April 23, 2014

D.C. United Analysis: Eight thoughts on the 2013 season

As much as many fans, and maybe even the organization itself, wants to forget large parts of the 2013 Major League Soccer season, the time is upon us to review it and try and figure out just what happened.

It was a weird year that saw United finish as one of the worst clubs in MLS history, going 3-24-7, for just 16 points, dead last in the league by a good bit. But in 2013, United also won the U.S. Open Cup for the third time in its history, earning a bid into the 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League in the process.

In some sense, as Dickens once famously wrote, it was the best of times and it was the worst of times. United were indeed a tale of two teams – one couldn’t get out of its own way through 34 league matches; the other was an unstoppable force on its way to a trophy.

Common sense might lead some to suggest that the real answer for what United was in 2013 lies somewhere in between those two extremes. But that would be to assume that we saw equal amounts of the good and the bad. We most certainly did not. The Open Cup was perhaps a five-game mirage in a shocking season of sorry soccer that left many fans shaking their heads, calling for change, and remembering just how long it has now been since United last lifted MLS Cup in 2004.

In no particular order, here are some thoughts to sum up the 2013 season … the good, the bad, and the ugly (and we saw a lot of the latter) for United.

1) United has more questions than answers, from the very top on down. From the owners to the players and everyone in between, this won’t be an easy offseason. Questions about Managing Partner Erick Thohir’s focus are in play after his commitment to buying a 70% share of Inter Milan and recently being named club President, according to SBNation.  He, fellow investor Jason Levien, and long-time investor/operator Will Chang have to continue their work with the city for the stadium project at Buzzard Point – which, according to The City Paper, has already missed a deadline.

They also must decide if they are definitely retaining General Manager Dave Kasper and Head Coach Ben Olsen. Kasper has been with the club in some capacity since 2002, while Olsen first played for the club in 1998, and basically has been in the United family his entire adult life. Is he the coach who took United to the 2012 Eastern Conference final? Is he the coach who went 3-24-7? What is the middle ground and should ownership keep him around to find out?

Kasper has had at least a hand in shaping the roster for 11 years now. In that time, United have won one MLS Cup, two Supporters Shields, and two Open Cups. But United have also finished dead last in MLS three times in that span – twice recently (2010, 2013), when the league has had more teams, including recent expansion clubs. Is he the right person to construct the roster during a complete rebuild?

2) Build from the back. If you build a soccer team from the goalkeeper out, United have at least a good start with Bill Hamid and Joe Willis. Yes, on occasion, both goalkeepers gave up bad goals this season, but on a team where mistakes were the norm – especially defensively – it’s kind of hard to expect the goalkeepers to be immune from that. Both, however, also made great saves and kept United at least competitive in many games, even if they didn’t end up winning them. Hamid has earned consideration for the U.S. National Team, while Willis backstopped D.C. in every Open Cup match until the final, giving up just two goals and winning a penalty shootout vs. lower-division Richmond in the first round.

Willis is 25, Hamid just 22. With Andrew Dykstra (27) also in the system, United is well set if it decides to keep both Hamid and Willis, or use one as an asset to acquire player(s) at other positions.

3) Ah, but then there’s that defense. Ugh, the defense. The group that filled fans with woe, made them shout, “Oh no!,” and made mistakes that led to goals for foes. Whether it was poor marking (or no marking at all) on free kicks and corner kicks, or getting beaten one-on-one by speed and/or power, or by simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, United’s defense was a comedy of errors at times this season which few people found amusing.

It doesn’t seem likely that United can make a fortress of a defense from the current available crop of Dejan Jakovic, Chris Korb, Ethan White, James Riley, Dennis Iapichino, Daniel Woolard, and Taylor Kemp. Many different combinations were tried – including putting midfielders Perry Kitchen and Sainey Nyassi in the defense late in the season – in 2013 and few were stout. Which isn’t to say that all need replacing. Iapichino, Kemp, and White are all age 23 or younger. There’s time for them to develop. Riley (31) and Woolard (29) may not be old by MLS standards, but they are the elder statesmen of the group.

United allowed 59 goals this league season, second-worst in the league (Chivas USA somehow figured out how to give up 67). To improve that, the club probably needs to find someone who can anchor the center defense (trade or international acquisition), and perhaps draft a solid outside back. Any and all moves will probably be welcome after what was seen this season. United gave up 16 more goals in 2013 than it did in 2012, a shocking increase of almost half a goal per game.

4) But, someone has to score goals, too, right? Yeah, then there’s that. United scored a mere 22 goals in the league in 2013, 31 fewer than the season before. United went from +10 in goal differential a season before to -37 this season. Such is what happens when a club’s offense and defense completely fall apart in the same season. United failed to score in 16 of its 34 league matches this season (and only one of the five Open Cup matches. Go figure). The trio of Chris Pontius, Dwayne De Rosario, and Nick DeLeon combined for just 7 goals and 6 assists in 2013, after producing 25 goals and 20 assists in 2012.

Such a precipitous drop in offense from three main players is tough for any team to overcome. Maybe it could have been forecast from DeLeon, if you believe in the sophomore slump. But he also got injured early in the season and that didn’t help his development. Pontius appeared in only 22 of the 34 matches this season – the third time in his 5-year career he appeared in 25 matches or less. De Rosario was suspended the first two matches of the season and never really found his form – save for a hat trick in an Open Cup win vs. Philadelphia.

What made matters worse for United is no one else stood up to help. Preseason acquisition Carlos Ruiz was useless, playing only 528 minutes and failing to register a goal or assist. But in that time, he at least shot 9 times on goal, which was more than could be said for Lionard Pajoy – who did score twice (including the game-winner in the league match vs. Real Salt Lake), but had just 5 shots on goal in 1,130 minutes. By comparison, Pajoy was offside 23 times – such that he often became a punchline for fans rather than a forward this season.

De Rosario, Luis Silva, and Kyle Porter tied for the team lead in goals in league play with three. Bizarrely, in five Open Cup matches, United scored nine goals. United’s 22 league goals were at least 8 fewer than every other team in the league (Chivas USA & Toronto FC).

United may have the players on its roster (especially if the youngsters stick around and develop) to improve the offense, but outside help wouldn’t hurt here, either.

5) How confused must Real Salt Lake be right now? United played RSL twice this season, once home and once away. United won the home match, 1-0, in the second game of the MLS season. Back then, United was 1-1 and a lot was right with the world. D.C., of course, went 2-23-7 the rest of the way. The second meeting, at RSL, was the U.S. Open Cup final, where United again walked off 1-0 winners. RSL may still win MLS Cup this season, in which case they could brush aside the two losses. But how any team managed to lose twice to this United club is the stuff of legend.

6) Who is the leader in 2014? With De Rosario moving on, and so many young players on the first-team roster, Olsen has to find someone he can trust to be the on-field leader for United next season. This means more than simply finding the player who wears the captain’s armband each match. There has to be someone with the knowledge, presence, and respect of his teammates who knows what it takes to win in MLS that the young players can look up to, listen to, and learn from.

As the roster currently sits, there isn’t much winning experience. Riley played limited minutes in New England’s run to back-to-back MLS Cup final appearances in 2007 and 2008 (both losses to Houston). Despite his many years of experience, midfielder John Thorrington hasn’t played in an MLS Cup final. And at 34 and after injuries limited him to 13 appearances this past season, it’s not clear what his role will be next season. Kitchen, giving that he’s almost always on the field (8,303 minutes in 94 appearances – 0r 98.1% of the minutes available for games in which he appeared), could be an answer, but that’s a lot to ask of a player who will turn 22 just before the 2014 season begins.

Even Chris Pontius, who is entering his 6th season with United, has only been a part of limited success in league play. United’s last league trophies (the 2006 and 2007 Supporters’ Shields) came before Pontius’ debut with the club.

If United’s brass feels the 2013 league season was an anomaly (hard to say about 34 matches, but there you go), and that contention isn’t *that* far away, it puts more importance on finding someone with winning experience and a proven leadership quality to bolster the roster for next season. Realistically, however, United isn’t that close. But at some point, as the young players develop and as players like Thorrington and Riley move on, someone will have to fill that veteran role in order for United to take the big steps at the top of the ladder, as opposed to the smaller ones currently staring them in the face. Someone in the team has to show the roster how to compete for 90 minutes and most importantly, how to win.

7) What are the top 3 questions then facing the club? Tossing aside the stadium issue for a second, which has been hanging over the club like a radioactive black cloud for years now, the biggest issues currently in play are:

  1. How to fix the offense and get players like DeLeon and Pontius to return to form?
  2. Can the defense be repaired with the current roster, or are one, two, or several acquisitions needed?
  3. Is Olsen the man to coach this team through the rebuild and return United to contender status in the next 2-3 years?

8) What’s in the immediate future? Right now, probably forgetting this season even happened. United’s 24 losses were second-most all-time in league history (the 1999 New York/New Jersey MetroStars (now Red Bulls) lost 25, bless their hearts), while the 3 wins were the fewest in history. Before the new season begins, likely in March, there will be plenty of jibber-jabber on both sides of the stadium issue. There may be more roster moves as United tries to reshape things after this season’s debacle.

Straight ahead, United has the top pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft, to be held in Philadelphia on January 16. With the postseason now upon us for NCAA soccer, scouting processes are in full swing and talent will be on display at the MLS Combine prior to the draft. United cannot afford to miss with this top pick. There’s no reason not to grab an impact player at #1. And given how the season went, an impact player at any position other than goalkeeper would fit.

It’s not likely that there is a quick fix to cure what ailed United in 2013. Simply put, too many things went wrong over a significant number of games for the season to be termed an aberration. But that doesn’t mean that all hope is lost. If resources are used properly, the top pick is selected smartly, and acquisitions from both inside MLS and out are properly targeted, United can at least go from laughing stock to respectability next season – much as they did in reverse from 2012 to 2013.

Reversing course so drastically again, however, leans on a lot of things going right. No doubt, this offseason will be a big test for United – perhaps bigger than the adversity faced during the 2013 season.

Ed Morgans is the D.C. United Page Editor for District Sports Page. For story notifications, follow him on Twitter @writered21.

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