Season Preview: D.C. United / by Andrew Olsen

Few teams had more turnover in the offseason than DC United. With a slew of injuries last season, the worst record in MLS , and a deal for a new stadium on the verge of breaking down, things can only get better for United in 2014. Fresh off of an appearance in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, and with another year of experience for young players like Perry Kitchen and Nick DeLeon, 2013 was supposed to be a return to contention for the club with more trophies than any other MLS team. Instead, they finished a full 10 (!) points behind Chivas USA for last in MLS. While their third US Open Cup trophy helped alleviate some of the pain (a consolation many supporters from other clubs would covet), the team has brought in some bigger names – including an entirely new defensive line – which they hope will turn things around in 2014.

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Player Added
Position From Player Lost Position To
Davy Arnaud M Traded from Montreal Carlos Ruiz F Being Old (Option Declined)
Sean Franklin D
Re-entry Stage 1 (LA Galaxy)
Lionard Pajoy F Option Declined
Bobby Boswell D Re-entry Stage 1 (Houston) Marcelo Saragosa M Option Declined
Jalen Robinson D Homegrown Dwayne De Rosario M Option Declined
Nana Attakora D Re-entry Stage 2 (San Jose) Syamsir Alam M Option Declined
Jeff Parke D Traded from Philadelphia John Thorrington M Option Declined
Steve Birnbaum D
SuperDraft (California)
Daniel Woolard D Option Declined
Christian Francois D Waiver draft (Maryland) Dennis Ipichino D Out of Contract
Christain Fernandez D Free transfer (Almeria) Dejan Jakovic D Transferred to Shimizu S-Pulse
Conor Doyle F Tranfer from Derby County Ethan White D Traded to Philadelphia
Eddie Johnson F Trade from Seattle Casey Townsend F Waived
Fabian Espindola F Re-entry stage 2 (New York)

DCRosterRoster Churn: 55.48% of minutes returning (2nd fewest returning minutes in MLS)

It was an offseason of additions and addition by subtractions for United, which will need to see significant improvement if Coach and United legend Ben Olsen is to keep his job. United’s multiple offseason moves culminated with DCUINFOwinning the sweepstakes for US national team striker Eddie Johnson, a player everyone expects to outpace DC’s 2013 leading goal scorer “Own Goal” (seriously, though). Despite a -37 goal differential last year, our shot location data suggests that they were a bit unlucky to finish so low. Having EJ paired with MLS veteran Fabian Espindola, DC’s strikers should score many more goals than the three Linonard Pajoy and an over-the-hill Carlos Ruiz combined for last year.

The loss of Dwayne De Rosario will be felt in the midfield, but even the 2011 MVP lost his starting spot late last season. Stepping in will be former Impact captain Davy Arnaud, who will bring leadership to an otherwise young midfield. United will really hope for a healthy season from likes of Nick DeLeon and Chris Pontius who were both hampered by injuries last year, and will look to continue the progress of Canadian international Kyle Porter. Perry Kitchen returns as the backbone of a young midfield that remains mostly unchanged from 2013, but is poised to be more productive in 2014.

While Klinsmann favorite Bill Hamid remains in goal, United is likely to see a 100% turnover in their defensive backline from a year ago, having brought in proven MLS defenders Sean Franklin, Bobby Boswell, and Jeff Parke, as well as Christian Fernandez, a 28 year old who comes from Almeria in Spain. By drafting Steve Birnbaum #2 overall in the SuperDraft, they also added depth and potential for the future.

Franklin will provide them an attacking option up the right flank that they haven't had since Andy Najar left the team to join Anderlecht in Belgium. Boswell and Parke will combine to bring 19 years of MLS experience to the central defense, which should give Hamid a stronger confidence in the leadership and organization in front of him. Fernandez has spent time in La Liga and Spain's Segunda Division, and looks to bring bring a similar attacking style to the left back position, having scored 6 goals in 36 appearances for Almeria over the last two seasons. Finally, Birnbaum looks to be one of their players of the future, and will fill in for Boswell and Parke in the center of defense during a packed schedule that will include the CONCACAF Champions League in 2014.

DC has taken the anti-Toronto FC route, investing across the roster rather than adding big-name DPs at a few positions. While none of their backline is cheap – United picked up Franklin in the re-entry draft because the Galaxy deemed his salary too high, and Parke isn't a bargain either – United was able to take three of their five highest paid players off the books with the subtractions of DeRo, Jakovic, and Pajoy (who was making an inexplicable $205k per year). They have invested heavily in more experienced, and simply better defenders. With no Designated Players currently on the roster, United have managed to endure more roster turnover than nearly every other team in MLS this offseason without breaking the bank.

All these significant changes make this a year of questions for United; after dominating MLS 1.0 for years, they played a middling role in more recent seasons, a short slump that seemed on the verge of ending in 2012. Was 2013 a regression to the mean, or an outlier as the club turns itself around? Will this be the year Perry Kitchen finally turns into an MLS star, or will he remain atop the list of players on the verge of a breakout season?  With a stadium deal being called into question, can they find a new home? Will Ben Olsen save his job, or make the ownership group look stupid for keeping him this long? Can the team begin to turn around record-low attendance numbers, or can they give their supporters something to cheer about?

At ASA we like to look prior data to help us understand what may happen for teams in the future, but the case of DC is a difficult one for us; no team is likely to look or play more differently than United next season. Because of their unpredictability, and because they have nowhere to go but up, the potential for DC’s season might be greater than any other team in the league this year. Will we see them do what the Timbers did last season, improving by over 20 points between seasons and going from conference doormat to MLS Cup contender? Or will they go the route of Chivas USA, and remain at the bottom of the table as the epitome of incompetence.

DC United hopes this will be a transformative season that returns them to the elite of the Eastern Conference. Crucial additions to the attacking and defensive corps have the potential to turn things around, and coach Ben Olsen’s job is riding on it. Supporters are cautiously optimistic, but the public (as evidenced by our ASA poll numbers) remains skeptical. The 2014 season is an important one for United, both on and off the field. We will soon see if one of the most storied clubs in MLS history can turn their form on the pitch around, and if their important stadium plans can get back on track.

Crowd Sourcing Placement: 8th place in Eastern Conference; 263 of 404 (65.1%) voters felt that D.C. United would not make the playoffs in 2014.