Top of the league with 13 games remaining in the season and unlikely to make a splash with an international signing this transfer window, D.C. United made their move yesterday by acquiring Alvaro Saborio in a trade with Real Salt Lake. Luis Silva will head to the Wasatch Front in exchange.
In five and a half years in MLS with RSL, Saborio, 33, scored 63 goals in 127 appearances, while being part of the RSL teams that lost the CONCACAF Champions League final to CF Monterrey in 2011 and the US Open Cup final to United in 2013.
"We looked around for somebody that we thought could make us better," United manager Ben Olsen told reporters on Friday. "And he came up on our radar, and we decided it was the right time to move forward with it."
Saborio is currently with the Costa Rica squad, participating in the Gold Cup. He will join up with his new team at the conclusion of Costa Rica's involvement in the tournament. Saborio and Costa Rica take on Mexico in the quarterfinals on Sunday.
Acquiring Saborio will help replace Eddie Johnson up top for United. Johnson is no longer with the team, after discovering a heart ailment earlier this year. His absence from the team this year has been noticeable up top, as United has managed just 23 goals in 21 league games this season. Last year, even though he struggled in front of goal during the first half of the season, Johnson's presence opened up avenues for his partners, whether it be Fabian Espindola, Silva, or Chris Rolfe. Partially due to Johnson's runs and hold-up play, Espindola and Silva finished the 2014 with 11 goals each.
Without Johnson there to fill that role this season, Olsen has used a rotating cast up top, with mixed results. Rolfe and Jairo Arrieta have combined for 11 goals, but there hasn't been that consistent threat up top. The plan is for Saborio to change that.
"We've been looking for a number 9. We've been happy in some ways with our offense threats," Olsen added. "But the way the season is playing out, we feel like we need a little bit more, and that's where he comes in."
In bringing Saborio in to the team, the Black-and-Red are reuniting one of the stronger striker partnerships of the past five years in MLS. In three seasons at RSL, Saborio and Espindola combined for 65 goals and 21 assists.
"He's a great forward. A true [number] 9 forward, and I don't think we have that here," Espindola told the media on Friday. "I think [Sabario's arrival] is great because I'm going to be playing how I want to play. I don't have to be in the box all the time, the center backs will have to be worried about him, and I'll be doing my thing on the wings. I think that he's going to help us a lot, and to play with him again is great."
That said, it's been two and a half seasons since the two have played together. According to Olsen, it will take time for Saborio and Espindola to find that connection, and for that connection to then find it's place within the current set up within the team.
"I don't think it automatically translates. They've got to reestablish a partnership," Olsen said on Friday. "[Real Salt Lake] were a very good team at the time, and they had different characteristics than our group. I am optimistic that he'll have success here, but it's going to take a little time for them to reconnect."
Of course, the trade for Saborio - a known commodity within MLS - came at a price for United. In exchange they had to part ways with Silva, who was their co-leading scorer over the past two seasons after coming to D.C. midway through the 2013 season.
But 2015 was a struggle for Silva, as he never seemed to get over the hamstring issues which curtailed his 2014 season, and kept him out of the playoff series against the New York Red Bulls. Silva only managed 4 starts this season, appearing 14 times and netting a single goal back in April against Orlando City.
"It sucks," Espindola said of Silva's departure. "It's great to have Sabo, but at the same time, it's not good at all to lose [Silva]."
Olsen added that he wasn't looking to shake up the team or send any messages as the side looks to rebound from consecutive losses. For Olsen, the trade represented a chance to give his side the best opportunity to win this season, something he thinks the side is capable of doing.
"I don't think I need to send messages to this team. For the most part, they get what the challenges are, and know how to go about fixing those challenges. It's more that we got to get better. Our realization is that if we are going to do anything special in this league, [we needed] to push the bar higher. We feel like this [move] does it."