Stejskal: After 2018 turnaround, Kasper plots DC United's path to trophies

D.C. United are in the beginning stages of a new era, one with a new stadium, a new star and, for the first time in a long time, new hopes of consistently contending with the MLS elite.

For most of the last decade, D.C. were limited in how they could build their roster. Stuck in a difficult situation at RFK Stadium, they regularly ranked near the bottom of the league in first-team payroll and maintained a modest technical staff.

They still had some success, making the playoffs in three straight years from 2014-2016, but it was difficult to sustain. D.C. didn’t advance beyond the Eastern Conference Semifinals in any of those three postseason runs and were never considered to have one of the better rosters in MLS during that stretch, a point driven home by their miserable regular-season campaigns in 2013 and 2017.

Now, after a 2018 in which they opened Audi Field, signed Wayne Rooney and went on a second-half tear to rise to fourth in the East before losing a dramatic Knockout Round shootout to Columbus Crew SC, they feel like they’re on the verge of something bigger.

“We feel like our starting points are very good moving into next year compared with years past,” United GM Dave Kasper told MLSsoccer.com this week.

It didn’t manifest on the field until the back-end of this season, but D.C.’s shift began in the summer of 2017. With the opening of Audi Field on the horizon, ownership empowered Kasper to go out and make a few big moves. He obliged, signing U.S. men’s national teamer Paul Arriola to a Designated Player contract, bringing former U.S. youth international Russell Canouse back to the States after an extended stint in Germany and adding Hungarian international Zoltan Stieber.

Acquiring the trio wasn’t enough to prevent D.C. from finishing last in the East in 2017, but the moves did set the table for an impactful 2017-18 offseason. United over the winter added Junior MorenoJoseph Mora and Yamil Asad, all of whom played major roles in D.C.’s late-season surge. Landing Rooney in the summer took them to a different level, with the Englishman recording 12 goals and seven assists as United went 12-4-4 and outscored their opponents 37-21 in his 20 appearances.

As they look toward 2019, D.C. can realistically expect to challenge in the East. Rooney, Arriola, Canouse, Asad (who D.C. are working to retain following the expiration of his loan from Argentine club Velez Sarsfield), Moreno, Mora, star playmaker Luciano Acosta, center back Steve Birnbaum, goalkeeper Bill Hamid and 18-year-old defensive midfielder Chris Durkin give United an exciting, young core to build around over the next few years.

“Certainly, with the average age of the core of our roster, there’s up to eight starters under the age of 25, so there’s room to grow with a lot of these players as they enter into the prime of their careers,” said Kasper. “We feel that tactically we can continue to take steps forward with this group. We feel that a key point of emphasis next year will be tactical flexibility, now that we have sort of the core and our identity re-established, we can take steps further with having more tactical flexibility to change during the game, to play on the road, play different systems depending on different opponents.”

D.C.’s improved roster dovetails nicely with the much-needed infrastructure investments currently being made by the club. United are scheduled to open a new training facility in suburban Loudoun County next summer, and their new USL team, Loudoun United FC, will begin play and open their own stadium next year. The additions level the playing field a bit for D.C., who had long lagged behind the rest of MLS in facilities and in their player development pathway.

“The infrastructure investment is key, and we see that with a modern training facility, we’ve seen the investment in USL, what that’s doing for clubs. That’s obviously a key part of our strategic investment,” said Kasper. “The infrastructure, those things will help us get back to the days where we were top in the league on a consistent basis.”

Not that there aren’t questions to answer. Kasper wants to make impact signings at both center and right back, and said the club will target young international talent who, similar to Acosta when he was acquired in 2016, are either out of favor or face positional logjams at their current clubs.

In addition to sorting out Asad’s status, Kasper also has to navigate contract questions for Acosta and head coach Ben Olsen, both of whom are entering the final year of their deals.

Kasper said that the team expects to open negotiations about an extension with Acosta in the coming weeks. The 24-year-old Argentine had 10 goals and 17 assists in 2018 and, according to the MLS Players Association, made $652,000 last season.

Olsen’s status isn’t as clear. Kasper said the club’s brass and Olsen thought it best to decompress a bit after the season before deciding how to approach the United legend’s contract, and the GM doesn’t yet know whether the parties will attempt to hammer out an extension this winter or if they’ll enter 2019 with Olsen remaining on his current deal.

“We’ve taken a step back from the season, from the playoff game and we will have those discussions in the next month,” he said.

Regardless of what the club and Olsen decide upon, this winter is one of genuine hope for United. The smoke-and-mirrors success of the past half-decade looks like it could be on its way out, replaced by consistency, optimism and raised expectations in D.C.

A few more notes...

  • Durkin has drawn plenty of attention from Europe over the past year, with The Washington Post’s Steve Goff reporting earlier this month that “multiple European clubs” were interested in the 18-year-old Homegrown. “He’s going to generate interest and that interest is only going to grow,” Kasper said of Durkin, who has reportedly drawn the eye of Benfica and Hannover in the past. “We have not received anything concrete, but there’s been some discussions. I know that he does want to play in Europe someday, so that’s a great goal for him, and we’ve said to Chris that we just want to make sure it’s a win-win for everybody.” Durkin, who played in 23 regular-season games in 2018 and made MLSsoccer.com's 22 Under 22 list, will likely be on the U.S. roster at next summer’s U-20 World Cup.
  • Kasper thinks the club and Darren Mattocks are “both going to move on” in 2019. The out of contract Jamaican forward scored 10 goals in 25 appearances for United in 2018, but saw his playing time drop significantly after Rooney arrived. Kasper anticipated that the 28-year-old, who is not eligible for MLS free agency, would draw some overseas interest. Midfielder Ian Harkes also looks set to leave the club this winter, as Goff reported on Tuesday. United announced they’d declined his option on Wednesday.
  • D.C. declined their contract option on longtime defender/midfielder Nick DeLeon, but Kasper said the club is open to bringing him back in 2019. DeLeon, who made $275,000 in 2018, has only appeared in 34 regular season games over the last two years due to a series of injuries. “We value Nick a great deal. The question is his durability in his knee, it’s actually both knees,” said Kasper. “If there’s a number that makes sense for both parties, certainly we’ll be happy to do that, the question is can we arrive at that number?”
  • D.C. are monitoring the recovery of injured defenders Oniel Fisher and Kofi Opare as they weigh bringing them back in 2019. Fisher, who performed well at right back before tearing his ACL on Sept. 29, is out of contract. Kasper said the club “would like to re-sign Oniel, but it’s not easy re-signing a guy that’s going to be out for 10 months. We’re trying to be creative with him, but we do value him and we feel he’s going to be back in the field, so hopefully we can get something done.” Opare underwent foot surgery in October that will keep him out for 4-5 months. D.C. did not pick up his option, but Kasper said they’ll “see where we’re at with our search for another center back and look at [Opare’s] situation in January.”
  • Kasper said D.C. are currently in the process of interviewing head coaching candidates for Loudoun United, and said that the club hopes to have a hire in place sometime around the end of December or early January. He said the USL side will feature a mix of academy talent, young first-teamers struggling for MLS minutes, international signings and veterans, with an emphasis “heavily shifted towards player development.” He also confirmed that the club has added former Real Salt Lake technical director Dane Murphy to a similar position in their front office, a move that had been widely reported but not yet confirmed by D.C.
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