The Black and Red head into the 2011 season with a very different look than last year. After the most dismal MLS season ever and three years removed from the playoffs, DC United appear to have stopped, taken a look around and decided that instead of trying to reload and shoot for the moon on a shaky foundation, it would be better to address the foundational problems. So, even though you will not hear Ben Olsen, Dave Kasper or Kevin Payne say it, 2011 is a rebuilding year and any success that occurs this year will be gravy.
Some evidence of that is pretty obvious. DC divested itself of some pretty old players, legend Jaime Moreno, and Luciano Emilio. DC released players like Danny Alsop and traded guys like Adam Christman. It is not that these men were bad players, just not what DC United needed.
Just take a look at the average age of the current roster: 24.1 years. There are six players age 20 or younger (Junior Carreiro, Bill Hamid, Perry Kitchen, Andy Najar, Conor Shanosky and Ethan White and just four players aged 28 and above (Branko Boskovic(30), Joseph Ngwenya (29), Clyde Simms(28) and Josh Wolff(33)). There are another 8 players between the ages of 21 and 25. DC United has gone younger, but in doing so, they have not necessarily sacrificed quality.
Even DC United themselves have stated they are looking for a new identity and it appears that young is that identity. But looking deeper at the squad assembled thus far, there is something else that we have not seen in the past several years--more ball control players and more speed.
Players like Dax McCarty and Perry Kitchen excel at holding the ball and spraying around passes to spark something. Guys like Andy Najar, Josh Wolff, Rodrigo Brasesco and Branko Boskovic excell at going at defenders and making them work. You still have guys like Kitchen, Clyde Simms and Stephen King who can do the dirty work in the defensive midfield slot, protecting the defenders, but can also transition into attack with the ball. It seems apparent that Olsen and the front office are looking to build a team that can be like DC United used to be, ball control, movement and passing. DC United may never rival Barcelona in that department, but it is something that few MLS teams do with any kind of consistency.
But there are finally some smart moves by the DC United front office, or at least it looks that way. The selection of Perry Kitchen with the 3rd pick overall is not only selecting a quality player, but also a Generation Adidas player who is going to be gone for long stretches this year and thus will not be graduating from the GA program, thus, Kitchen's salary won't count against the salary cap this year or next. Kitchen will also be getting a lot of international experience in the U20 World Cup Qualifying and/or World Cup this year. Assuming the US qualifies for the U20 World Cup, Kitchen will be mostly gone until August and may come back at a time when DC United will need some freshness.
The current unsigned draft picks, Blake Brettschneider, Chris Korb and Joe Willis are not quite flyers and might make the team and Willis is the most likely player of the three to make the squad, but they are low risk. If they work out, great, but if they don't DC United might have as many as two or three open spots. Under MLS rules, if DC United starts the season with an open slot, they get $45,000 in allocation money per open slot and anyone signed after the roster deadline does not count fully against the salary cap.
So maybe DC United is playing a little smarter, going younger (and cheaper), maximizing the salary cap room and playing the rules. DC United is likely looking at a second designated player to come in as a striker. Olsen has hinted as much. What DC United lack is a goal scorer. Wolff might chip in with 8-10 goals and Ngwenya possible 3 or 4. If Chris Pontius is healthy, he might be good for 4-5 and Andy Najar bagged five last year. But that is not going to be enough in the long run. A young scorer, something similar to Freddy Montero, is probably what DC is looking for. With some salary cap room, DC United might be able to bag a DP quality player but pay down the salary for a smaller cap hit.
While optimism reigns in preseason, the only question I have to ask is: what formation and tactics is Olsen going to take and who will play where? But that is a topic for another post.
To be sure, a younger, quicker, ball control team is what Olsen and Payne have been trying to put together. I think they have succeeded in part.