If there is one word that can describe D.C. United’s 2017 offseason it would be busy.
For United supporters that word might sound a bit unusual. For a club that is more or less known for bringing players up through their academy or making a handful of shrewd moves via the Re-Entry or waiver process 2017 has been a bit of a change of pace.
The biggest move thus far has been acquiring the services of Luciano Acosta full-time. The club picked up the Boca Juniors product on a permanent transfer after a scintillating 2016 campaign (three goals, seven assists). The Argentine midfielder-forward brought new life to a United attack that had struggled for years to score consistently. His work coupled with the play of the two Patricks (Mullins and Nyarko) and Lamar Neagle gave United coach Ben Olsen a variety of attacking options up top and on the wing. The club’s 53 goals last year were the most that the club had scored since 2012.
What will be interesting to see is how Olsen attempts to integrate newly signed Costa Rican Jose Guillermo Ortiz into this thriving attack. Ortiz comes to the Black and the Red from Herediano who he signed with back in January. With his former club Alajuelense Ortiz lit up the Costa Rican Primera Division. Ortiz knocked home 17 goals for The Red and Black in 2016 and scored twice against United in the 2014-2015 CONCACAF Champions League.
The hope is that Ortiz can be paired with Mullins up top with Acosta playing as a Center Attacking Midfielder. Acosta was at his best last season when he lined up behind Mullins and could create opportunities for Neagle and Nyarko wide. What Ortiz brings is an expert ability at finishing crosses from the outside and freeing up space for Mullins to exploit.
While their attack may be for the most part set the club still has additional questions in the midfield. With Marcelo, Rob Vincent, Julian Buscher and Jared Jeffrey back and the addition of Homegrown Player Ian Harkes the club has four options for the defensive midfielder position in Olsen’s 4-4-2. Both Vincent and Jeffrey showed promise as starters last season but whether or not it was enough to merit a full-time job is another question. Olsen could also go with a more conservative formation as well, bringing in Vincent or Jeffrey and having Neagle come in as a super-sub.
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Olsen will have some flexibility in defense. For the past three seasons their back four was pretty much set with Sean Franklin, Bobby Boswell, Steve Birnbaum, and Taylor Kemp providing the club a certain level of stability. But Olsen has been tinkering with the status quo over the past year, giving Nick De Leon and Jalen Robinson time to hone their skills. While these decisions were mostly made out of necessity (Franklin’s recurring injuries and Birnbaum’s growing status with the United States Men’s National Team) they have for the most part paid off. Add in first round pick Chris Odol-Atsem from Maryland and Kofi Opare and one can see some additional battles for once solid starting spots.
The biggest question on defense is whether those players looking to unseat the incumbents can improve upon the 2016 product. United’s defense allowed just 43 goals last season a respectable number for a side that proved difficult at times to breakdown. But their 4-2 loss to the Montreal Impact in the MLS Cup Playoffs exposed their weakness in communication between their midfield and defense. Whether the side can limit those lapses in 2017 will determine whether they can make the next step in becoming an MLS Cup contender.
The health of goalkeeper Bill Hamid will also figure largely into United’s 2017 campaign. Hamid suffered a right knee injury while training with the USMNT in Los Angeles this month. Although Hamid is slated to return right around the club’s season opener against Sporting Kansas City on March 4 chances are that United will give him additional time to come back. In the short-term Travis Worra showed in 2016 that he is more than capable of being a starting goalkeeper in MLS. The club also has former United States under-20 keeper Charlie Horton on their roster and drafted Eric Klenofsky in the second round of this year’s MLS SuperDraft.
In the long-term Hamid’s health has to be a bit of a worry. This will be the second consecutive season that the former Homegrown Player has suffered a right knee injury. When he is healthy Hamid is one of if not the best goalkeeper in MLS. Last season he had a Goals Against Average of 1.25 and a save percentage of 73.1%. But after going under the knife for a second consecutive right knee injury one could understand if United are preparing for the worst.
That being said the Hamid injury should not be a death sentence for this club. With additional depth and flexibility Olsen should have the ability to offset this loss at least in the interim. Assuming that Hamid can come back fully healthy this side should be a near lock for the playoffs. The question is now if they can find a rhythm on the defense and build off of their 2016 campaign on the attack to make 2017 a more successful season.