WASHINGTON — For the better part of the past decade, D.C. United has played the MLS version of "Moneyball." Hunt for underappreciated talent. Be wary of overspending. Prioritize work ethic and chemistry in lieu of name recognition.
To the club's credit, that strategy has largely worked — to the tune of four postseason appearances over the past five years. But the limitations also have become readily apparent, with United winning just one playoff series in that time while also enduring a pair of woeful campaigns.
As United sits last in MLS, with a 5-14-4 record and league-worst minus-24 goal differential, there's plenty of reason for consternation. Yet the mood at RFK Stadium this week did not match that of a club mired in an 0-6-1 skid.
After sealing four additions — including club-record signing Paul Arriola — ahead of Wednesday's trade and transfer deadline, one could sense a change in the club's tenor. There was optimism, of course — along with a welcome spike in pressure.
"The burden is always there," United coach Ben Olsen said. "Does it heighten, maybe, the expectations? Hopefully. It's time for that. This is the start of that process, and it's exciting to again be in that arena and move forward with some new blood."
Since Olsen took over as coach in 2010, he and longtime general manager Dave Kasper have comprised United's brain trust. While there certainly have been shortfalls in that span, there also was an understanding they could only do so much as long as United hemorrhaged cash at dilapidated RFK Stadium.
But this past June — one year out from United's projected opener at Audi Field — Olsen and Kasper met with co-owners Erick Thohir and Jason Levien. With the opening of a soccer-specific stadium expected to produce new revenue streams, they discussed an uptick in investment.
Two months later, United shelled out more than $3 million to ink U.S. international Arriola from Club Tijuana. That move capped a busy week that also saw the club add Hungarian playmaker Zoltan Stieber, American defensive midfielder Russell Canouse and Bolivian forward Bruno Miranda.
For the first time in a long while, United has a truly enticing pitch for incoming players — more than enough to make them forget about the club's current woes.
"People say it's been a rough season, but look, in the past years they've been to the playoffs four out of five times," Arriola said. "In Mexico, each season if it's five games you lose then the coach is out and everyone's freaking out about being relegated and things like that. Here I think no one should feel the pressure, especially with the new players that we have."
Canouse added: "I was pleased with what D.C. United put forth. The new stadium coming in, the development of the club — I wanted to be a part of it."
It's worth noting Arriola and Canouse are both 22 years old. Miranda is just 19. Stieber, at 28, is the elder statesman of the group. Capitalizing on the league's influx of general allocation money (GAM) and targeted allocation money (TAM), the D.C. front office put those resources to good use in building a core for the Audi Field era.
"Thanks to our friends GAM and TAM, you can be more strategic and think maybe a little longer term with your investment," Kasper said. "The main focus worldwide is to get younger players who can grow with the club, who are not the finished product, who have a ways to go, who can become a real asset down the line. That's the way our league is going right now."
At long last, United is keeping up with modern spending in MLS. As marquee players arrive, the caveats depart. Considered something an MLS has-been, United will soon boast a pricey new facility and reloaded roster — key ingredients for a modern contender.
"We want to put together the best team possible, the most talented, the most committed, the deepest group possible," Olsen said. "As we look forward, the league is changing. It's getting bigger, faster, stronger. There's more quality coming in, there's more money coming in.
"We certainly are, I think, in the short term and long term going to start catching up to being a very competitive team in this league."
While Arriola was right to temper short-term expectations, with United 13 points out of a playoff spot, next season will represent a shift in how the club is evaluated.
Once 2018 kicks off, treading water will no longer be good enough. The time has come for United — a four-time champion — to compete for MLS Cup titles once more.