MLS 2010 Season Preview: D.C. United

After a year of disappointments and an offseason full of change, D.C. United heads into the 2010 season in hopes of making the MLS playoffs for the first time since 2007.

The most decorated club in MLS is trying to recover from a disappointing past two seasons, which saw them miss the playoffs both times. The offseason ushered in plenty of changes, both at the top and on the field. With a new stadium looking unlikely and the fans becoming restless at the lack of success, 2010 will present an interesting year for the team in the nation’s capital.

Last Season: 2009 was nearly a carbon copy of 2008 for D.C. United. The lone difference was the trophy haul between the two years. In both seasons, United missed the MLS playoffs by failing to win on the last day. Okay, that is a bit too simplistic. They had struggles during each of the seasons. But, when all was said and done, all United needed on the last matchday in 2008 and 2009 was a win. And both times, they faltered.

In 2008 United hosted and won the U.S. Open Cup, as they defeated Charleston Battery 2-1 at RFK Stadium. In 2009, United again hosted the final. This time, their opponent was the newly formed Seattle Sounders FC. In response to Seattle’s disappointment at not hosting the final, United went out of their way to make sure everyone knew that they win trophies. United then went on to falter in the final, losing 2-1 and being thoroughly outplayed. As in 2008, 2009 saw D.C. fail to advance out of the group stages in the CONCACAF Champions League.

Dearly Departed: Where to begin? After three seasons, manager Tom Soehn was not brought back for the 2010 season. In his three years, he won two trophies – the 2007 Supporters’ Shield and the 2008 U.S. Open Cup. But he’ll be remembered for failing to make the playoffs each of his last two seasons in charge.

In the player department, United’s offseason was chock-full of change. Most importantly, team leader Ben Olsen retired and joined the coaching staff at United. Olsen enjoyed a productive career for United, having won six trophies in his time in the nation’s capital. But in the end, his ankle problems forced an early retirement.

D.C. also departed with three of their highly paid stars. Striker Luciano Emilio, who was a Designated Player in 2009, was offered a new contract that severely cut his wages. As such, Emilio, who had reached at least ten goals in each of his seasons at United, refused the pay cut and joined Rio Branco in his native Brazil.

Brazilian playmaker Fred was traded away right before the MLS SuperDraft. He had his ups and downs during his tenure in D.C., but was largely disappointing throughout much of 2009. In addition, D.C. did not offer a new contract to Christian Gomez. The Argentine was brought back to Washington D.C. in 2009 after playing in Colorado in 2008, but failed to play up to his own standards. He was frequently removed early from matches and was visibly frustrated at times near the end of the season. Midfielder Danny Szetela was waived after only starting one MLS game.

New Faces: At the top, D.C. brought in Curt Onalfo to replace Soehn as  manager. Onalfo was a player and then a manager for United in the late 90s and the early part of this century, before becoming an assistant for the United States national team. In 2007, he was hired as manager of Kansas City, but was eventually let go during the 2009 season, with the team failing to win a trophy in any of the three years.

One of the bigger names to join the club isn’t exactly a new face around RFK. With a trade just before the SuperDraft, United acquired the top spot in the allocation process – used to bring in ‘keeper Troy Perkins from Norway. Perkins played in D.C. with the Black-and-Red from 2004 to 2007, winning the honor of MLS Goalkeeper of the Year in 2006.

In an attempt to replace Emilio’s goals, D.C. United signed Australian international Danny Allsopp in January. The experienced frontman has played in Qatar, Australia, and England, and has scored goals wherever he has played.

Salvadorian winger Christian Castillo joined on loan from Mexican side Leon. USA fans might remember Castillo as he scored in both World Cup Qualifiers against the USA in 2009. He will bring to United bags of tricks and pace on the wings – something United has lacked for much of it’s history.

With their lone pick in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft, D.C. selected Jordan Graye in the fourth round from the University of North Carolina. Graye, a defender, played for D.C. United’s academy teams at various levels from 2001-2007.

Projected Starters:

Troy Perkins (GK) – An instant upgrade in goal after two years of instability following his departure in 2007.

Bryan Namoff (RB) – Has to recover from concussion problems, but is a solid contributor.

Dejan Jakovic (CB) – A revelation after joining last season, he will finally be paired with another centerback this season.

Julius James (CB) – Capable enough to form a decent partnership with Jakovic.

Rodney Wallace (LB) – Played midfield most of last season, but will be first choice at the beginning of the season with the long term injury to Marc Burch.

Brandon Barklage (RM) – One position that is up for grabs as of now, meaning Barklage will need to perform to hold off the others.

Clyde Simms (CM) – Injuries might slow him at the start of the season, but he’ll be back to protect the back four.

Santino Quaranta (CM) – a new position for Quaranta, he will be utilized as a two-way player. Expect him to create at one end and help out defensively at the other.

Christian Castillo (LM) – His job will be to create from the left, and his crossing ability will be crucial in looking for Allsopp and Pontius.

Danny Allsopp (ST) – The target man will be looked for his holdup play, as well as his goals.

Chris Pontius (ST) – Not his preferred position, but he will look to improve on his goal tally from last season.

Best of the Rest:

Jaime Moreno (ST) – Invaluable experience, will be used in spot duty.

Devon McTavish (DEF/MID) – The utility player could see minutes this season if injuries occur.

Bill Hamid (GK) – The 18-year-old won’t see much action this year, but plenty is being made of United’s first academy signing.

Season Storylines: With all the changes to the team in the offseason, will United be able to finally get back to the playoffs? And is there a chance that United will sign a recognized Designated Player after the World Cup? Most importantly to United fans, who will score the goals with the departure of Luciano Emilio?

It seems as if United has just as many questions going into this season as they had coming out of the last one. Some fans will be disappointed at the lack of MLS experience in signings that the team made, especially in the wake of the departure of four main components of years past.  The only position that was truly upgraded was goalkeeper. The team conceded too many goals last season to be a true contender. But, another defender might have been necessary, and the midfielder is seemingly lacking in terms.

With no Champions League to contend with, United will be able to fully focus on league play, which puts more pressure on them to reach the playoffs.

Predicted Placement: After the disappointment of 2008 and 2009, United fans will be looking to 2010 for a season worthy of United lore. Unfortunately, it looks like it will not pan out as such. United brought in a manager who failed to impress in MLS. Sure, he knows the D.C. expectations (having played and coached for United), but based on his past performance, he just doesn’t seem cut out to reach those lofty goals.

United’s squad seems to be lacking as well – at least in comparison to their closest competitors. There is no real depth in the midfield, and goals are going to have to come from all over. Without a true goal poacher such as Luciano Emilio, D.C. might struggle to find the back of the net this season.

Don’t expect another deep run in the US Open Cup. United won’t get as lucky again in hosting all the matches in D.C. In terms of MLS play, expect D.C. to fail to make the playoffs again, disappointing the fans once more.

Did You Know? Current manager Curt Onalfo was once a teammate of Jaime Moreno. Back in 1998 and 1999, both played for D.C. United, Moreno as a striker, and Curt as a defender.

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