D.C. United entered the 2023 season sporting a big, star target forward with an EPL pedigree, a secondary attacking Designated Player who’d put up good numbers in less than a full season in 2022, a bunch of new pieces picked up over the previous two transfer windows, a boatload of kids and a full year of manager Wayne Rooney at the helm.
All of that was supposed to bring stability, consistency and focus, especially since Rooney seemed to have the conch when it came to calling the shots with regard to player personnel (D.C. parted ways with previous general manager Lucy Rushton last October).
It never quite worked out like that, though. Part of it was Taxi Fountas doing everything he could to alienate his teammates, to the point that he was dismissed from the team; part of it was never finding a secondary scoring option behind Christian Benteke even when Fountas was available; part of it was the roster pieces not quite fitting; and part of it was plain old defensive underperformance.
So while they collected 50% more points than last year's Wooden Spoon team, it still felt like they didn’t hit many of their more reasonable preseason targets. And at the end of the year, Rooney and the club parted ways.
Formation & Tactics
Rooney pretty clearly wanted his team to be a 4-3-3, single-pivot, ball-dominant, possession team from the jump. But six weeks into the season that clearly was not working out on the other side of the ball (the number of times United got depantsed in transition after simple turnovers was unnerving even for a neutral), so Rooney did the pragmatic thing and switched to aiming long-balls at Benteke’s head (though he still had his goalkeeper going walkabout, which was definitely not a pragmatic thing).
And as I’ve written all year long: the big man held up his end of the bargain, challenging for and winning more aerials than any player in any single season in the Opta database, which goes back to 2010.
With the switch in tactics came a switch to a 3-4-2-1 with two attackers underneath Benteke to win his knockdowns. And, for a while, it all worked.
But then it didn’t as Benteke went dry in front of goal and nobody was really able to pick up the slack. The midseason addition of young Brazilian Gabriel Pirani, on loan from Santos, signaled a shift back to more possession and into either a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2 diamond, but, uh, he wasn’t exactly prime Marco Etcheverry out there:
It’s hard to have much of an attack when your No. 10 is in the first percentile of expected assists and in the fifth percentile of shot-creating actions.
On Sept. 2, D.C. hosted Chicago. They were riding a three-game losing streak in the league, hadn’t scored more than two goals in a game in two months, and were looking at a six-pointer in the midst of a stretch in which they had five of six at home.
They controlled their own destiny, and this was the moment to pull it all together to make a run into the postseason.
Yeah, they smashed the hell out of the Fire. Benteke had a brace – his first goals since June 1 – and homegrown attacker Ted Ku-DiPietro was fantastic as the big man’s sidekick, grabbing one goal, forcing an own goal, and generally doing all the stuff you want to see out of a second forward.
They had the easiest remaining schedule of any of the East hopefuls. No way they could blow this.
They wouldn’t win again until their final game of the season, which proved to be too little, too late.
There were more games left to play, but that one felt like the end. And it kind of was.
Teddy KDP! The homegrown attacker had always been known as a very dribbly boy in his youth, and that has translated to MLS. He’s one of the league leaders in dribbles attempted and completed per 90, and he’s not just out there doing stepovers for the fun of it – he really moves the chains, especially when he’s lined up as a second forward in a front two rather than as a winger in a three.
He’s added some good box arrival and energetic defense to his attacking repertoire as well, which are nice building blocks. Plus he scores the occasional banger (another thing that’s translated from his youth days).
But what always held him back from being an elite prospect was his inability to break lines with his passing. He’s still not elite at it, but…
Yeah, man. This kid’s good. Write his name into the XI in ink for 2024.
Just a weird year. Nothing was truly catastrophic – other than Taxi, and good riddance to him – but almost everything came out as like a 40th percentile outcome or worse.
Five Players to Build Around
- Benteke (FW): He’s entering his mid-30s, but does not look like he’s lost a step.
- Ku-DiPietro (FW/W): Looks like a starting-caliber attacker to me. Pro-rate his numbers this year to 2,500 minutes and you get something like 12g/7a, which feels very achievable for 2024.
- Mateusz Klich (CM): Like Benteke, he’s entering his mid-30s. But he’s been a solid two-way player.
- Chris Durkin (CM): Has been useful everywhere he’s played this season, though I’m still not sure what his best spot is.
- Russell Canouse (DM): When fit, he’s been a solid defensive presence at the 6.
Here’s a reading from the press release that hit the inbox 20 minutes after the final whistle blew on D.C.’s season:
“We have spoken with Wayne and agreed it is best for us to part ways at this time. This decision creates the avenue for our next general manager to have the full opportunity to impart a new philosophy and structure onto our sporting operations, which begins with the critical identification of a head coach who will best align with this.”
That was from Jason Levien, the CEO and co-chairman of the club.
Notable here is Levien is clear about it being the new GM whose vision will be executed upon, not long-time club president Dave Kasper’s. The fans’ ire has turned toward Kasper in the wake of both another lost season and Ben Olsen’s success in Houston this year. There is a real hunger in the fanbase for a return to the glory days of at least the mid-2000s, if not the late ‘90s.
Whoever’s in charge needs to find a true, elite chance creator at the 10, and then retool the defense (homegrown center back Matai Akinmboni should be a big part of that next year, but I think it’d be unwise to count on more than, say, 1200 top-flight minutes out of a 17-year-old). They will have at least one DP slot open to do so, and some other resources as well.
This should be a playoff team next year.