D.C. United approach the 2018 season having already added young midfielders from Costa Rica and Venezuela, two nations MLS sides have recently mined en masse for talent.
Still, the biggest potential for growth on United’s current roster remains on the boots of Luciano Acosta, the Argentine playmaker who faces a defining season.
The 23-year-old has been one of the league's most enigmatic South American imports in his first two years in MLS.
At times, he appears to dazzle even his teammates with qualities matched by perhaps only a dozen contemporaries in the league. At others, he barely appears in the run of play at all. And in terms of outright production, he defied conventional wisdom last year and regressed in his second MLS season.
Yet as D.C. approach a season that includes the long-awaited arrival of a new stadium and the lingering memories of a last-place finish in the Eastern Conference, they remain all in on Lucho in Year 3. Just look at the last two transfer windows, when GM Dave Kasper invested most of the club’s resources into the four midfield positions – including the Costa Rican Ulises Segura and Venezuelan Junior Moreno – surrounding Acosta’s No. 10 role.
“I certainly think he can put himself among some of the best young attackers in this league. He hasn’t done it yet,” head coach Ben Olsen said of Acosta Thursday on a conference call. “He’s an absolute joy to watch at times. But my challenge to him this year is to really take his game to the next level and put himself into the conversation with some of the best attackers in this league. And I think he’ll rise to it.”
In fairness to Acosta, very few truly transformational imports have done their damage so young. Of the league’s MVP finalists in 2017, only Atlanta’s Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez were close to Acosta’s age, with everyone else in the field now 30 or older.
With a wife and two young children, Acosta’s off-the-field challenges are perhaps more involved than the average player his age.
“I think later in the year and this offseason, [they] really transitioned into enjoying their life outside of soccer in the United States, which is a huge component,” Olsen said. “Whether you’re 21 or 30. How you’re assimilating to life outside of soccer, especially with a family, is a big part of this.”
And United still lack a striker with a double-digit goals pedigree. Olsen is hopeful the competition between Patrick Mullins, Darren Mattocks and potentially a third, yet-to-be-signed forward will bring a breakout season for one of them.
“Everybody in this group, they want to prove something,” Olsen said. “Whether it’s guys that have been around last year and want to get the results to show that [that] was a one off, [or] whether it is new guys that are coming in.”