D.C. United named Curt Onalfo as its new head coach on Monday. The appointment leaves both club and coach with a few questions to answer, writes Kyle McCarthy.
D.C. United completed its thorough and circuitous search for Tom Soehn's replacement on Monday morning by naming former Kansas City boss Curt Onalfo as its new head coach.
“This has been a lengthy process but at the end of it we believe Curt Onalfo will be an outstanding leader for D.C. United,” United president and CEO Kevin Payne said in a statement released by the team.
Payne also called Onalfo the “ideal choice,” though it remains notable that the former Wizards coach was not the first option at any point up until his selection. D.C. pushed hard for Akron head coach Caleb Porter, but Porter turned down United's overtures. With former United midfielder Richie Williams seemingly a poor fit for D.C.'s attacking philosophy and a foreign manager always an outside choice given the circumstances, Onalfo represented the logical next step.
In many ways, Onalfo is the perfect fit for the gig. The Virginia graduate played two seasons with United (1998-1999) and spent a further three seasons at R.F.K. Stadium as an assistant coach and director of youth development (2000-2002). Despite evidence to the contrary during his time in Kansas City, Onalfo prefers an attacking, possession-oriented brand of soccer that dovetails nicely with how United likes to play. The substantial ties to Bruce Arena and the Spanish language skills don't hurt either.
The factors that make this selection a natural one also raise significant questions about why United hesitated for 54 days to pick Onalfo in the first place. Was Porter such an enticing prospect to throw the timeline off all by himself? What were the hangups that didn't make Onalfo the choice from the start? Those questions are likely to remain unanswered, but they do present the rather uncomfortable scenario that United settled for Onalfo.
United's fan base appears just as reluctant if its lukewarm embrace of the appointment is any indication. Onalfo's status as a recycled option ranks among the chief concerns, though his work with Wizards deserves more credit than it has received. Onalfo guided Kansas City to two playoff appearances in his two-and-a-half seasons at the helm, but the Wizards unraveled considerably in 2009 with an extended scoring drought and a lengthy run of poor results leading to Onalfo's sacking this summer. United fans, needless to say, were expecting a sexier appointment, one that didn't smack of recent failure.
United general manager Dave Kasper, Onalfo and Payne will have to make significant strides toward United's fifth MLS Cup in order to persuade the skeptics. Onalfo has more talent at his disposal now than he had during his stint in Kansas City, but United's roster needs significant improvements across the board in order to contend for a title. Improving the attacking options – Luciano Emilio and Christian Gomez should probably make way for others based upon their 2009 performances while Jaime Moreno simply isn't a 90-minute player these days – and bolstering a shoddy defensive core must take precedence on a lengthy list of offseason tasks to accomplish. Signing Salvadoran international winger Cristian Castillo is a nice start, however.
Onalfo must learn from his time in Kansas City and apply those lessons to this high-profile challenge. His knowledge, his track record and his experience indicate he possesses the tools to lead United back to the playoffs. The question remains whether Onalfo can smooth out the rough edges in his style – the personality conflicts and the tinkering tendency, to name but two – to guide United further.
Time will tell whether Onalfo's appointment deserved the skepticism it encountered. For one day at least, his arrival represents progress even amid the questioning chatter.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for
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