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Walsh’s Word: Back in Black (and Red)

By Pat Walsh

Apparently you can return home again. At least, that’s what D.C. United is hoping now that they have re-acquired their former talisman, Christian Gomez.

Just over one year after the former MLS MVP was sent packing by the Black-and-Red, he now returns to fill a hole vacated by the man he was pushed out of town to accommodate, Marcelo Gallardo. As the team’s highest ever paid player, the disappointment of Gallardo’s brief stint was nearly as big as his $1.5 million salary.

The replacement Argentine never gelled with United’s attack as the side missed the darting runs of Gomez while Gallardo preferred to sit deep and spray passes around. Add to that a multitude of injuries that only allowed him to see time in half of the league games and the 4 goal, 3 assist stat line reinforces the point that bringing in the former PSG man was not the right decision.

Which begs a question. Should have Gallardo been acquired in the first place?

It says something of United’s cachet that winning back-to-back Supporters’ Shields was not enough. The front office determined that they wanted to add to their collection of MLS Cups, as well as improve themselves in international competition. It’s a bold move that MLS had only seen previously when Sigi Schmid was fired by Los Angeles in 2004 while the Galaxy were in first place.

Unfortunately for United, the immediate returns were nearly as dismal as the Galaxy’s. D.C did win its second U.S. Open Cup, but Gallardo only saw ten minutes of action in that competition, and those came at the end of the final when the Dewar Cup was already United’s. Otherwise, it was a miserable year in terms of results. The team missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and could not advance out of the group stage of either SuperLiga or Champions League, losing eight of nine games in those competitions.

Looking at the results, it can be easily argued that Gallardo and the rest of United's South American contingent -- none of whom will be back this year, unless a remarkable turnaround occurs for Gonzalo Martinez -- should have never set foot in RFK. However, much like love, isn’t it better in soccer to have tried and lost than not tried at all?

And that brings us back to the return of Gomez. Surely the Screaming Eagles and Barra Brava are already working on signs to welcome home the prodigal son. They will bring up the similarities of how Jaime Moreno left for a year and came back to lead the team to an MLS Cup in 2004. Of course, that was a run that was bolstered by the addition of Gomez that summer.

The hitch is that United is weaker now than they were during Gomez’s previous stint. The goalkeeper spot is Luis Crayton’s to lose now that Zach Wells is set to retire and only rookie Milos Kocic will press the Liberian for playing time, but Crayton is a step down from Troy Perkins. Add to that a backline that will be without the two Gonzalos -- Martinez and Peralta -- who, for better or worse, were more experienced than their current options and not converted from another position.

Therefore, United may look similar to the Galaxy last season. Unless they sign a veteran defender -- paging Gregg Berhalter? -- D.C. will have to rely on its aging attack to out score opponents. And we all saw how that worked for Los Angeles last season.

The bigger point, though, is what this says about the front office of United. It’s admirable to push the chips in and say that the Supporters’ Shields weren’t enough. MLS needs more clubs to not be content with relative mediocrity. But isn’t that right back where United is now?

As a quick aside, let’s look at how United’s front office did in the back and forth with Colorado. The Designated Player slot was exchanged in both trades making it irrelevant. D.C. received a first round pick in this past year’s draft, one of the deepest in recent history, while sending back a second round in next year’s draft giving the Black-and-Red a slight edge. United also sent Ivan Guerrero, who made 13 starts -- nearly as many as Gallardo for those scoring at home -- last season, to Colorado, diminishing D.C.’s depth as the Honduran is versatile and would have given head coach Tom Soehn options coming off the bench.

Money then becomes the key factory. Colorado sent “other considerations” to D.C. last year and will likely be forced to pick up part of Gomez’s contract this season. However, last year Gallardo was paid about $1.1 million more than his compatriot. Furthermore, United reportedly coughed up over seven figures of transfer fees to acquire their South American contingent. D.C. may have come out slightly ahead in the two trades, if Chris Pontius, chosen with that first rounder, pans out. Yet by spending over $2 million to be continually disappointed in 2008 makes United the overall (expensive) losers in these transactions.

By bringing back Gomez, United are effectively taking a mulligan on 2008 and trying to revert to their ‘07 form. Unlike Gallardo’s immersion into the team, there should not be a feeling out period to the start of the season thanks to the familiarity of Gomez. That should negate a slow start, which effectively doomed United’s playoff chances.

Though familiarity is there, age is not on their side. Moreno is 35 and Gomez will hit turn that same age prior to MLS Cup, should D.C. advance to the playoffs. Adding U.S. Open Cup games and Champions League again in the fall and United could be looking at 40 games or more this season depending on if they are able to advance, not the most favorable of circumstances for the long-in-the-tooth attack.

Now fans at RFK will be forced to wonder what could have been in 2008 had the Gallardo experiment not taken place. Time is short for this group to succeed, meaning this is the last time the band gets back together. Should it fail, which it will with the current defense, Gomez won’t be the only one heading out of town this time.

 Pat Walsh covers Major League Soccer for