Ray Hudson has been D.C. United's coach and Dave Kasper the club's technical director since last winter, but until Monday night, it wasn't really their team.
Upon their arrival, they had decided not to make any radical moves, figuring the high-profile veterans deserved another chance to straighten a wobbly squad. But about two-thirds of the way through the 2002 season, with United heading toward a third consecutive losing year, Hudson and Kasper realized they would have to end their commitment to the past and put their own stamp on the club.
On Monday night they made their first bold move by shipping three of United's most productive and popular players -- Jaime Moreno, Eddie Pope and Richie Williams -- to the New York/New Jersey MetroStars for flamboyant defender Mike Petke, a first-round draft pick and the rights to a major player allocation.
More trades are in the works. Then comes the MLS draft on Jan. 17 in Kansas City, Mo., where United has the first, fifth, 11th and 14th overall picks. United also plans to cash in the two allocations owed by the league (its own and the one it received from the MetroStars) to acquire at least one European or South American player and possibly U.S. national team player Joe-Max Moore.
By the time the season opens April 12, Hudson and Kasper will have their fingerprints all over the roster.
"I think in some ways it marks the end of an era," Hudson said about Monday's blockbuster trade. "In some ways it's a sad day for the club, but major changes needed to be implemented and that fork in the road could not be ignored."
Moreno was United's best attacking player over the years, and despite a series of injuries, he still provided occasional moments of brilliance. But he no longer seemed to play with the same level of energy and clearly needed a change of scenery.
Pope is still considered the best all-around defender in the league, but United officials didn't think a central defender who has missed considerable time over the years because of injury and U.S. national team commitments was worth the high price tag. The club also believes it can maintain a strong defense by relying on Petke, a three-time all-star; a vastly improved Ryan Nelsen; the consistent Brandon Prideaux; and fleet-footed wing Milton Reyes.
Williams's fiery play at defensive midfield slipped noticeably last year, and United seems confident it can move ornery veteran Ivan McKinley or a young player into that vital role.
The only remaining player from the 1996 championship squad to avoid being shipped away was midfielder Marco Etcheverry, who signed a one-year contract extension Monday. Etcheverry, 32, hasn't had much impact in three years, but with his career winding down and no trade offers for him, United officials felt they had to keep him for perhaps one final season. They could've let him sign with a club in the Middle East, but losing Pope, Moreno and Etcheverry all at once would've been too extreme for an otherwise young squad.
With Pope, Moreno and Williams gone, the player with the longest service to United after Etcheverry is midfielder Ben Olsen, 25, who missed most of the past two years with an ankle injury. Next on the list of "veterans" is 19-year-old midfielder Bobby Convey, who will enter his fourth season.
Ultimately, Hudson and Kasper will not be judged by Monday night's trade, but by their decisions over the next several weeks.
Will they acquire hard-charging midfielder/forward Dema Kovalenko and Bulgarian World Cup legend Hristo Stoitchkov from Chicago, and if they do, what type of impact will those two have? Will they be able to get Argentine forward Aldo Osorio from Italian club Lecce with one of the allocations? Can Hudson persuade Moore to return to MLS, and join United, after playing sparingly in England? Or will United be able to get one of several other foreign players it's been scouting, including Polish World Cup forward Cezary Kucharsky?
Then there is the draft. Some of those high picks might end up being traded before the draft commences, but with what it has left, United will have to do better than last year, when none of its selections contributed much during the season. University of Virginia forward Alecko Eskandarian, the national player of the year, is the obvious first pick, but some observers wonder whether he'll be able to make an immediate transition to the pros.
With the other picks, United will have to take players who will be able to contribute right away. One possibility is midfielder Ricardo Clark, from Furman University and the U.S. under-20 national team.
Once the pieces are in place, it will be Hudson's responsibility to make it all work.
"There's some risk involved in what we're doing, but it has to be done," Hudson said. "And it's our responsibility, mine and Dave's and the other coaches, to make it work."