D.C. United’s most popular player, by social media standards, has not played a minute in a regular season match.
Among the 34 players to wear the black and red this summer, he is the only one not to appear in an MLS game or suit up with the club’s third-division affiliate in Richmond. His lone assignment came amid 11 substitutions in the second half of a friendly against a Mexican club in preseason mode three weeks ago.
United has employed midfielder-forward Syamsir Alam since the preseason. Yet six months later, he remains a mystery to the supporters. While players have come and gone during this rotten campaign, Alam has quietly kept his roster slot.
His lack of playing time — and lack of selections to a regular season game-day roster — has raised the question: Why is he here?
The obvious — and honest — answer: United’s primary investor is, like Alam, from Indonesia. Upon bankrolling United last summer, Erick Thohir emphasized the importance of global branding. With 251 million citizens, Indonesia is the fourth most-populous nation on earth — more than Mexico and Japan combined — and boasts a massive soccer following. Chelsea and Liverpool were met by raucous audiences in Jakarta this summer.
While Indonesians love the sport, they do not play it well. The most accomplished national team player, striker Bambang Pamungkas, has spent all but four months of his 13-year pro career in the lightly regarded domestic league. For Asian Cup qualifiers, every selection was from the Indonesian league, except for one from the Dutch second division.
Last winter, with Thohir encouraging the club to sign an Indonesian, United eyed candidates in Europe’s lower levels. Alam, 21, had the least potential to contribute but was the only one available. United acquired him on loan from CS Vise in Belgium’s second tier. (Two other Indonesians play for Vise.)
At preseason training camp in Florida, the coaching staff recognized quickly that Alam was not ready for MLS. He displayed some skills and speed but was the smallest player on the roster and far behind other attackers in several technical areas.
Even as United has coughed and sputtered to the worst record in the league and threatened to set the MLS record for scoring futility, Alam has not entered the mix. Nor has he been shipped to the Richmond Kickers, United’s USL partners, who have provided a nurturing environment for young players, such as Conor Shanosky, 21, and Michael Seaton, 17.
With limited ability, Alam probably would not have played much for the undefeated Kickers either. So he has remained in Washington for daily workouts. Two weeks ago, he was called up by Indonesia’s under-23 program, which has begun preparing for the Southeast Asian Games in December in Myanmar.
Alam is not scheduled to rejoin United until the end of August.
“He is here as a developmental prospect and not ready for a loan to Richmond or consideration for the first team,” General Manager Dave Kasper said, explaining Alam’s status. Kasper did add Alam might have ended up with the Kickers on a recent three-game western trip had he not been away.
“It’s been nice to have him on the team,” United Coach Ben Olsen said. “He’s a good kid.”
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, several individuals in the organization said they had hoped Alam would have progressed further by now. “But we knew he was a long shot,” one said. United has not yet decided whether to extend his loan into 2014, but given his sparse playing time this year, that seems unlikely.
All of this raises another question: Has Alam occupied a roster slot or collected a salary that otherwise could have gone to a more productive player? Maybe, maybe not.
At $46,500, he is among United’s lowest-paid players. Every team has prospects who don’t figure in first-team plans. While Alam does fill one of the eight international roster spaces, Kasper said the arrangement has not prevented another foreign signing.
As for Thohir’s original intention — global branding — the Alam experiment has worked to an extent. Although he doesn’t play, the mere mention of him on United’s Twitter account (and Soccer Insider’s, as well) prompts a deluge of retweets and replies. The club features a Bahasa Indonesian language page on its website and has built some name recognition in the country.
The club has been weighing an exhibition tour to Indonesia this offseason.
Alam, meantime, is up to almost 170,000 followers on Twitter — double the number of United’s other 19 player accounts combined. Dwayne De Rosario, a four-time MLS Cup winner and 2011 MVP, is next with about 26,000.
Ultimately, United’s goal is to sign a player who both carries appeal in emerging markets overseas and contributes on the field. Alam was the first foray.
Indonesians’ fascination with their countrymen abroad isn’t limited to Alam. Last fall, a 45-second video of guest player Andik Vermansyah appearing in a United reserve match was viewed more than 200,000 times.
It stands as the fifth most-popular clip in club history.