Wednesday, March 24, 2010

DC United Preview

D.C. is in the midst of ongoing change, a time of transition if you will. And I'm not just talking about continued gentrification or Congress (at least the majority of it) finally putting the American people first and passing historic legislation.

Maybe I don't have a great memory, but this year appears to involve more change and uncertainties than I can remember in the DC sports scene. The Redskins have a new big name coach, maybe a new QB coming, and seem to be transitioning from a team that buys like Real Madrid but wins like Wigan to a team that actually builds properly (Aston Villa?). The Wizards have blown up their team and have a new owner. The Nationals have a glimmer of hope in potential future star Stephen Strasburg. And Caps are the best team by far in the NHL, as well as the most exciting, both of which I guess are a change historically.

All this change has left DC United largely under the radar in the DC sports pages. Having missed the playoffs again in 2009, a change in coach and massive roster turnover leave DC United a unknown quantity in 2010. Not to mention the fact that the threat of a labor stoppage tempered any enthusiasm for the upcoming season, making the focus management-labor negotiations rather than team building.

Well the season is now upon us, and I don't know if it's all the change and the distractions, but this is also the first year where I really don't know how to feel about the upcoming season.

For the past few years, many DC faithful felt that former coach Tom Soehn held the team back, never really developing the skilled potential of the squad into a consistent winner. Now another ex DC United man, Curt Onalfo, has been brought in to right the ship. Will he? His mediocre record in Kansas City is probably less a reflection of his coaching abilities as it is the truly mediocre teams in his charge.

Maybe most importantly for the Barra Brava and Screaming Eagles, Onalfo's ties to DC United of old and his statements after his hiring indicate he will try to stick to the slick passing, attacking football the black and red are known for. If there's a team in MLS that thinks it's Barcelona or Real Madrid -- that it not only must win titles, but must do so beautifully -- it's DC United.

Can they play beautifully with half a new roster, a thin striking core, and no true attacking midfielder? I'm worried, to say the least, on having to rely on Jaime Moreno's old man speed. His excellent preseason hints that he's been rejuvenated once again and wants to go out with a bang, but it's a long season. Fortunately, MLS will actually do the smart thing and take a a break during part of the World Cup. A mid-season break like that will greatly help those old man legs.

It will be the absence of a pair of old man legs, however, that will likely be felt the strongest on the field. Of course I'm talking about caveman Benny Olsen leaving the playing field and joining Onalfo's coaching staff. His fiery leadership and midfield doggedness will be sorely missed, and not that anyone could ever replace Olsen, I'm not sure who could even attempt to step into that void. Clyde Simms is too cerebral. and Moreno, while the brains of the team and capable of fiery leadership, just isn't the emotional center of the team. That task will likely have to fall to the the three key players for DC this year: Santino Quaranta, Chris Pontius, and Troy Perkins.

Santino takes over for aging Christian Gomez at the all-important attacking midfield spot in DC's formation. Santino has played all over the pitch in his career, winger, attacker and central midfielder. Still at 25, DC hopes he can build on a successful comeback last season. Along with Moreno, Santino has the strongest bond with the DC fans and will need to step up his leadership even at his young age. With the seemingly talented El Salvadoran winger Christian Castillo an unknown in MLS, Quaranta will shoulder the bulk of the playmaking duties. At least Castillo will bring back some of the Salvadoran crazies who abandoned the team after Raul Diaz Arce left.

Party Boy Pontius, on the other hand, doesn't need to be a leader as much as the goalscoring threat DC desperately needs next to Moreno. One of the top rookies last season, he was moved around the field by Soehn too much for my liking. Hopefully sticking at striker, his best position, will allow him to flourish. Danny Allsopp joins from the land down under as a target forward, and we can only hope his career here goes better than the last DC United acquisition from the Australian league.

Troy Perkins, reacquired after he decided to return Stateside from Europe, will have to be impressive in goal to help a young and often shaky backline. Perkins was pretty good in his first stint with DC, but I never fully trusted him or thought him great. However, he really seemed to improve at Vålerenga and it showed as he became the third string US National Team keeper. He may have been passed by Marcus Hahnemann as the number 3 recently, but I expect a strong season from Perkins as he looks to impress Bob Bradley and make the World Cup roster.

Strong leadership and organization from Perkins will be vital because the defenders in front of him still have much to prove. I like the move of Rodney Wallace to fullback. His speed and attacking abilities will make him formidable, and he showed his defending chops last season in stints as a holding midfielder. And he played D in college too. When Marc Burch returns from injury, suddenly DC has a nice bit of depth on the left side, with Burch, Wallace, and Castillo.

Dejan Jakovic will anchor the center of the defense. He has a lot of talent, and at 24 will continue to improve, as central defenders do, as his positioning and decision making mature. From there the D gets iffy, with Julius James looking to prove he's not a high draft bust and I know nothing about the other central defender option, veteran Juan Manuel Peña. James showed glimpses at the end of the season after DC acquired him that he could turn things around and I believe he may turn out to be a solid starter. Unfortunately usual stalwart and DC's best defender Bryan Namoff is still out with post-concussion complications. If the youngsters continue to improve and form a level of cohesiveness, I could see DC surprising the pundits expecting them to finish in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference.

Is not knowing what to realistically expect from this team going into the season a good or bad thing? I wouldn't be surprised with a very good season, nor would I be surprised with a mediocre season. But like all seasons before they begin, I have optimism that all the change DC underwent this offseason is change I can believe in.

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