MLS: 5 Big Questions Facing D.C. United

| by World Soccer Reader

The numbers tell the story of D.C. United’s 2010 campaign with brutal accuracy.

The team’s 21 goals scored were the lowest output in MLS by a whopping 12 tallies. Only three clubs conceded more strikes than the 47 United did. Those two statistics made for a minus-26 goal differential – again, the league’s worst by double digits.

Between the lack of a quality product on the field and the franchise’s gloomy stadium situation, United saw its usually admirable attendance average fall to an all-time low at less than 15,000 per game.

Of course, no statistic is as telling as the squad’s 6-20-4 mark in league play. Considering the acquisition of midfielder Dax McCarty last week and Monday’s impending announcement that interim coach Ben Olsen will take the permanent managing position in 2011, it’s safe to United’s offseason overhaul has officially begun.

“It’s been a perfect storm this year,” Olsen said following United’s season-ending defeat to Toronto FC. “But we’re not that far away. You add one, two, three pieces, and I like my chances. That’s the beauty of this league. You have a season like this and that’s it. It’s over, and you start again. Everybody has seen it. You can change it very quickly, and that’s a good sign with this league.”

Whether United will, in fact, change its fate in 2011 will depend on the following five questions:

Who will lead the Black and Red?

This dilemma was much more prominent before the removal of Olsen’s “interim” tag, but there is still the matter of where United’s on-the-field leadership will stem from.

The departing Jaime Moreno had been the club’s captain since 2005. Midfielder Santino Quaranta, who typically donned the armband in Moreno’s absence once Olsen was in charge, is the logical choice to become United’s fifth full-time skipper, joining the elite company of John Harkes, Marco Etcheverry, Ryan Nelsen and Moreno.

“I think I am ready to embrace these guys,” Quaranta said. “And I think they’re ready to embrace me.”

Designated player Branko Boskovic, the Montenegro National Team captain who will be playing his first full season in Washington, is another possibility, as are any incoming veterans.

“We need a different pulse, in a lot of ways, on this team,” Olsen said. “With a guy like Jaime leaving now, it’s even more crucial to get some leaders here that are going to put their stamp on this team.”

How will Ben Olsen fare as coach?

Olsen compiled a 3-8-1 record after replacing Curt Onalfo in August. Although the results were only a slight improvement upon Onalfo’s 3-12-3 mark, the team clearly responded to his personality and began playing with more passion and attacking vigor once he took over.

“They say you learn more in these types of seasons than you do when you win,” Olsen said. “If that’s the case, I got my first college education. I’ve seen, hopefully, the bottom. I’ve seen how bad it can be throughout a season, as far as wins and losses, and things not going your way.”

In addition to playing a part in the front office’s personnel selection during the offseason, Olsen will also need to decide what formation best suits the Black and Red. He used a 4-4-2 last year, but he might switch to a 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 since the team now offers three starting-caliber central midfielders in Clyde Simms, Boskovic and McCarty. (A 4-3-3 featuring that trio in midfield, along with Andy Najar, Chris Pontius, Pablo Hernandez and Quaranta as wing forward options, seems inviting.)

“You never know who is going to be a good coach,” Olsen said. “You can speculate, but there are so many moving parts to this thing. I don’t know if I’m going to be a good coach.”

Will Branko Boskovic live up to his designated player status?

It was an up-and-down campaign for the Montenegro international who joined United in July and found himself in and out of the starting 11 due to lingering fitness issues paired with frequent departures for Euro 2012 qualifiers.

“It was difficult when I came without preparation to play immediately,” Boskovic said. “But the next season, I will try to prepare myself the best that I can and show what I can do.”

At times, Boskovic displayed why he deserves to be a designated player. The technically gifted lefty added class and composure to United’s midfield, bringing impeccable vision to his deep playmaker role. On the other hand, the 30-year-old also faded out of many matches, and no team can afford to dedicate such a large portion of the salary cap to a player plagued by inconsistency.

If he can emerge as one of the league’s finest midfielders – which he is more than capable of doing – United’s hopeful turnaround will be all the easier to achieve.

Who will score the goals?

Last offseason, United signed Danny Allsopp to serve as the team’s go-to striker, a move that was immediately questioned by United’s fan base. After all, he was a journeyman on the wrong side of 30 plying his trade in Qatar when United picked him up. His credentials with the decent, but far from spectacular, Australian national team? Three caps, and none since early 2009, when the Socceroos’ boss famously described him to ABC News as “absolutely hopeless.”

But the D.C. front office made Allsopp the squad’s highest-paid player and got just five league goals in exchange. It goes without saying the Black and Red cannot afford to make such a monumental mistake again.

Having already parted ways with Allsopp, United is eyeing potential target forwards to shoulder the goal-scoring burden. The club is rumored to be pursuing Manchester City’s Roque Santa Cruz, a 29-year-old who represented Paraguay in the past three World Cups.

United also recently hosted a trial from U.S. U-20 international Omar Salgado, projected to be a top pick in January’s SuperDraft. (D.C. selects third overall.) Should United bank its future on a youngster in the draft, the team could very well pick up a veteran (perhaps the available Juan Pablo Angel?) to mentor him.

With the highly paid Moreno and Allsopp gone, the front office will have plenty of cap space to play with while searching for a capable striker, although signing a second designated player seems unlikely.

“Kevin [Payne] and [general manager] Dave [Kasper] will get this right and make the right changes,” Quaranta said. “And we’ll move forward.”

Will United shore up its defense?

D.C.’s defense was ravaged by injuries in 2010, as Marc Burch, Rodney Wallace, Juan Manuel Pena and Bryan Namoff all missed significant time due to various ailments. It’s unlikely United will be that unlucky again next season. That said, the team still needs to bolster a back line that ranked among the league’s worst.

“Maybe some guys don’t understand or don’t have experience,” Boskovic said. “Every team scores so easily against us.”

Since the club lost Wallace (part of the McCarty deal) and outside back Jordan Graye (expansion draft) to Portland, the need for defensive reinforcements is all the more pertinent.

Holdovers Dejan Jakovic, Julius James, Marc Burch, Jed Zayner and Devon McTavish are all quality MLS defenders. Together, however, they don’t form the most imposing of units. Look for United to add a center back to partner with the erratic yet talented Jakovic and a fullback to compete with Burch and Zayner for the starting jobs out wide.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Jakovic said. “Nobody’s job is safe here. It’s been a rough season, and it’s going to be interesting to see what changes are made.”