As the 2022 MLS season draws to a close, clubs trickle over the line of being mathematically eliminated from the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. Though games remain, focus shifts to the offseason and what's next.
Here, we'll be covering three questions for every team moving forward. Think of it as an exit interview, if you will. Matt Doyle, as always, has you covered on his preeminent season-in-review for each club (D.C. United version). Read that, too.
He has gifs. It’s tough to beat gifs.
It was year two of the Hernan Losada era in the nation’s capital… until it very quickly was not the Hernan Losada era. D.C. United dismissed the head coach on April 20, despite coming into the year with some on-field momentum and a new playing identity.
Locker room culture and relationships behind the scenes deteriorated, then the club parted ways with Losada. Interim head coach Chad Ashton couldn’t guide the team out of their tailspin and by the time Wayne Rooney took over as head coach in mid-July, the hole was too big to climb out of.
After being mathematically eliminated from playoff contention this past weekend, all eyes shift towards 2023. The rebuild was kickstarted during the Secondary Transfer Window, giving the club a head start on replenishing the playing squad. There are some positives around D.C. and a bunch of questions.
Rooney’s contract is reportedly only guaranteed through next season, with the uncertainty of what that means for 2024 and beyond. Everyone’s idea would be for this marriage to continue for much longer than 18 months (through 2023), but nothing is certain. It seemed like Losada would be here a long time, too, after arriving from Belgium.
D.C. began their roster overhaul this summer with Rooney’s fingerprints all over it. That makes sense. To give the manager the best chance to succeed, the manager has to be involved in these decisions. But this comes after the club molded the roster in Losada’s vision (a distinctly different tactical view than now), so the squad needs an overhaul.
After the decade-long stability of Ben Olsen, Rooney is another big change of direction for the club as they continue to look to jolt back into life in a sustainable way.
“I’m at the beginning of [my coaching] journey,” Rooney said at his introductory press conference in July. “I’m at a point in my managerial career where I have to put the work in, I have to put the hours in. Of course, I’m an ambitious person, one day I want to manage at the top level. And this is part of that process in terms of coming here, trying to develop this club, trying to get success here, but also develop myself as a manager.”
Ambition like that is good. It’d be weird if Rooney – literally one of the best players England have ever produced – was like “nah, I don’t really want to manage Manchester United one day, I don’t think I’m good enough.” And he’s already focused on giving young players chances at the end of this season, which indicates a more long-term view.
That roster overhaul brought in several key players, including:
- DP center forward Christian Benteke
- DP midfielder Victor Palsson
- TAM midfielder Ravel Morrison
- TAM winger Martin Rodriguez
- Starting GK David Ochoa (who is out of contract at the end of the season)
You can say a lot about D.C. United’s 2022 season – you can’t say they didn’t at least take big ol’ swings.
Benteke, Fountas and Palsson take up all three DP spots, but Palsson can be bought down. This means another DP can be added, maybe a Young DP, and two more U22 Initiative slots are used (Durkin is currently the lone U22 Initiative player on the roster).
I’m expecting further departures from the 2022 roster (more on that below) to make room for more reinforcements up and down the squad. Plus, if the homegrowns that Rooney has brought into the first team can hold up as reliable squad players (or more), then that dramatically helps the roster-building calculus.
Andy Najar is under contract through next season plus has a team option for 2024, while Steven Birnbaum has a club contract option next season and Brendan Hines-Ike will be back from injury. Brad Smith, should he return next year, is coming off a torn ACL and could fit into that group as well.
That’s the start of a defensive unit, at least. Is all of it enough for D.C. to mount a real playoff push next year? How much more construction needs to be done?
This question starts with a different question: What formation does Rooney want to play?
D.C. United have shown numerous options under Rooney, including a 3-5-2 against Real Salt Lake last weekend. There have also been the 4-3-3, 4-4-2, etc. At Derby County, Rooney most often played out of a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3. This is fluid, but a 4-3-3 seems like as decent an educated guess as anything to start with the framework.
In a simpler sense, with a center forward like Benteke, they could use another winger with adept delivery. Particularly after trading Julian Gressel to Vancouver Whitecaps FC, a player who’s regarded among the very best crossers in the league.
Ola Kamara is out of contract and the club had been open to trading him all year, so his future is in doubt. Miguel Berry, who arrived in a trade from Columbus this summer, is also out of contract. So another center forward behind Benteke and Fountas for depth is necessary.
Speaking of Fountas: Where, exactly, does he fit into a 4-3-3? Or would Rooney shift it to a 4-2-3-1 to have Fountas in his preferred second forward role behind Benteke?
- Ochoa and Bill Hamid are both out of contract next year. Will either be back as the starting GK?
- What does 2023 have in store for Fountas? (9g/3a before Rooney was hired, 2g/0a after Rooney was hired)
- Small sample size, but since Rooney was hired, D.C. have the fourth-most open play crosses in the league (and the fourth-best accuracy). Should suit Benteke well.
- Matai Akinmboni, a 15-year-old (!!!!) homegrown center back, started against RSL. He’s one of a few homegrowns getting chances under Rooney, which is a net positive.