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Thanks, Parity! Why D.C. United Almost Can't Help But Improve In 2014

2013 has been a nightmare for D.C. United, but our boys in black will wake up in 2014 with a seemingly unlimited number of ways in which to improve a squad that badly needs every bit of help available. A detailed list of the various ways that being so bad can actually be kind of good once in a while. The second part of B&RU's You Be The GM series.

Ben Olsen has every reason to smile given the unprecedented means he'll have to improve his side in 2014.
Ben Olsen has every reason to smile given the unprecedented means he'll have to improve his side in 2014.

If you're reading this, I probably don't have to inform you that D.C. United has been terrible in 2013. It has been a brutal, endless season, like a nightmare out of a Kafka novel. In just about every conceivable way, United has failed when it comes to winning soccer games.

However, MLS is a league founded in part on the idea that parity drives fan interest. Bad clubs will be given every opportunity to stop stumbling around and embarrassing themselves, while good sides will have the harsh reality of MLS's salary cap to cope with. Leveraged correctly, these rewards for failure are how a team like the late 2000s edition of Real Salt Lake can transition from bottom-feeder to annual contender. Used poorly, and you become Toronto FC.

As bad as 2013 has gone for United, there's something of a perfect storm happening in terms of taking advantage of MLS's assortment of bonuses and goodies that go to the loser teams. In watching MLS from the league's beginning in 1996, I can't say that a team has ever had more going for them in terms of getting out of the MLS basement as quickly as United could if everything goes right.

How is that going to go? We'll go in roughly chronological order, starting with what we have right now and moving along from there:

Allocation funds

What is it? MLS's all-purpose way of giving teams money for transfers, contracts, and probably some other stuff that we'll never know for sure.

What's our situation? Unprecedented, basically. Whatever United had available before the sale of Andy Najar is added to the portion of Najar's transfer fee, as well as what the club got for flipping Alain Rochat in the middle of this season. If Najar's transfer fee was the rumored $3,000,000 reported at the time, United received $2,025,000. Najar's status as a Homegrown player means that United gets 75% of what was left of the incoming cash after Najar received 10% of the initial fee (note: that last bit is an assumption; internationally, a player getting 10% of his transfer fee is typical, but is by no means guaranteed).

That sounds great, but MLS caps how much of a club's cut of a transfer fee becomes allocation money at $650,000. Throw in roughly $300,000 for United in the Rochat deal - clubs only get two-thirds of the fee when the player isn't an Academy product - and we're looking at United likely having somewhere just above seven figures in allocation money.

Oh, I almost forgot: United will get further allocation funds for missing the playoffs (an MLS tradition colloquially known as the "You Suck allocation," and a further allocation for getting into the CONCACAF Champions League. It's rare for a team to get two such allocations in one season, but when said team has made millions in the international transfer market as well? In the world of allocation money, United probably just shot up to Tron Carter levels of wealth. Teams don't end up accumulating over $1 million in allocation money regularly, and United will be working with something like $1.5 million when all is said and done.

How will this improve United in 2014? Using allocation funds for transfer fees is the most likely method United will use for addressing our biggest issues. While a fully-fit United can call on a reasonable number of quality players, it has to be said that there's no obvious big-time player for the Black-and-Red. The club obviously needs a striker capable of scoring well into the double digits and a center back capable of at least getting into the discussion for an All Star Game or MLS Best 11 nod. Players of that quality don't come cheap, and unless we get lucky and find a free agent that can address one of those spots, this giant stack of allocation money needs to go towards the players that will be the biggest factors in how much United improves in 2014. Cynics may point out that the team doesn't automatically have to improve, but I'm pretty sure a worse season would involve a stadium implosion during a game.

So the good news is that the most important avenue for United to improve on the field involves a resource that we have a lot of. The bad news? The horror show that is United's list of foreign player acquisitions since the spectacular success that was signing Christian Gomez. It has been a long time since Dave Kasper nailed a big-time offseason signing from abroad - 2007, to be exact, when Luciano Emilio came in from Honduran powerhouse CD Olimpia - and this offseason he has to get it right. Really, to create a true winning team, he probably has to get it right twice, but let's not get greedy.

Re-Entry Process

What is it? MLS's limited version of free agency, more or less. Clubs get a shot at veterans - there are various age and length-of-contract requirements involved - that teams didn't want to retain for whatever reason. Here are the specifics. It works as a draft, so feel free to ignore MLS's legalese and just call it the Re-Entry Draft. Whatever you call it, it will take place in early December (first round) and then a week later (second round).

What's our situation? United will get the first pick in both rounds. That means the first shot at picking up a contract of a player who some other team should have retained but didn't (in the first round) as well as first dibs on grabbing a guy's rights and renegotiating a new deal (that's the second round).

How will this improve United in 2014? Ideally, United could snag a useful veteran starter - no one special, but someone who does improve the starting eleven - and a LEWIS NEAL! sort of player that can be relied upon to play well off the bench and in roughly 10 starts over the course of the season. A good example to follow would be the Philadelphia Union picking up Conor Casey, who in my view at least has emerged as their best player in 2013. Given the fact that United has been forced to give significant minutes to players who clearly aren't good enough, we should at the very least be able to pick up someone that improves our depth. We're very, very bad, so the castoffs from MLS's good teams will be able to help us right away.

Worst case? The New York Red Bulls - of course it was the Metros - failed to get on the conference call for one round of the RED last year.

It's also worth noting that your RED spot can be traded, so if United just doesn't want any of the available players, we can still pick up something of value by giving away the top spot to a team that wants to guarantee that they land a particular player.

Allocation Order

What is it? This isn't related to allocation money, first of all. This is a list to determine which MLS team will get the first chance to sign either a US national team player (current or former) who signed with the league from abroad, or a former MLS player who was previously sold to a foreign club. This is how United ended up getting Carlos Ruiz, for whatever that's worth. The allocation list resets on January 1st to reflect the standings from this season.

What's our situation? Top of the list, meaning that we should be able to get a good player relating one way or another to this list. Jermaine Jones starts for the USMNT right now, and rumor has it he'll be in MLS very soon. In his specific example, United probably wouldn't sign him. For one, he'll probably command a DP salary, which would allow him to exploit the same loophole that sent Clint Dempsey to Seattle. Secondly, Jones owns a home in Los Angeles and seems pretty much dead-set on playing there. If Jones signs for less than a DP deal, United could still get involved by trading this allocation spot to the Galaxy, allowing them to beat Chivas USA to the punch. Personally, I'd ask for Marcelo Sarvas, who would instantly improve United's central midfield dramatically, but that's just me.

Other players may be available as well. In some cases these will be USMNT scapegoats of the past, but let's be fair: Guys who were just barely not good enough for the national team are still going to be very good MLS players, and United isn't in a position to turn away very good MLS players. One name that keeps popping into my head: Jonathan Bornstein, who has struggled to find playing time with Tigres UANL (one of Mexico's strongest teams). Bornstein is often mocked when the USMNT is the subject, but he would instantly and significantly improve United's station at left back.

How will this improve United in 2014? It's hard to say. We could sign a Bornstein or some other qualifying player (Terrence Boyd? He plays for Rapid Wien, which in recent years gives him a 25% chance of being signed by United), and we'd undoubtedly be better off. Or, we could trade our spot for something good. There is also the chance that we simply don't like the options available and never make a move, while also finding ourselves in a spot where no one wants to trade up. Ruiz fell to United in the #17 spot last year, for example, because no one else was interested.

United's dream scenario would involve every fringe national team player in Europe and Mexico who isn't getting the PT required to make the trip to Brazil scrambles to sign with MLS to make a final push for a spot at the World Cup. These desperate moves would most likely fail for the players involved, but that would still leave United with a strong player somewhere on the field.


What is it? MLS's original draft. College players make up virtually every Superdraft pool, though in recent years MLS has thrown in some random youngsters from South America (the best of whom is undoubtedly Joao Plata) that clubs will only get a good look at during the MLS Combine. This year's draft takes place January 16th.

What's our situation? At present, United has the #1 overall pick, but nothing else. The 2nd rounder was traded to Chivas USA for Casey Townsend, a move we crowed about at the time but currently one that means losing the #20 overall pick for a guy that may struggle to make the roster this coming spring. Things could change in the near future, but as of now it's just the one pick to lead things off.

How will this improve United in 2014? This one is pretty hard to predict, especially without knowing which current college players will sign Generation Adidas contracts (GA players are exempt from the salary cap, making them particularly attractive as early picks). On one hand, United has a long history of drafting Maryland Terrapins, and Maryland currently fields the country's leading scorer Patrick Mullins. Mullins, a forward who is also very comfortable playing left midfield, won last year's Hermann Trophy, college soccer's MVP award. The Terps also have livewire attacker Schillo Tshuma being mentioned as a potential GA signing, but he's only a sophomore.

That's not it for the local schools. Georgetown has Steve Neumann, a busy forward who has 10 goals and 5 assists for the Hoyas. Mullins and Neumann are Top Drawer Soccer's #1 and #3 rated college soccer players at the moment, and you can bet that if you go to a late-season game at Ludwig Field in College Park or Shaw Field at Georgetown, you'll probably be able to find someone from United's staff in attendance.

It's not only the locals, though. Between Mullins and Neumann on that Top Drawer Soccer list is California center back Steve Birnbaum, who is captaining the unbeaten Bears to a #1 national ranking at the moment. United undoubtedly needs to improve at center back, and Birnbaum is without a doubt one to watch.

Of course, there's also the possibility that United finds some other MLS club that's a little too interested in Mullins, Neumann, or someone else. In that case, the Black-and-Red could opt to trade down, getting a lesser first round pick (or maybe finding a team with two, like Vancouver, Philly, or New England) and something else in exchange.

Given the fact that Mullins is more of a second forward who seems unlikely to displace Luis Silva centrally or Chris Pontius on the left side, it seems hard to imagine that United isn't at least contemplating this sort of strategy. The main thing, if this is what the club ends up doing, is to not repeat Toronto FC's mistake last year. The Reds traded the #1 pick to the Revolution for the #4 pick and allocation money. New England bagged Andrew Farrell, a right back with potential USMNT hopes in his future, while TFC took Kyle Bekker, a player that a) they barely ever use and b) a player that would have probably been available at #16, when TFC was back on the clock. Toronto compounded that tactical error by using that #16 pick to take Emery Welshman, who has done even less than Bekker.

In recent years, United has done well with earlier picks. Nick DeLeon, Perry Kitchen, and Chris Pontius were all taken at #7 or earlier, and when all three are fit and available they make up most of DCU's starting midfield. One way or another, United has to turn this pick into either a starter or a cap-exempt future star.

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