Picture this: One year, a club puts together the best regular-season performance in its league with a 16-7-7 record, thus winning a major trophy, only to swiftly revamp the roster with a flurry of foreign signings meant to boost its prospects in international competition.
This approach backfires as overseas glory remains elusive, while the club's domestic fortunes founder on the rocks of a dispiriting 11-15-4 campaign. But management does not clean house, instead signing several of the mainstays from that season of struggle to new contracts with an eye towards securing the squad's foundation for the foreseeable future.
At first glance, D.C. United seem to have gotten it backwards. But the capital club is bullish about the core of young U.S. talent it has built in recent seasons, and remains confident that securing familiar incumbents like Marc Burch, Santino Quaranta, Clyde Simms, Bryan Namoff and most recently, Devon McTavish, can help lead a resurgence in 2009.
"We went through a lot of adversity last year," explained head coach Tom Soehn last week. "So many things that could've gone wrong that went wrong, [like] scheduling -- there were so many things that could've really deteriorated this group and even at the end when we were still out guys, the group really came together. I think we finished on a real positive and a real hunger to get back to work the following year."
The returning players seem similarly optimistic. Simms constituted the heart of United's midfield over the past two seasons, and he acknowledges that he passed up several intriguing trial opportunities in Europe -- two with teams in the Championship (England's second division) and one in the Danish first division -- in order to re-sign with the Black-and-Red.
"I thought about it a lot," said Simms, "and it was the right amount of money and security [with United]. Another thing is, I have a good situation here. I think a lot of guys go from team to team looking for a good situation, for things like playing time, enjoying where they're living. I've obviously had the playing time and I love D.C."
A onetime United misfit who resuscitated his career with a strong 2008, Quaranta was glad to see his club emphasize stability this winter, starting with the decision to retain Soehn for a third year in charge.
"Once you go into an offseason again making wholesale changes, first off it shows that you don't have a whole lot of confidence in the guys that you have," said the Baltimore native. "When you go in making changes and there's, again, a whole different mix of players, it takes a while. It just shows that it wasn't really the locker room that was a problem, I think it was a lot of the adversity and the stuff that we went through as a team."
Defense was surely United's area of greatest frustration last year. South American imports Gonzalo Peralta and Gonzalo Martinez did not click as a center back pairing and Peruvian goalkeeper Jose Carvallo failed to mount a challenge for the starting spot. Peralta has already returned home on a one-year loan to Argentinian second-division side Union Santa Fe, while Martinez's 2009 destination remains unclear.
"We had a pretty solid team before  started, then they changed up and brought in some more guys to help our experience for the international tournaments," said Burch, who spent much of last season at central defense but hopes to make the left back spot his own in '09. "It was a big change bringing in those two guys, even though they were good athletes, good players. It was just a big change for us, and it was tough to get adjusted, tough to learn each other's style and how to help each other."
Burch and McTavish endured their own ups and downs, but proved themselves reliable options down the stretch while loan signing Greg Janicki won a permanent move with some capable late-season displays. Along with Namoff, they will be relied upon for an improved rearguard this year, though D.C. is reportedly searching for a foreign defender as well.
At the attacking end, United's experienced international contingent will again bear a heavy load, as 30-somethings Jaime Moreno and Luciano Emilio likely remain Soehn's first-choice strikers. But general manager Dave Kasper maintains that the club remains active on the international transfer market and D.C. seem to have narrowly missed out on Walter Martinez, the promising Honduran striker now rumored to be headed to Europe, while other foreign players are expected to join the team on trial in the weeks ahead.
But for the time being, it looks as though familiar faces will make up the spine of Soehn's squad -- and that's welcome news to a group eager to redeem themselves after last year's trauma.
"It was just a couple pieces that we had to have. So by them showing confidence in the players, I think in turn the players are going to fight for them again," said Quaranta. "You just have to have depth at every position, because you know you've got your main guys that are going to be your players that you depend on during the year -- that's just the reality, that's the way the league is set up -- you [also] have to have guys that can step in and do the job. I don't think we had that last year."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.