In the midst of D.C. United’s flurry of signings in the summer of 2017, those familiar with the team saw them sign three players who are part of their national team discussions; there was midfielder Paul Arriola (United States), Bruno Miranda (Bolivia) and Zoltan Stieber (Hungary) to deals that last into 2018, but the fourth signing might prove to be not only the most impactful, but the most important within this reborn version of the Black-and-Red.
Russell Canouse had been with Bochum in the 2.Bundesliga in 2017 after spending several seasons with Hoffenheim’s 2.Bundesliga side since 2013. When he was signed, United GM Dave Kasper characterized him as “...a dominant holding midfielder with great talent and vision, especially as a young player.”
Little did he know how much he would be needed.
Canouse has had passing accuracy numbers of 84% in 2017 and 90% (well, 89.9) in 2018. That is tops on United’s roster, and as of this writing it’s 9th best in the league (though 7 players above him have both played more minutes and completed more passes than Canouse). By comparison, Junior Moreno, who has played comparable minutes (he’s played 85 more minutes on the season), has an 87.5% completion rate, with more chances created and long balls than Canouse. Perry Kitchen’s heyday as a 6 saw a high of 85.9% in 2014. When Kitchen departed for Heart of Midlothian FC in Scotland, Marcelo Sarvas took over in the CDM role and handled himself well in 2016 before struggling in 2017.
It’s where Canouse’s presence and play dictation separates him from Moreno. Along with being among MLS’s most reliable passers, Canouse’s 2.5 tackles per game put him in the the league’s top 25 (on par with Diego Chara and Cristian Roldan) and his near 1 blocked shot per game average is another stat where he’s posting numbers in the top 10 (Fredric Brilliant holds the top spot in the category, but Canouse is the leader among defensive midfielders).
Given his importance to the team’s health, Canouse’s contributions could be argued as being more important to United’s overall fortunes than even those of Luciano Acosta. Sure, D.C. has not won any of the seven games they’ve played without Acosta since Lucho arrived in 2016 (0-3-4), but they’ve also had some bad times with him in the team (see: 2017). The differences appear to be starker without Canouse, going 14-9-4 when Canouse appears and 2-8-5 when he doesn't. When they’re both in the lineup? 13-9-4. That’s 1.84 points per game, or 63 points over a 34-game season, good enough for 2nd in the 2017 Eastern Conference (and 2nd overall), and on pace for 3rd in the East (and overall) in 2018.
So, given how D.C. has done when each player has or hasn’t been in the lineup, the expectations placed on both Acosta and Canouse given their positions, their respective salary numbers, and the respective bars to clear compared to their predecessors (honestly, are we including Fabian Espindola in this? Should we?), it’s hard to argue against Canouse being a masterpiece among signings by Dave Kasper.
However, given the landscape, need, cost effectiveness and performance, getting Russell Canouse for no fee, and having him perform at the level he’s played at over the course of a full season could and should be seen as the most impactful thing Dave Kasper has done in the post-Kevin Payne era. Teeth will surely be gnashed that Chris Durkin hasn’t gotten the minutes that USMNT observers want, but Canouse (a player within the United States youth national team pipeline in his own right) has given the organization more than enough justification with his work over the last 14 healthy months of his MLS career.