By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Feb 2, 2018) US Soccer Players - There’s really no way to frame the 2018 DC United season as anything else than a triumph. A triumph, before it even begins. A triumph no matter what the club’s record is at the end of the regular season or whether they lift MLS Cup. It's a triumph, because of a stadium.
Audi Field is set to open on July 14, when DC United hosts the Vancouver Whitecaps. On that day one of Major League Soccer’s original franchises, a team that won the first two MLS Cup titles and set the standard for success in the first decade of the league, will finally have a proper soccer home. They spent 22 years at RFK Stadium. That venue turned into a financial albatross around the club’s neck while the rest of MLS passed United by. Now, a proud franchise will step forward into the modern world of North American soccer.
The triumph will no doubt be celebrated with gusto by a fan base who could never be sure the moment would ever come. Fans will celebrate, no matter their team’s record or the result of the game. Considering the late date of Audi Field’s debut, it will be a significant surprise is United is above the playoff line in the Eastern Conference.
MLS refused to allow the club to play four-and-a-half months on the road before the opening. Instead, United will play two home games at other venues in the Washington region. That makes their schedule before opening Audi Field a brutal slog around the country between March and mid-July. Whatever relief comes from a back-loaded home schedule might not matter if United can’t keep themselves above water until then.
If there are financial benefits from moving into Audi Field, they haven’t yet shown up in the club’s spending. That’s not to say that United didn’t improve in the offseason. It's that the ownership hasn’t yet moved to leverage their new stadium situation to catch up with the increasing spending across MLS. For the time being, United’s recent approach is to trade for pieces within the league and sign mid-level players from abroad.
United added several new players during the offseason to augment a returning core that includes Paul Arriola, Luciano Acosta, and Steve Birnbaum. Darren Mattocks arrived via trade and will battle with Patrick Mullins for the right to be the club’s chief striker. The former Whitecaps and Timbers man hasn’t yet reached the potential many believed he possessed coming out of Akron as the second overall draft pick in 2012. Regardless, he helps at a thin position for DC. Mattocks brings speed and athleticism, a combination that should serve as a strong change-of-pace to Mullins’s back-to-goal game and poaching skills.
The group of attackers who will support Mattocks and Mullins has promise. Luciano Acosta suffered from a lingering ankle problem in 2017, but enters the new season healthy and capable of brilliant moments. Zoltan Stieber arrived in August of last year and promptly injected creativity and technical skill into a languishing side. He made just six starts and scored just once, but there are high hopes that the Hungarian will be a major force in 2018. Arriola only played 11 times last season after his move from Club Tijuana and will play opposite Stieber on the right wing.
The central midfield group that will support both the defense and attack presents Ben Olsen with options. There’s youth, in the form of 22-year old Russell Canouse, 22-year old Ian Harkes, and 17-year old Chris Durkin. All of those players figure to get time, especially in the difficult early road-heavy part of the season. It’s a new arrival from Costa Rica that is expected to shoulder most of the load. 24-year old Ulises Segura is a candidate for the Costa Rican World Cup team and can play several positions in midfield. Venezuelan Junior Moreno is another versatile addition that should lead to several variations being used by Olsen throughout the season.
At the back, DC has a pair of MLS-starter caliber goalkeepers without a clear idea of who is number one. David Ousted moves over from the Whitecaps and should have the inside track on the starter’s job, though former Crew man Steve Clark will push the Dane for time.
Central defense is manned by Steve Birnbaum, a US international who suffered two concussions during a difficult 2017. Frederic Brillant moves down I-95 from NYCFC and will help United’s ability to pass the ball out of the back. Depth from the bench will come from Kofi Opare and homegrown product Jalen Robinson.
Where United doesn’t have much to point to from its offseason maneuverings is at fullback. Taylor Kemp on the left and converted midfielder Nick DeLeon represent the entirety of DC’s fullback group. Other players might be able to fill in at fullback in a pinch, but no one else on the roster has significant experience at the position. Olsen might have to get creative with rotation if the club doesn’t add a few bodies there before the transfer window closes.
On paper, DC United is better than they were in 2017. That’s not a high bar considering they tied with LA for the fewest points in the league and tied with the Rapids for the fewest goals scored. The club’s -29 goal differential put them last in that category, six goals behind expansion club Minnesota United.
Improvement is likely. Whether that improvement leads to a return to the playoffs will come down to how well United navigates the early part of the year while they await Audi Field’s debut.
2018 will be a triumph in DC because the long wait for a stadium makes Audi Field that important. In a difficult Eastern Conference, that might have to be enough.
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