By DCU Exile (@DCU_Exile)
2016 in review
The 2016 season was a story of two very different halves for the black and red. The first half of the season saw DC United struggle mightily to produce goals (and wins), and they were 5-6-6 by the halfway point in the season. Although coach Ben Olsen had most of the same players at his disposal from 2015 and the addition of Argentine playmaker Luciano Acosta on loan from Boca Juniors, the team just could not find their form. United was still largely depending on the flat 4-4-2 of the last two seasons, and Acosta wasn’t able to find his way into the starting lineup amongst Olsen’s veterans from the year prior. DC was the third least productive team in the league in 2015 (averaging only 11 shots per game), and that carried through into the start of 2016.
And then a series of fortunate and unfortunate events took place, which ultimately helped re-shape the trajectory of the season. By the end of July, winger/forward Chris Rolfe had been ruled out for the season with a concussion sustained in April. On July 7, United acquired winger Lloyd Sam from rivals New York Red Bulls for an unspecified amount of allocation money. Two weeks later, United traded away struggling designated player Fabian Espindola to Vancouver and acquired forward Patrick Mullins from NYCFC.
These changes in personnel did the trick. Olsen deployed a new-look 4-1-4-1 formation that allowed him to integrate new additions Acosta, Sam, and Mullins in the starting XI. And boy did they roll. DC United went from one of the least productive attacks in the league to the fifth-highest scoring team in MLS, and were averaging 14 shots per game (3rd best in the league) by the end of the year. DC United finished on an impressive 6-2-6 run before crashing out of the playoffs in a disappointing 4-2 loss to the Montreal Impact.
2017 offseason transactions
United parted ways with seven players from its 2016 roster: forwards Alvaro Saborio and Kennedy Igboananike; midfielders Miguel Aguilar and Colin Martin; defenders Chris Korb and Luke Mishu; and goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra. Alvaro Saborio (6 goals in 2016) departed to his native Costa Rica and retired soon after, ending his eight-year MLS career with 80 goals. Trades saw former draft pick Aguilar and homegrown player Martin off to the LA Galaxy and Minnesota United, respectively. Defender Luke Mishu announced his retirement from professional soccer, and Korb—still fighting to recover from an ACL tear in 2015—was not offered a new contract by the team. With four goalkeepers on the roster and unlikely to see any minutes, Dykstra was traded to Sporting Kansas City and was given a one-year deal.
There is also a good chance that midfielder Chris Rolfe may be forced into retirement for medical reasons. Rolfe sustained a concussion while playing against his former club the Chicago Fire on April 30, 2016, and has still not been able to resume training. Although the team has not made any official comment on his situation, Rolfe’s return remains doubtful.
With a substantial number of roster spots and cap space open, Olsen and Dave Kasper went to work. While the United teams of 2014 and 2015 relied mainly on experienced MLS veterans, 2017 marks a clear shift towards building a younger roster. Their first move was to acquire 22 year-old playmaker Luciano Acosta on a permanent transfer from Boca Juniors after a productive one-year loan. To bolster their attacking depth, United signed 24 year-old Costa Rican forward/midfielder José Guillermo Ortiz from CS Herediano on a one-year loan with an option to buy.
Two young American players—21 year-old Ian Harkes and 17 year-old Chris Durkin—look to be the central midfield of the future for United. Ian Harkes, son of John Harkes and winner of the 2016 MAC Hermann Trophy, was perhaps the most coveted player coming out of college soccer last year. United were able to sign him to a Homegrown Player deal in late January. Durkin, who technically signed with the team last year, has now joined them full-time after finishing his residency at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. Draft picks Chris Odoi-Atsem (fullback) and Eric Klenofsky (goalkeeper) bring additional youth depth to the team. Early indications from the coaching staff suggest that they have the potential to grow into important members of the squad—given time.
To round things out, the team signed free-agent veteran Sebastien Le Toux to provide further depth on the wings, and are likely to sign Canadian trialist Maxim Tissot to provide depth at left fullback.
Defense and Goalkeeper
Under Head Coach Ben Olsen, United has prioritized defense as means to success. For the second straight year, they were the third-best defensive team in the eastern conference with 47 goals allowed. This is almost 3 goals fewer than their xGA of 49.33 for the season, and helped them finish with a +6 goal differential.
Shot-stopping wonder Bill Hamid is a big part of United’s ability to keep the ball out of the net, but for the second year in a row he will begin the season recovering from knee surgery. Health issues are the only thing preventing Hamid from finding that “next level” in goalkeeping form, and he keeps missing out on national team opportunities as a result. If he can stay healthy, then he can realistically compete with Tim Howard and Brad Guzan for the starting job by the time World Cup 2018 rolls around. Until then, he is probably third or fourth on the USMNT goalkeeper depth chart.
During Hamid’s injury absence last year, United fans were pleasantly surprised with backup keeper Travis Worra. In 13 appearances, the UNH product posted 4 clean sheets, made 34 saves, and allowed 18 goals (1 less than his xGA of 19.12). If Hamid does sustain another knock or is absent on USMNT duty, there won’t be much of a drop-off in goalkeeping quality with Worra between the sticks. In fact, Worra’s GA-xGAp96 of -0.09 was just slightly better than Hamid’s of -0.05. It is unlikely that Worra will overtake Hamid for the starting job if both players are healthy, but it’s something to keep an eye on in the future.
The central defense is anchored by rising USMNT star Steve Birnbaum. Birnbaum has become one of the best centerbacks in the league, and is especially good in the air. He led the league with an average 4.1 aerial duels won per game in 2016. The next closest player was NYRB centerback Aurelien Collin with 3.6 aerial duels won per game. Birnbaum is also an asset on set pieces, notching 3 goals and 2 assists in 2016.
Who partners with Birnbaum in central defense is a bit of a concern at the moment. Veteran Bobby Boswell (33) was presumed to be the other starting centerback coming into 2016. However, he may have fallen out of favor during the off-season, as Olsen has stated his intention to convert fullback Sean Franklin to a centerback this year. Olsen has given Franklin a substantial minutes at centerback in preseason to support this claim. Whether Franklin starts over Boswell at centerback on March 4 is a toss-up. But this development does suggest that Olsen may not trust Kofi Opare or Jalen Robinson to fill that role if Boswell is no longer up to the task.
At fullback, Taylor Kemp is a lock to start on the left flank, and Nick Deleon is likely to fill in on the right if Sean Franklin does indeed get the nod at centerback. Deleon’s conversion from a midfielder to a fullback happened late last season, but he showed fairly well in the handful of starts he was given in the corner. Providing depth for them, the team has Generation Adidas and Maryland product Chris Odoi-Atsem and former Montreal Impact defender Maxim Tissot at their disposal.
DC United’s midfield was a clear area of concern going into 2016, but is now one of the most well-stocked midfields in the eastern conference. The 4-1-4-1 / 4-3-3 formation (depending how you look at it) that Olsen adopted last year depends on a strong central midfield trio and a pair of wingers that can take players on 1v1 and create chances for their lone forward. Olsen has just what he needs to accomplish this.
Starting with the deepest-lying central midfielder, Marcelo Sarvas is set to occupy the lone defensive midfielder role. This is a different role than Sarvas played during his time with the LA Galaxy, but he did an effective job shielding the back line and distributing the ball last year with an 11.6% touch rate (the team leader). Sarvas’ main downside is foul trouble. He committed 67 fouls last year and received 11 yellow cards and 1 red card in the processn. His primary back up last season was Rob Vincent, who deputized well in his absence. However, some analysts expect USMNT U-17 starter Chris Durkin to start challenging Vincent for those backup minutes later in the season.
Luciano Acosta will roam the central midfield in front of Sarvas and serve as the primary playmaker for the black and red. Like most designated players new to the league, he had a slow start in 2016. But he settled in by mid-season and will be the maestro in central midfield. In 2016 he averaged 2.11 KPp96 and 0.26 xAp96. Expect him to exceed his assist total of 8 from last year. Any absences by Acosta will likely be filled by the Julian Buescher. Buescher likes to sit a bit deeper than Acosta, but has an uncanny ability to pick out and deliver killer passes to his wingers and forward teammates.
Acosta’s partner in central midfield is a bit of an unknown, but Olsen has several players competing for the job. Jared Jeffrey played fairly well there towards the end of last season, but he’s competing with Harkes to keep that job. It’s anyone’s guess as to who wins it, but if I were a betting man I would put money on Harkes solidifying that starting job by mid-season.
On the wings, United fans can feel confident having veteran wingers Patrick Nyarko and Lloyd Sam in the starting lineup on opening day. Nyarko (xG+xAp96 of 0.47) finished the season with four goals and four assists, and Lloyd Sam (xG+xAp96 of 0.45) tallied four goals and six assists of his own. At face value, this doesn’t seem amazing. But Sam wasn’t getting consistent minutes until he was traded to DC from the Red Bulls in July, and Nyarko missed a handful of games due to injury. If both wingers can stay healthy over the course of a full season, they could certainly exceed their offensive production numbers from last year.
Nipping at their heels for minutes, however, are Lamar Neagle and MLS veteran Sebastien Le Toux. Despite losing his starting job on the wing to his teammates, Neagle became a highly effective “super sub” and was the team’s leading goal-scorer. He finished the season with nine goals and five assists, and with a combined xG+xAp96 of 0.57 remains a deadly off-the-bench threat. Le Toux represents a similarly effective option on the wing, generating three goals and six assists during his time with Colorado last year.
The mid-season acquisition of Patrick Mullins in 2016 was a boon for United’s offense and the main reason they were able to end the season on a 6-2-6 run while scoring 32 of their 53 total goals for the season. In just 14 appearances Mullins accumulated an impressive 8 goals and 3 assists, and even then under-performed his xG of 9.78. It’s a safe bet that Mullins will resume his role as the starting striker in Olsen’s 4-1-4-1 system. Mullins won’t be a Golden Boot contender in 2017, but you can reasonably expect him to score in the range of 12 to 15 goals in 2017.
The only wrinkle in this discussion is the off-season acquisition of Costa Rican José Guillermo Ortiz, who came to DC United on loan with an option to buy. The former LD Alajualense and CS Herediano forward is coming off a breakout year in Costa Rica where he scored a league-leading 15 goals. While it appears that Ortiz will be Ben Olsen’s first choice off the bench as a substitute for Mullins, there is a chance he will compete for the starting role as the season progresses—especially if Mullins experiences a drop-off in production. Alhaji Kamara is a third option at forward, but for now appears to be playing third fiddle to Mullins and Ortiz.
With the same personnel returning in 2017, United is very much a playoff caliber team. Furthermore, several players have already said in preseason that the bar has been set higher than last year. This leaves me with two big questions. First, can United resume their same goal-scoring form from the end of last season and maintain it for a full season? All signs point to the affirmative, but nothing is a sure thing in MLS. Second, how much will the DC United youth contribute along the way? The easy answer is that players like Harkes, Durkin, Acosta, and Odoi-Atsem could be building blocks for an MLS Cup-caliber team in 2018 or 2019, but they have the potential to break into the starting XI this year and contribute long the way.
Short answer: Anything less than making the playoffs would be a failure for United in 2017, but my conservative estimate of their “ceiling” is an Eastern Conference final appearance.