Thursday, September 23, 2010

What's Wrong With DC United?

Despite being the most decorated team in the league, and despite sustaining a fairly high level of match attendance, DC United has fallen on hard times.  Beginning with the fact that the veteran core of the championship teams of the past are now either retired or on the verge of doing so, the inexorable mathematics of sports has generated the miserable results that United has endured lately.  Compounding this trajectory were several bad personnel decisions, which have contributed to the current debacle.  As of the date of this post, DC United has the worst record in the MLS.
Starting in goal and moving forward, United hasn’t has a decent goalkeeper since 2006 Goalkeeper of the Year Troy Perkins left the team in 2007.  In a bid to replace him, United sent MLS Defender of the year Bobby Boswell to Houston for keeper Zach Wells, whose subsequent performance betrayed which club got the better deal.  Louis Crayton’s backup performance in goal was adequate until his injury, but the play of journeyman Josh Wicks and rookie Milos Kocic has been at best a holding measure.  Josh Wicks in particular has anger control issues that have cost the team both red and yellow cards in the past, so for now, United has no real ‘franchise’ goalkeeper.
DC United’s back line is also in disarray.  A rotating cast comprised of Carey Talley, Devon McTavish and Clyde Simms has been deployed at right back, mostly because of the injury of Bryan Namoff, with Dejan Jakovic and Juan Manuel Pena in the middle.  Only Rodney Wallace has been a steady presence at left back.  United clearly needs to stabilize this situation.
In the midfield, the retirement of steady veteran Ben Olsen has clearly hurt the club.  Clyde Simms is a fine defending midfielder but the club clearly needs the offensive creativity that Olsen brought to the pitch.  Julius James has shown flashes of brilliance this year, but the Trinidad & Tobago midfielder has yet to hit his full professional stride.  If and when he does, United will finally have someone to fill Olsen’s boots, but not yet.
On the attack, the loss of Brazilian star Fred, team goal leader Luciano Emilio, and also Christian Gomez, has reduced the team’s offensive firepower.  Using Santino Quaranta in the midfield role takes him out of the right wing spot where he seems to play best, which puts the offensive load squarely on veteran Jaime Moreno.  Although Moreno is one of the greatest players in the history of the MLS, asking him at the end of his illustrious career to carry this load is unconscionable, and anyway at his age the careful management of his playing minutes will necessarily mitigate his scoring.  It’s a crying shame to see a champion like Moreno having to endure this grief.
As for the teams coaching, I don’t know if interim head coach Ben Olsen is the right man for the job.  His long and successful career with United makes him a sentimental favorite for replacing dismissed coach Curt Onalfo, but United’s troubles are so deep right now, that this is hardly the ideal place for a rookie coach.  I fear we need a more experienced hand at the tiller just now.
As a final consideration, it may be worth noting that the team has not done very well since concluding the Volkswagen sponsorship deal.  Seeing United on the pitch with the VW logo blazoned on their jersey, somehow makes the team feel different than the side that wore the old three-stripe black jerseys and won all those championships.  Though it may be illogical, I wonder if there is not some visual-psychological aspect to the change that is affecting the team.  I vote for bringing back the three stripe jersey of the champions, and losing the VW logo, or at least making it waaay smaller.
Despite all this grim news, not all is lost.  Chris Pontius may not be an ideal striker but his versatility is much appreciated, and Salvadoran Cristian Castillo is a genuine talent who can light things up for United once he hits his stride.  If United can settle the goalkeeping position and the back line, players like Wallace, Simms, James, Quaranta and Pontius will have time to gel as a unit.  Ad to this the promising crop of up-and-coming developmental talent, particularly young Andy Najar, and the resulting picture has a distinct aura of hope.
Will DC United eventually return to its rightful place as the premier team in the league?  I think it will, but it might take a few seasons to turn this ship around.  The first big step will be in selecting the right new head coach to lead the team.  Let’s hope management chooses wisely.