EDITOR'S NOTE: Before you know it, February 29 will be here. That's the kickoff to the 25th season in Major League Soccer history and we're getting you ready for the 2020 campaign with the stories, personalities and questions that will leave their mark on the season to come.
I’ll come right out and say it: The trajectory of D.C. United’s season was for me one of the biggest disappointments in MLS last year.
What we all thought would be an extended Wayne Rooney era in the U.S. capital started with a bang in the second half of 2018. A year ago they roared out of the gates in corresponding fashion, starting the league campaign on a 7-3-2 run and topping the Eastern Conference table. Highlights included a methodical 2-0 win over then-champions Atlanta United on opening night and a 5-0 whipping of Real Salt Lake.
The picture was quite different by the time the dog days of summer hit, however. Rooney’s premature return to England had coalesced out of nowhere, and it coincided with the club's slow-motion falling-out with his erstwhile “Luchoroo” partner Luciano Acosta. Meanwhile the team labored to keep pace in the standings. D.C.’s two most unique and talented players were suddenly shadows of their former selves, drifting towards the exit in midstream.
What was once a dark-horse MLS Cup contender faced a very real danger of missing the playoffs entirely. So Ben Olsen did what many coaches would do in such a spot: He turned to Steve Birnbaum, Frederic Brillant and the rest of his dependable backline and battened down the hatches, becoming a tough nut to crack but abandoning the quicksilver attacking chemistry that made United such a blast when on song.
We can argue all day about whether he could or should have taken other options. Aesthetics lose out to effectiveness all the time, though, and it did get them to the postseason, where they took eventual East winners Toronto FC to extratime in Round 1 before it all came crashing down.
All this left Olsen and GM Dave Kasper with plenty of work to do over the winter, not only in terms of reinforcements but also identity. They’ve gone for something more like evolution than revolution.
Bill Hamid’s permanent transfer was secured, and Brillant inked a new deal. Big moves for Edison Flores and Julian Gressel and the belated return of Yamil Asad have replenished the band of three in what I expect to be a 4-2-3-1 team more often than not.
While none of them are remotely Rooney-level replacements, hardly anyone on earth could be, especially not on the type of incentive-driven contract the English legend accepted to move to the DMV. And that might actually prove a liberating factor for this group, which also still has room for fresh blood should Kasper get further deals done in the coming months.
My colleague Matthew Doyle refers to this edition of the Black-and-Red as “a very straight-forward team,” and it’s true that classic Olsenian attributes like work rate, organization and intensity will undergird D.C.’s ambitions in 2020. But the front four – aside from a lack of cover behind the No. 9 Ola Kamara – looks surprisingly deep and diverse, with multiple figures capable of filling multiple roles, and enough youth and athleticism to press high and try to dictate terms if the coaching staff wishes it.
The wild card at Audi Field this year: The kids. Homegrowns Griffin Yow, Moses Nyeman and Kevin Paredes are wet behind the ears and figure to start the year racking up USL Championship minutes at Loudoun United. All are youth international-caliber talents, however, and if even just one of them pushes up the schedule and makes an impact with the first team this season, it could provide a decisive boost.