United, though, remains in the hunt. “We are in discussions to bring him back,” Levien said.
Levien declined to go into detail but said the sides have been trading proposals. One source said United has offered multiple guaranteed seasons approaching the designated player threshold of $457,500. Kitchen, who turns 24 in February, earned $172,000 in base salary and $257,000 overall this year.
“We put a lot of value in Perry,” Levien said. “He is a huge part of the team. He has real options [in Europe]. We understand it and respect it.”
With training camp set to open Jan. 22, United wants to put the issue to rest soon.
“Time is short,” Levien said. “It’s an important role for us.”
In other words, if Kitchen’s heart is set on Europe, United needs to know soon so it can turn attention to a replacement. Levien declined to name a specific target, but United has apparently identified a player in the French first division who would be available this winter.
Scouting coordinator Kurt Morsink toured France this fall and General Manager Dave Kasper is planning a trip to France, as well as Italy and possibly England, after the holidays.
Meantime, Levien said the club recognizes the need to acquire a central midfielder in order to improve possession and the attack as a whole. Without a creative mind in the middle of the lineup, United labored to set the terms and mount threats late in the season.
The Insider has learned United has its eyes on an Argentine playmaker in his mid-twenties whom the club is trying to acquire on loan with an option to buy. Levien declined to comment. Kasper went on a scouting mission to Argentina recently.
United is also shopping the MLS free agent market and might add an attacking player, Levien said. There is also sentiment within the club to provide more opportunity to young attackers Miguel Aguilar and Collin Martin.
Nonetheless, “if we add one or two impactful midfield pieces, it can get us over the hump,” he said. “We have a good baseline, but we need to add to it.”
In 2014, United finished third in the Supporters’ Shield race but lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals. This year, D.C. faded down the stretch and, after a first-round victory over New England, went out quietly against the New York Red Bulls in the conference semis.
Most of the squad is set to return in 2016. Several players signed new contracts during this past season and many others had their options exercised by the club. United acquired one attacker in a trade (left wing Lamar Neagle from Seattle) and dealt another (left wing Chris Pontius to Philadelphia), a pair of moves that saved about $230,000 in payroll.
Addressing the perception that United is not willing to spend on players – DCU was third from the bottom in payroll in 2015 – Levien said, “It’s no secret that we are a significantly money-losing team right now. We are losing a lot at RFK Stadium. We’ll spend where we think it’s appropriate and where we think it will help us. We do it with an eye toward winning and competing at the highest level. We wouldn’t do it for some kind of marketing plus.
“We have to be smart in how we do it. We want to be somewhat fiscally responsible because we are taking on an enormous project with the stadium at Buzzard Point. We want to make sure we are running a business that is good for the fans long term and short term. Every time we have a conversation about our roster, it’s ‘How do we use the resources we have to get better?’ ”
As this MLS season proved, a high payroll does not guarantee success. The two lowest payrolls, FC Dallas and the Red Bulls, finished first and second, respectively, in the Supporters’ Shield race and two mid-level spenders, the Portland Timbers and Columbus Crew, met in MLS Cup.
Though all signs point to another season of restrained spending, Levien said he wouldn’t rule out a major signing at some point in the next year or two.
“You want to be smart. You want to get bang for your buck. You want to find guys who can really make an impact. And if we are convinced someone is going to make that kind of impact and improve our chances of getting to MLS Cup, we are going to think long and hard about it.”
United’s primary acquisition last winter, Finnish midfielder Markus Halsti, has a guaranteed contract in 2016. However, sources say that, if United is not planning to start him regularly, he would prefer to return to Europe. In that case, the sides would probably agree to terminate the $300,000 contract.
This year, Halsti was sidelined by injuries on multiple occasions, needed time to adapt to a new league and didn’t make a noticeable impact in a starting role late in the year.
“He showed improvement as the year went on and got more comfortable,” Levien said. “He is a good player in this league and fit in well. We expect him to have a better year in 2016 than in ’15.”
As with other personnel decisions, Halsti’s future could hinge on whether Kitchen returns. If Kitchen goes, United would have more use for Halsti in central midfield, regardless of other moves.
Meantime, United is expected to re-sign second-choice goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra, whose contract expires this month, but is unlikely to offer a new deal to forward Jairo Arrieta, whose option was declined.
Levien said United has created two staff positions: a director of soccer strategies and a full-time physical therapist. The first job, to be filled soon by a European based in the United States, is geared toward analytics. “It’s a third voice to add to Ben and Dave’s,” Levien said.
The second position was created to address the number of injuries, Levien said. In the past, contracted physical therapists would work with the team.
United is planning to extend its relationship with the third-division Richmond Kickers through the 2017 season, Levien said. The clubs have had a partnership for the past three years.
Coming later, Part II: The new stadium and team business.