By Drew Olsen (@drewjolsen)
United have the most storied history of teams in MLS, but a lot of change is incoming. 2015 was a solid season for the black and red, but changes need to be made if the team is to be considered a contender again for MLS Cup. My guess is that that the season ahead will be a bit of a struggle as the club looks ahead to a new stadium and a new identity in the coming years.
2015 in review
Last season was an interesting one for United. As evidenced by the season progress in the graphic above, the club hovered around the top of the league standings for the first three quarters of the season, largely on the back of their league-leading 11 victories by one goal. They also had the second fewest wins by 2+ goals, ahead only of cellar-dwellers Chicago and Colorado. Unfortunately for United fans, Ben Olsen’s conservative strategy fell apart at the end of the summer, as DC finished the season with six of their 13 losses coming in the final nine games, culminating in a 0-5 rout in Columbus on the last day of the season. They were ultimately eliminated by the Red Bulls in in the conference semifinals for the second year in a row, losing both legs 0-1.
There are multiple ways to interpret the season; is Olsen the Jose Mourinho of MLS or just afraid of offense? On paper, it seems like he’s working with less than many other playoff teams. Fabian Espindola is the only designated player on the team, and he made just 15 starts last season due to injury and suspension. Chris Rolfe led the team with 10 goals, but no other player had more than five. Though a midseason trade for Alvaro Saborio gave some hope that more offense was coming, it never did. It may not have been pretty (and it certainly wasn’t), but Ben Olsen has shown he can consistently get more out of his team than most MLS coaches. It’s a task he’ll try to replicate in 2016.
Defense and Goalkeeper
The key to success for United begins and ends with organized defending. The 45 goals allowed last season was 3rd best in the conference, and they’ll need to continue that if they want to hold ground against an improved East.
That starts with Bill Hamid, who was second only to Nick Rimando in Goals Minus Expected Goals (G-xG) last year. Considering he got his first start for United six years ago, it’s hard to believe Hamid only turned 25 in the offseason. Barring a setback, he’s probably a favorite to be in the USMNT mix for years to come. If he isn’t, it will be because of his propensity for injury – he’s never gone an entire season without getting hurt, and it’s the reason he had to decline his call-up to camp cupcake in January.
With Hamid out until at least May following knee surgery, Andrew Dykstra will step in as the starter. The drop-off here isn’t huge; Dykstra performed well above average in the 800 minutes he played last season. Third stringer Travis Worra may see some time in the Open Cup.
For the defense, the dependable Sean Franklin will again start on the right. While he doesn’t get the attention he got while playing for the Galaxy, Franklin is as steady as ever. He’s been a reliable part of this defense, even while the CB next to him has continued to change.
With that said, Steve Birnbaum looks to have nailed down the starting CB job which he was in and out of last season. Birnbaum was probably the team’s most improved player last season, and buoyed by a series of good performances for the national team, he’ll look to continue that progress as the out-and-out starter. He’s at his best winning balls in the air, and will hope to get more goals this season as a set-piece threat.
Next to Birnbaum will be 32-year-old Bobby Boswell, who made his MLS debut for DC over a decade ago, and was the only player to appear in all 34 games a year ago. While he’s known for his size and physicality, he’s undervalued for his ability to get forward on set-pieces. Among defenders, Boswell had the fifth most xG in the league last season.
On the left side of defense will be Taylor Kemp, who did well in his first full season as a starter. Quietly one of the best attacking LBs in the league, Kemp’s 26 key passes (passes that lead to shots) which led to six assists were 3rd best among defenders.
So while the player between the sticks may be in flux, there is no question who the starting back four for DC will be. They’ll hope the chemistry they created over the last two years will continue into the new season.
If DC is unable to make it back to the playoffs, it will be because of the significant offseason change in the midfield. The team’s best player last season, Perry Kitchen, is gone (he’s hanging out with Preki). Chris Pontius was traded to Philadelphia. Michael Farfan had his option declined. In fact, 55% of the minutes played in midfield last season were by players no longer with the team.
Still around though are David Arnaud, who will turn 36 this summer, and Nick DeLeon, who is being moved from outside mid (where he’s been for the last four seasons) to the center of the park. It’s a fascinating approach, and shows the confidence that Olsen has in DeLeon. Joining him in the middle will be Marcelo Sarvas, who arrives after a disappointing year in Colorado.
On the left side of midfield will be the most underrated player in MLS (sorry, Dax), Chris Rolfe. If his 10 goals and four assists aren’t enough, consider this: among players with 30+ shots Rolfe had the 6th highest percentage that were unassisted. For a guy that took hardly any of his team’s set pieces, that’s astounding, and puts him among the likes of Federico Higuain, Kaka, Darlington Nagbe, and Sebatian Giovinco. Rolfe is the engine of the midfield, and is a harder worker than most players in the league. He’ll need to stay healthy if his team wants to make the playoffs, and he’ll need to continue to create his own shots.
The right side is a little less clear, though it looks like Patrick Nyarko is the opening-day starter. Rookie Julian Buescher will provide depth, and Lamar Neagle will probably also see time on the wing. Rob Vincent, who scored 18 goals for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds last year, may also challenge for time behind Rolfe. Markus Halsti will continue to add defensive midfielder depth.
Loanee Luciano Acosta from Boca Juniors that will be the other starter, sitting behind the forward. He comes as a much-hyped prospect that the team hopes will bring loads of goals, but he’s a tiny 5’3” and 130 pounds, so expect him to take some time to adapt to the physical nature of MLS.
Fabian Espindola will orchestrate the offense again. Though he will probably score another five to ten goals, Espindola is at his best when he’s playing setup man. His seven assists led the team last year, and the 0.29 xA per 90 minutes he created last year were 8th best in the league.
Though he was brought in mid-season to score goals, Alvaro Saborio is likely to come off the bench for 2016 after contributing an efficient four goals in only nine appearances after his arrival. He'll hope to bring something unique off the bench, but expect his minutes to continue to drop.
In an Eastern Conference that has gotten better, DC looks like maybe the only team that has gotten worse. Most of the new additions are depth pieces, and it will be nearly impossible to replace the contribution that Kitchen has brough the last few years. Couple that with DeLeon learning a new position and an aging Boswell, Espindola, and Saborio, and there is plenty that could go wrong.
Though Olsen seems to consistently get more out of his team than he should, keeping up that streak will be a major challenge. If all goes right, expect another season like last year. If all goes wrong, this team could be among the worst in the Eastern Conference.