By ExiledMLS (@exiled_mls)
The opening of Audi Field and the addition of Wayne Rooney at the halfway point of the 2018 season propelled DC United into an unlikely playoff appearance after a 11-2-4 run in the second half of the season. With a balanced schedule, a brand new home stadium, and an even more talented squad, the black-and-red have set their eyes on the possibility of winning silverware in 2019.
2018 In Review
In last year’s 2018 season preview for DC United, we generally predicted that it could be a season of two halves, and it was! (It feels good to be right once in a while, doesn’t it?) Up until the grand opening of Audi Field in July, the black-and-red played 13 away games and just 4 home games in the first half of the season. Two of these four home games were at alternate venues in the DMV area. Not surprisingly, DC had a 3-9-5 record and just 14 points at the half-way point of the 2018 season.
The addition of Wayne Rooney and one of the longest stretches of home games in league history turned the fate of DC’s season on its head. DC United went on an 11-2-4 tear in the second half of the season, finishing 4th in the Eastern conference with 51 points. Despite carrying a tremendous amount of momentum into the post-season, DC United lost to now-USMNT Head Coach Greg Berhalter and the Columbus Crew in penalties in the knockout round elimination game. Even though every soccer fan knows the saying, “anything can happen in the playoffs,” the exit felt very premature given the mid-season turnaround and excellent form of the team entering the post-season.
D - Taylor Kemp (retired)
D - Nick DeLeon (option declined)
D - Vytas (option declined)
D - Kevin Ellis (option declined)
M - Ian Harkes (option declined)
M - Jared Jeffrey (option declined)
F - Dane Kelly (option declined)
F - Bruno Miranda (option declined)
D - Kofi Opare (option declined)
M - Yamil Asad (loan expired)
F - Darren Mattocks (out of contract)
GK - Travis Worra (out of contract)
GK - David Ousted (waived; claimed by Chicago)
While DC lost thirteen players from their 2018 roster, most of them were depth players unlikely to break into the starting lineup in 2019. Two players—Taylor Kemp and Travis Worra—retired from professional soccer. David Ousted was waived due to Bill Hamid’s return last season, and to save salary cap space. The two big losses were Darren Mattocks and Yamil Asad. Mattocks had a career year with DC United (10 goals), but was relegated to a supporting role once Wayne Rooney arrived. With his contract expired, Mattocks sought a new opportunity with expansion club FC Cincinnati, aiming to establish himself in a key role there. The loss of Asad left a lot of DC United fans scratching their head, including me. While all signs pointed to DC exercising his loan to purchase option following a strong season (nine goals, five assists), DC United and his club Velez Sarsfeld were either unable or have yet to (?) agree upon the structure of his purchase price. Given Asad’s production, fan appeal, and the fact that he scored the inaugural goal at Audi Field, most DC fans would be elated to see him return to an already bolstered squad this year. Some yet cling to hope, but the longer time passes without a resolution, the less likely it seems a permanent transfer will materialize.
GK - Earl Edwards, Jr. (traded from Orlando)
GK - Chris Seitz (trade from Houston)
M - Lucas Rodriguez (transfer from Estudiantes)
F/M - Antonio Bustamante (Homegrown)
F – Quincy Amarikwa (Free Agent)
D - Donovan Pines (Homegrown)
D - Leonardo Jara (loan from Boca Juniors)
D - Akeem Ward (SuperDraft)
M/D - Chris McCann (claimed via waivers from Atlanta)
With the retirement of Worra and releasing Ousted on waivers, DC bolstered their goalkeeper depth with a good, experienced veteran—Chris Seitz—and a younger goalkeeper in Earl Edwards Jr. who nonetheless saw a good bit of action with Orlando City last season. Leonardo Jara joined DC on loan from Argentine giant Boca Juniors on loan with an option to buy, and looks to be the obvious starter at right fullback. Lucas Rodriguez, a former teammate of Luciano Acosta when they played together at Estudiantes, joined DC on a permanent transfer and has been described as a player who could play in either wide midfield role or centrally when needed. Quincy Amarikwa was signed as a free agent to support Wayne Rooney as a late-game sub or as rotational depth for when Rooney may need a rest down the stretch. Akeem Ward, a first-round SuperDraft pick out of Creighton University, will serve as the supporting role to Leonardo Jara at right fullback. Donovan Pines, a centerback from the University of Maryland and standout defender in the NCAA tournament, was signed as a Homegrown player.
Roster Outlook for 2019
Wayne Rooney will be the starting striker every week barring suspension, injury, or fatigue. That said, Coach Ben Olsen will need to reset Rooney a few times down the stretch, which his precisely why the team signed veteran striker Quincy Amarikwa. Despite not being a headliner player for any team he’s played for in MLS, Amarikwa is a tireless worker, makes tons of runs, and is a general nuisance for defenders to mark. In short, he is the very essence of an “Olsenian” player in the modern DC United era.
Newcomer Lucas Rodriguez and USMNT midfielder Paul Arriola look to be Olsen’s starting wingers in the 4-2-3-1 formation used all last year. At the same time, they have Hungarian international Zoltan Stieber and Costa Rican international Ulises Segura breathing down their necks for playing time and/or starts. In 2018, Segura seemed to out-play Stieber for playing time down the stretch and finished the season with a lot more minutes than the Hungarian. On the other hand, Stieber is a statistically superior player with an xG+xA/96 of 0.40 behind only Rooney, Acosta, and Mattocks. Yet Stieber’s xG+xA/96 was better than Yamil Asad, Paul Arriola, and Ulises Segura. Even though the Argentine Lucas Rodriguez grabbed headlines during his transfer, I could easily see Zoltan taking his starting spot on the left flank if Rodriguez doesn’t produce up to expectations.
Luciano Acosta was the central playmaker for DC United last season, and that will remain the same in 2019 barring a summer transfer to a bigtime European club. Lucho finished with 10 goals, 15 assists, and led the team with 61 key passes in 2018. DC fans already knew the young Argentine was the most skilled player on the squad, but the arrival of Rooney seemed to unlock another, higher level of play and overall confidence. If Luciano Acosta is unavailable, Lucas Rodriguez will likely shift into the number 10 spot, with Stieber sliding onto the left wing.
The returning duo of Russell Canouse and Junior Moreno will occupy the two defensive midfield spots in the 4-2-3-1 formation. Canouse is the more aggressive, ball-winning defensive midfielder of the two, while Moreno works to cut off passing lanes or tracking a late runner towards the penalty area. Their primary support is 19 year old Chris Durkin, followed by utility player Chris McCann or Ulises Segura (although he is naturally more of an advanced box-to-box midfielder). Durkin is technically gifted and showed well enough last season to merit some interest from Europe, and that interest has apparently snowballed to include clubs such as Benfica, Sporting CP, and an unnamed Bundesliga side.
The starting fullbacks will be Costa Rican Joseph Mora and recent addition Leonardo Jara, who joined the team from Boca Juniors. Depth at the position will be provided by Chris McCann and rookie Akeem Ward—at least until Chris Odoi-Atsem is cleared to play after overcoming a battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and Oniel Fisher returns to full fitness after a season-ending knee injury last year.
Steve Birnbaum—now a veteran at age 28 with over 11,000 minutes played—is probably the first defender’s name on Ben Olsen’s team sheet each week. In 2018, Birnbaum was first in in MLS for clearances (6.2/game), second in aerials won (5.9/game), and played over 3,100 minutes over the course of the season. His starting counterpart appears to be Frederic Brillant, who was third overall for clearances (5.6/game) and first in the league for blocks (1.9/game). However, a series of small mistakes and solid play by Kofi Opare led to Brillant getting benched in the middle of the 2018 season. Unfortunately for Opare, an injury brought Brillant back into the starting lineup with fewer mistakes as DC steamed towards a playoff appearance. Although the team said during the off-season they were in the market for a centerback upgrade to pair with Birnbaum, nothing has yet materialized. It is still an upgrade that is needed, however, if the team is serious about competing for trophies in 2019.
In reserve, Olsen will be able to call upon Jalen Robinson or Donovan Pines. Robinson signed to a Homegrown Player contract in 2014, yet has played only 1,100 minutes since turning pro. He has shown some promise during that time, but has yet to make the leap to compete for a starting role. Pines, a physical presence at 6’5’’, was a standout defender with the University of Maryland during their NCAA tournament run, and has drawn some comparisons by scouts to Ike Opara as a young player. The team was very high on Pines when he signed his own Homegrown Player contract, but I believe his playing time this year may be limited to US Open Cup games, friendlies, and the occasional late-game appearance.
Bill Hamid has re-solidified his starting spot as goalkeeper after returning on loan following a short but unfruitful stint with Danish side FC Midtjylland. Fighting for the backup role are veteran Chris Seitz and former Orlando City goalkeeper Earl Edwards Jr. I am of the opinion that both Seitz and Edwards Jr. provide good depth without a big drop-off in quality, but their minutes will be quite limited.
Tactics / Style
Last season, Ben Olsen had his team begin to employ a high press while opponents were in possession (take a look at the defensive pressure map). The diagrams for defensive actions and opponent’s pass success (destination) show a team that was fairly effective at pressing their opponents in their own defensive third, resulting in a tackle or interception, or forcing the opponent to pass backwards. The thing is, they didn’t always employ the high press like the Red Bulls or New England under Brad Friedel. At other times, DC opted to drop deeper and challenge their opponent to build through a clogged midfield. Another newish wrinkle to DC United’s style is more emphasis building out of the back when in possession. They’ve looked fairly effective doing this in preseason friendlies.
On offense, much of DC United’s attack is channeled through Luciano Acosta. Once in possession, Lucho may spring the ball laterally to his wide midfielders running into space. Other times, Wayne Rooney will drop deeper into the false nine position to receive the ball for Acosta and play a return pass to an on-running Acosta. In United’s 11-2-4 run in the second half of last season this flexible, versatile attack was on full display and shaped DC into a team that no one wanted to face in the post-season. If Olsen can get his squad to replicate the same in 2019, it could be a bumper year for the black-and-red.
2019 Season Expectations
It’s been a while since a DC United fan could say this with confidence, but this team doesn’t look built to make the playoffs—it’s mean to make a deep run towards the Cup in the playoffs. The starting lineup, depth players, new home venue, and support staff all point to a strong 2019 season. Aside from maintaining the same excellent form at home, DC have to become more competitive on the road.