helped United build a strong team in 2014 and qualified the Black-and-Red for the CONCACAF Champions League.
McNamara, meanwhile, showed Rookie of the Year form in the first month and a half of the 2014 season before tearing his ACL playing for Chivas USA. Had United been able to hang onto him, he'd have added an element of clever play between the lines that was sometimes in short supply for DCU this past season. McNamara is also a low-cost, versatile player that could play up to four different roles in the 442 United figures to use in 2015.
However, as much as we might mourn the departure of Neal and dream of what might have been with McNamara, it must be said that United still came out of the expansion draft better off than they probably expected. Orlando's somewhat odd decision to take Neal meant that Davy Arnaud could be protected, preserving the central midfield axis that Olsen built his team around in 2014. United could have also potentially lost Eddie Johnson, Chris Korb, Kofi Opare, or new acquisition Andrew Driver today as well. As much as no one will be excited about losing out on Neal and McNamara, I think the coaching staff could have accepted these losses to protect the guys that didn't get picked.
As for the roles Neal and McNamara will take up at their new clubs, it's easier to figure out what the Lions will do with Neal. Head coach Adrian Heath is known to prefer a 4231, and in that alignment Neal fits in well as one of the two defensive midfielders. With Amobi Okugo already in place, Neal would be favored to start if OCSC had a game tomorrow as his partner ahead of guys like Darwin Ceren, Harrison Heath, and Portugal under-20 national team player Estrela. It seems likely that Orlando will add one more player that can play that role, though.
McNamara's future is less clear in New York, because Jason Kreis hasn't made it clear how he's going to play. However, McNamara's versatility means that the formation won't be an issue for him. If Kreis uses the diamond he went with at RSL, McNamara could play either wide midfield spot and serve as depth behind Frank Lampard (at attacking midfield) and David Villa (as the withdrawn forward). In a 433 or 4231, he can play three or four roles as well. While NYCFC may have taken him as trade bait, it must be said that he fits the style of play Kreis has insisted on in the past.