D.C. United’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad regular season will reach a merciful end Sunday with either the fewest victories in MLS history or a share of the league’s dubious mark. Over subsequent days and weeks, club executives will gather in the fourth-floor offices at RFK Stadium and begin weighing critical decisions about the coaching staff, the front office and the roster.
Are sweeping changes in store? Will Ben Olsen and Dave Kasper survive? Is Dwayne De Rosario staying or going? How many players are on the way out?
A look at six pressing personnel issues heading into the offseason …
The Coach: From initial indications, Olsen will return for his fourth full season, the longest tenure in United annals. Management is flummoxed by the 3-23-7 record, particularly after the club posted the third-most points in the league last year with almost the same core of players. Leadership was encouraged, however, by Olsen’s resilience, in the face of mounting adversity, to win the U.S. Open Cup and prevent months of losing to fester and eat away at the club’s soul.
Although the atmosphere did turn flammable on occasion, the players did not turn on Olsen. Had he lost the locker room for good, he was done. The Open Cup upset at Real Salt Lake renewed faith in one another. The team played hard for him most of the time – it just didn’t play very well for him most of the time.
Some will argue the front office, through roster decisions, dealt Olsen an unwinnable hand. And while it’s true most of the moves did not pan out, Olsen did have a say in those transactions.
His backers will also enter into evidence ownership’s resistance to spend on high-caliber players before or during the failing season. (Until a new stadium deal is finalized and revenue streams flow, United is probably not going to sign marquee players.) The absence of such funding, though, did not hinder last year’s run to the Eastern Conference finals. And as New York showed for years and Seattle is demonstrating this fall, fat salaries for well-known players do not guarantee trophies.
Economics will play a small part in Olsen’s return; he has a guaranteed contract next year. Management, mind you, will not allow that fact to block change: If it feels a move is necessary, the club will not hesitate to cut a check and send him on his way.
The intangible in all of this is Olsen’s emotional ties to the organization – he has served as a player, assistant coach and head coach for all but the first two years of United’s 18-season existence and has been the face of the organization in soccer circles and the community for a decade. Terminating that relationship would not come easy, even for an investment group without deep roots at RFK.
Management will also have to assess Olsen’s capacity to teach. With the season disintegrating, he turned to young players, a theme that will carry into next season. Veterans need guidance. Prospects need instruction. Without proper training and nurturing, development becomes stunted. The head coach oversees the initiative but the assistants must apply it. Would management mandate changes to the lower rungs of the coaching staff to ensure fledgling promise is fulfilled?
Chances of returning: 90 percent.
The General Manager: United will miss the playoffs for the fifth time in six years. Given the number of postseason berths available in MLS and the flexibility of teams to reinvent themselves each winter, it’s almost implausible to fall short so often. Coaches have come and gone. Players have come and gone. The GM has remained the same.
Kasper understands MLS’s maddening collection of rules, laws, bylaws, procedures and drafts like a CPA knows the tangle of tax codes. He just hasn’t applied that expertise to maintain a consistently good team in recent years. Most international signings were busts. Conversely, the college draft and homegrown system have paid dividends. Some trades worked out, some didn’t — that’s normal around the league.
The investment group will take into account Kasper operated autonomously for the first time since Kevin Payne, the club’s hands-on executive since 1996, was ousted last fall. That does not excuse his decisions, made in conjunction with Olsen and the rest of the technical staff. The question ownership must ask itself: Do we trust Kasper with the first pick on all of MLS’s acquisition platforms this winter and the additional roster funds awarded for missing the playoffs and qualifying for the CONCACAF Champions League? If the answer is yes, he will stay for a 13th season. If the answer is no, United will buy out the last year of his guaranteed contract.
Chances of returning: 75 percent.
The Captain: The guaranteed portion of De Rosario’s contract, worth more than $600,000 annually, expires after this season. United holds an option to retain him at the same rate. There is no way that occurs. A two-game suspension to start the year, injuries, international duty and coaching decisions reduced him to 16 league starts. He has three goals and two assists after recording 20 and 19 respectively in 44 previous regular season appearances with United.
DeRo has enjoyed a remarkable career – among the top three players in MLS history. He is still capable of a genius, game-changing moment, although they don’t occur quite so frequently anymore. His on-field influence is waning and, two months into next season, he will turn 36. He is approaching the crossroads of a wonderful run.
His options: Embrace a secondary role on a young D.C. team and serve as a mentor, or look to join a mature squad equipped to contend for a championship right away. Either way, in order to remain in MLS, he will have to accept a substantial pay cut.
DeRo said his agent has spoken briefly with the club about his future and that talks will accelerate in the coming weeks. Asked if he wants to return, he said he was excited about playing for United in the CONCACAF Champions League next year. Additionally, with a wife and four children and three moves behind him, “it would be ideal to stay in one place, for sure.”
Said Kasper: “We told him that, at the end of the season, there would be an evaluation period of the entire roster and we would sit down with him when we reached a decision about his future with the club.”
Chances of returning: 50 percent.
The Defender: When the season began, the least of United’s concerns was the tandem of center backs, Brandon McDonald and Dejan Jakovic. By midseason, with the defense breaking down regularly, they were perhaps the club’s greatest disappointment.
Exacerbating the situation was a combined base income of $500,000 – one-sixth of the salary cap. United could have gotten by with one of them falling out of form, but not both. McDonald was dealt to Real Salt Lake (although most of his salary remained on United’s books until the end of the year).
Jakovic’s contract is guaranteed next year. United could minimize his impact on the cap by redistributing his income over two seasons in exchange for another guaranteed year. A trade would probably require United to pick up a portion of his salary.
Chances of returning: 70 percent.
The Veterans: Forwards Lionard Pajoy ($190,000 base) and Carlos Ruiz ($75,000) combined for two goals in 33 league appearances. Midfielders Marcelo Saragosa ($110,000) was saddled by injuries and age, and Sainey Nyassi ($88,000) didn’t add much after signing in May.
Midfielder John Thorrington ($150,000) was pretty good when healthy and provided leadership and experience but, for a part-time starter, earned a lot of cash. Defender Daniel Woolard ($100,000) started most of the year at left back or center back. Defender James Riley ($140,000) was in and out of the lineup. Midfielder Lewis Neal ($90,000) was the unlikely Open Cup hero.
Chances of returning (in order): 0 percent, 0, 15, 10, 50, 80, 50, 90.
The Loaner: Forward Conor Doyle, 22, arrived in mid-July from Derby County in England’s second tier. He has displayed decent attacking qualities, posting two goals and an assist in 13 league appearances. As part of the temporary acquisition agreement, the clubs set a fee (undisclosed) for a permanent transfer. In the next few weeks, United will accept or decline. Without knowing the figure, it’s impossible to predict. If D.C. likes the player but not the price, it could propose a new fee. (Everything, after all, is negotiable.) This is assuming the Dallas native enjoys living in the United States again and doesn’t miss England.
Is Doyle a full-time MLS starter? At the moment, no; he seems more suited as a third forward. But if United is going to stick to the youth movement, he would fit into the roster make-up nicely.
Chances of returning: 50 percent.