SPRINGFIELD, Va. — With the offseason exits of Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta, the version of D.C. United that takes the pitch in 2020 won’t have the same individual playmaking ability as that of 2019.
They plan on compensating for those losses with arguably the most tactically flexible and interchangeable front six of manager Ben Olsen’s decade-long tenure.
Center forward Ola Kamara’s role is obvious. But as for the rest? Record-signing Edison Flores can play as a No. 10 or wide left. Julian Gressel typically plays wide right, but can also play as a wingback or a box-to-box midfielder. Mostly a right flank player for the US national team, Paul Arriola has inhabited pretty much every midfield position in his D.C. tenure and also played right back out of necessity. Yamil Asad is nearly capable of being Arriola’s mirror image on the left.
“That’s an exciting thing for a coach to be able to manipulate them and also the discovery over the next month of how we tick and what’s the best option to move forward to get results,” Olsen said Tuesday. “But the principles are the same. It’s selfless guys. It’s guys that are good in transition and highly focused and have high IQs.”
Olsen didn’t say it expressly, but the personnel points to United leaning more heavily into a high-pressing brand that was harder to execute with both Rooney and Acosta on the pitch.
And with the additions of Asad, Flores and Gressel, and a proven MLS goalscorer in Kamara available from the start of the season, Olsen believes there’s enough collective quality to make up for LuchoRoo’s moments of individual brilliance.
Off the field, the roster that surrounded that duo has grown enough collectively to snuff out concerns of a leadership vacuum.
“Our ability to create the right culture doesn’t concern me,” Olsen said. “We have a lot of guys that have been through all different aspects of this game and I’ll be relying per usual on them because ultimately, yeah it’s me creating culture, but it’s really the leadership council, the older crew that sometimes matters in the dressing room.
“I think we have a good core group. We’ll pick a captain at some point. But really it’s collective, from some of the guys that have been around the block.”
Defender Steve Birnbaum, who captained D.C. prior to Rooney’s arrival, believes sharing the dressing room with the former England and Manchester United star provided lessons about leadership he and others in the club’s older guard can emulate.
“It’s one of those things where he expects to win in everything, and that was pretty cool to see,” Birnbaum said. “Even when we won a game and maybe it wasn’t in the best fashion, he thought we could’ve done better, he kind of got into us after a game. There hadn’t been that before.”
Birnbaum also classified 2019 as “disappointing,” given how they finished 2018 as MLS’s hottest team. Olsen disagreed to a point, noting how the club fought their way out of a midseason slide to become one of the league’s best defensive teams.
“I was proud of last season,” Olsen said. “I thought it was a really difficult season and I think we managed it really well. And getting into the playoffs, the second half of the season being a really tough team to play against and putting ourselves in position in Toronto to win that game.”