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D.C. United took a big first step towards catching up with the rest of MLS

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This transfer window wasn’t just a fluke

Stepping back for a second and looking at a hectic two weeks that saw D.C. United get attached to World Cup veterans (Nigel De Jong, Gary Medel) and club players with national team experience in Europe (Marcus Olsson, Krisztian Nemeth), they eventually “settled” on adding a Young Designated Player from CONCACAF with Liga MX experience (the United States’ Paul Arriola), his US youth teammate (Russell Canouse, recently with Hoffenheim and Bochum in Germany), a teenager with caps for a CONMEBOL national team (Bruno Miranda), and a left wing with experience in UEFA competition (Zoltan Stieber) over the course of the last five days of the secondary transfer window.

Consider for a second that the Black-and-Red had three players under the vaunted Designated Player label over the last 5 years (Fabian Espindola, Eddie Johnson, Dwayne De Rosario), with two of them off the roster within eighteen months. Granted, Johnson’s departure was for health-related reasons, but D.C. decided to grant an almost “legacy” status to two 30-year olds and a 34-year-old.

Now? Arriola will be 23 when Audi Field opens up, and Luciano Acosta will be 24 when he starts his first year as a DP. Two DPs on D.C.’s roster at one time? They’ve started to spend and spend smarter, for the longer term and within the ideas that ownership has laid out all along.

With that wild ride, a quiet fear among fans is the proclivity towards complacency that Dave Kasper and Ben Olsen might have in the offseason. I call it the McPhee syndrome (named for former Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee) for when he infamously would say “We like our team,” before the annual slow march to playoff disappointment. And I get that because of precedent, but I disagree with it, primarily because the roster stars are sort of lining up in a way that will force United to make some decisions regardless of proclivities.

Let’s look at where things are. Currently, D.C. has eight players on the senior roster who are or believed to have (as best we can tell, thanks MLS!) a contract expiring at the end of 2017:

  • Bill Hamid
  • Jared Jeffrey
  • Marcelo Sarvas
  • Patrick Nyarko
  • Lloyd Sam
  • Sebastien Le Toux
  • Chris Rolfe
  • Deshorn Brown

Let’s toss Hamid out of the mix for a second because the team would like to keep him as a core member of the club, and the two sides are working towards an extension. Additionally, let’s temporarily toss Brown out for the simple fact that we don’t know what his budget number is at this point. So that brings us to six players who combined have an approximate total of $1.25 million cap hit between them. For comparison’s sake, this year’s club salary budget was $3.845 million.

That’s six players taking up about 32% of the budget this year. That’s a lot.

It will get tougher but a little more pleasant; with Designated Player roster slots holding (at minimum) a $480,625 space each next year, Lucho is a cost-saver. Arriola as a Young Designated player will only have a budget hit of $200,000 next year before aging into the standard DP hit for 2019. So the space gets recouped by half, but on guys who certainly have better pedigrees, and drawing on a better and larger talent pool to boot.

Moreover, unpalatable as D.C.’s current place at the bottom of the MLS standings is and how it serves as a reminder of the 2013 season, it should also serve as a reminder of how that spot in the table only further enhances the resources with which to play. How much so? Well, in addition to the expected increase of Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) taking that pool up to $2 million for 2018, D.C. gets $200,000 in General Allocation Money (GAM), plus $200,000 more for not qualifying for the playoffs (which effectively pays off that portion of the trade to LA for Arriola’s MLS rights), and $100,000 because of the introduction of LAFC into MLS next year.

That’s $2.3 million to spend on top of whatever GAM/TAM amounts that Dave Kasper and Ben Olsen are sitting on currently, so let’s assume the combined total is around $3 million. Additionally, they’ll get a draft pick who, if not ready to play immediately will be a better depth piece than previous rosters have seen.

And for whatever faults anyone wants to put at their feet, the last time they were looking at a potential turnover this large, they turned James Riley, Kyle Porter, De Rosario, Dejan Jakovic and Daniel Woolard into Sean Franklin, Rolfe, Espindola, Boswell and Steve Birnbaum. Heck, check out the starting lineup and subs when D.C. kicked off 2014. One left by July, four are now retired, and two others are currently in the USL and NASL.

They’re used to having to do this, but now along with money they’ll get to do it with a tangible long-term context to give players to sell them on coming here. When D.C. worked within budget consciousness a couple of years ago, their turnaround occurred before regressing occurred. Now that the shackles seem to be loosened allowing for (smart) spending? This may look like a soccer team once again, one that can woo players with the promise of a stadium, training facilities and the like.

Of course, there is no way this is going to be free of some growing pains on and off the field. We know that D.C. is going to play away games for the first three or four months of 2018, but that’s not all. The simple fact of the matter is United will be opening a new stadium, locating and building/re-purposing training facilities and team offices, and getting a USL team off the ground, and quite likely doing it over a 16-18 month span. There is going to be a Herculean amount of work involved.

From 2013 to now, D.C. needed to tread water to keep from drowning, and now that they’re in a better position to get out of the water, the cards are lining up for them to finally have a chance, for the first time in more than a decade, to catch up to those in the league who have passed or even lapped them. That starts by building a lineup of eleven quality players, not a name and ten pieces of detritus, and they went a long way towards accomplishing that this week. It’s not over, but it’s a nice first impression, and they’ll get a decent opportunity for a second.

Considering what they’re going to have to do this winter and beyond, the more Audi Field takes shape, the more one can’t help take away the impression that this is the beginning of something that feels pretty good.