Tampa Bay Sports Day

Questions about DC United point to a season of surprises

With a new coach, many new players, and no new stadium on the horizon, DC United starts 2010 with more questions than answers. There are few certainties, but one does stand out: this team will surprise its fans and Major League Soccer.

Although that surprise could go either way, I suspect that United will be stronger this year and will make the playoffs and perhaps even perform well in them.

Three factors play into my judgment: Troy Perkins in goal, the probability that Curt Onalfo will successfully infuse more flexibility into the attack, and the probable acquisition of a strong creative midfield.

Santino Quaranta ©ASN

Starting with the last of these, there are two factors at work. I believe that the DC United brain trust has cleared some salary cap room and delayed pulling the trigger on a strong midfield acquisition for one of two reasons. The first is that no satisfactory candidate outside the team for the creative central role has either been identified or become available yet.

For that reason, the coaches are testing Santino Quaranta in the role. If he exceeds expectations and grows into the position quickly and sufficiently, they can use the summer window for some other need. If not, that is when they will make a move similar to the acquisition of Christian Gomez a few years ago.

Of primary importance to DC’s fate will be Onalfo’s ability to broaden United’s attack to create more emphasis on the wings. Under Tom Soehn, the team became predictable and too easily defended. Soehn learned the wrong lesson from the early 2009 successes of Chris Pontius and Rodney Wallace.

He had been forced by injuries and fixture congestion to play them in wide midfield roles and they had blossomed there. They actually played the positions as they should be played, maintaining width and balancing the overall attack. For a while, DC prospered.

Veterans Quaranta and Fred had squandered much of their own talent when assigned wide by drifting inside, allowing opponents to crowd the center and kill United’s rhythm. In Soehn’s defense, as Fred and Quaranta returned to the roster, other needs arose and the overall excellence of Wallace and Pontius were legitimately employed elsewhere.

Still, the wrong lesson was learned; the two rookies were indeed excellent, but their initial success pointed to a systemic DC United weakness.

I believe that Onalfo is aware of this and picked up Christian Castillo to place emphasis on the wide attack. He is now testing Quaranta by recognizing his natural tendency to the center. His new creative role is a heavy burden, but is mitigated by two factors.

The first is that Quaranta has grown steadily while so far successfully confronting his own demons and has stretched his vision beyond himself and toward the team. Perhaps he now has the maturity for the role. There remains the question of raw talent for the position. Now is a good time to test that.

The second factor is the renewed emphasis on wing attack, a more total soccer that will spread responsibility and present opponents with more elements to solve. Quaranta and Jaime Moreno, who will start up front, will be a bit less pressured and should have more room to create inside with defenders more widely focused.

The last big season changer is Troy Perkins. His calming presence should provide a few points in the standings during the season as well as add a consistency to the defense that will help it to jell. The excellence of Dejan Jakovic and the solid play of Julius James and Lawson Vaughn at the end of 2009 bode well for 2010.

The latest word from Bryan Namoff is that he is steadily progressing toward a recovery that could provide a tremendous boost to the back line. Even in his absence, the team has excellent prospects. Juan Manuel Pena has just been signed and will be available as soon as his P-1 work visa clears while Wallace could join Lyle Adams and youngster Andy Najar to provide strong depth either in back or in midfield.

For the season opener in Kansas City, Josh Wicks and Marc Burch join Namoff on the injured list while Devon McTavish is questionable for hamstring issues. Clyde Simms is listed as probable, but the defensive midfield role is sufficiently important that I would prefer to see Brandon Barklage, who played well before injury in 2009, or Wallace have a go at the position.

The game will kick off at 8:30 PM in Kansas City on Saturday night 27 March.