Let’s admit it: we were all more or less satisfied with D.C. United last season. Which is pathetic; they missed the playoffs in a league in which 56 percent of the teams make the playoffs. But 2010 set the bar so low that a mediocre 2011 constituted measurable progress. Any political strategist will tell you: success is measured relative to expectations. Before Sarah Palin’s Vice-Presidential debate in 2008, her team set expectations so low that as long as she didn’t drop any f-bombs or wet her pants, her performance would be considered a success. And it was. Barely.
This year, in order for United to win the expectations game, they’re going to have to win some actual soccer games. My goal for United this season: make the conference semifinals. Make the top eight. There are two ways to do that: 1) Finish in the top three in your conference, or 2) Finish fourth or fifth and then win the play-in game. Plus there’s probably another way in by, say, winning the U.S. Open Cup and catching the golden snitch and claiming all the superdelegates or whatever, but I don’t have time to read MLS’s Byzantine playoff rules.
Making the top eight is a realistic goal because I think this team is going to be good. This is not a rebuilding year. This team should at least challenge for a playoff spot. The ceiling for this team is a championship, which is not too big of a boast because MLS is so evenly matched that any good team is one well-timed hot streak away from a title. This is a team with the league MVP (De Rosario), a core of young prospects who should get better with age (Najar, Hamid, Kitchen), some big-money — or, um, big MLS-money — additions (Salihi, Dudar...each making $16 an hour!), and some key players returning from injury (Pontius, Boskovic). We were okay last year, and this year should be better.
I’ll have a much stronger opinion of this team after I see Salihi, Dudar and Boskovic play. Being an MLS fan on opening day is like having an arranged marriage — you really have no idea what you’re getting. Will Salihi be the next Luciano Emilio or the next Danny Allsopp? Will Dudar be Ryan Nelson or Gonzalo Peralta? Will Boskovic be worth any of the money he’s been paid so far? If those three guys are good, United will be good. But that’s a huge chunk of the payroll that is still mostly unknown to United fans.
I really like this team’s attack. De Rosario, Pontius and Najar are potential All-Stars. If Boskovic and Salihi are as-advertised, then our attack should be among the best in the league. At the very least, we’ll be a more entertaining team than in 2010, in which United were a combination of bad and boring usually only seen in off-Broadway one man shows. Bad can be tolerable if it’s an entertaining mess (see: Nicholas Cage’s career).
Robbie Russell and Daniel Woolard will be big parts of this team. I know: not the sentence you wanted to read. Fullback at the pro level isn’t like fullback at the U-10 level; you can’t hide your worst player there and hope for the best (to all ex U-10 fullbacks: sorry, that’s what was happening). And Russell and Woolard aren’t exactly glamor players. But you know what: they don’t have to be. We just need them to play solid defense. Let the front five create the goals. That arrangement plays to their strengths; Russell is a destroyer, and Woolard likes getting forward about as much as I like dancing. If those two can help keep the ball out of our net, they’re doing their jobs.
I worry about this team’s depth. I worry about what happens when Kitchen, Najar and Hamid are away at the Olympics. I worry about what happens if two fullbacks get injured; we only have three on the roster. I worry that several of our attackers are over 30 and are prone to missing games for people-over-30-type reasons; what if Wolff throws his back out, De Ro has to stay home and take care of the kids, and Boskovic has Dave Matthews Band tickets all on the same night? What happens then? The saving grace here is that United have cleverly not qualified for any international tournaments, so the workload will be as light as it can be.
I’m excited about this season. I’m eager for it to start. I want to see our prospects take the next step. I want to see if the new toys management bought during the offseason are any good. I’m ready for the first United season since 2009 in which a championship doesn’t seem like a ridiculous pipe dream.
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