Finalizing Luciano Acosta’s transfer After enjoying his services on loan this season, United is in the process of acquiring the wee Argentine playmaker, 22, for good from Boca Juniors. The transfer fee is in excess of $1 million, which, for a thrifty club like United, is considerable. But United sees him as the centerpiece of the attack for years to come.
After an inconsistent spring, Acosta found his stride in the second half of the season and electrified home supporters and league observers alike with his clever footwork, innate skills and unpredictability in the run of play. His 11 assists were three more than any other D.C. player.
“We certainly want him back and think he’s going to be a vital piece to this organization for the next couple years,” Coach Ben Olsen said. “He’s a lot of fun to watch, he’s a lot of fun to coach, and he’s a great kid. I’m looking forward to working with him next year.”
Entertaining offers for Steve Birnbaum With three pro seasons behind him and a 2018 World Cup roster spot ahead of him, United’s junior center back just might be ready for Europe. The price and situation have to be right, however. An Israeli club made underwhelming offers over the summer. Bigger teams abroad are aware of him.
Birnbaum is under contract through the 2017 season, so United is not in danger of losing him on a free transfer this offseason. At the very least, to keep him happy and perhaps keep him in Washington for the long term, United is going to need to renegotiate his deal. His base salary this season was a paltry $86,350, with total compensation of $116,350.
If he were to leave, United would have to find a proven replacement right away. Birnbaum’s partner, Bobby Boswell, turns 34 in March. Kofi Opare (38 career starts) and Jalen Robinson (three) are in the mix as well.
Clearing the roster High-priced forwards Alvaro Saborio and Kennedy Igboananike appear to be on the way out.
Saborio, who turns 35 in March, scored six goals but fell out of favor after Patrick Mullins’s arrival in July. His last start came July 23. With a $420,000 base salary (and $535,500 in overall compensation), Saborio occupies considerable budget space. A move back home to the Costa Rican league seems to make the most sense.
Igboananike, 27, arrived from Chicago in July and barely made a ripple (one goal in seven appearances). He wasn’t in uniform for the playoff match. As part of the trade with the Fire, his hefty contract ($800,000 base, $901,666 overall) remained on Chicago’s books.
With Saborio gone, Alhaji Kamara, 22, should have the opportunity to become the second-choice striker behind Mullins. Kamara never did get settled this season: He arrived in May with fitness problems after a long layoff caused by a heart issue, and after scoring 33 seconds into his debut, suffered a hamstring injury that sidelined him for months.
Assessing the roster The core of the team will return, Olsen declared after Thursday’s playoff defeat.
“It’s tough to feel that in the moment right now, but our nucleus is very exciting, very promising,” he said. “And if we add to it, we’re hopefully going to be able to put the kind of performances [that United gave] in the second half [of this season] over the course of a full year.”
In order to challenge for a championship — or, at least, advance deeper in the playoffs — United is going to need to add pieces. But what?
Olsen seems set to go forward with his striker (Mullins), playmaker (Acosta), wings (Lloyd Sam and Patrick Nyarko), versatile attacker (top scorer Lamar Neagle), emerging attacker (Julian Buescher) and goalkeeper (Bill Hamid). Taylor Kemp has been a fixture at left back. Boswell and Birnbaum are, for the time being, the back-line pillars.
In his first season in Washington, midfielder Marcelo Sarvas received high marks for his gritty contributions and leadership in defensive midfield. Sarvas, though, is 35. When he went down with a knee injury in August, United’s season could have teetered. Rob Vincent, a left wing, filled the Sarvas void and paired with Jared Jeffrey to do the dirty work in central midfield, a partnership that liberated Acosta and helped turn United’s lackluster season.
Nick DeLeon didn’t produce in central midfield, returned to the wing in a backup capacity, then provided emergency relief at right back when Sean Franklin suffered a calf injury late in the year. He performed well overall, but in the playoff was outmatched by Montreal’s Ignacio Piatti. Franklin (age 32 in March) and Chris Korb, who missed the entire season with knee problems that carried over from 2015, are the most experienced players at that position. But Franklin is out of contract, and Korb’s resilience is going to be tested at training camp.
As for Olsen and General Manager Dave Kasper, who, with limited resources, have assembled a competitive team, there is no question they’ll be retained by management — “110 percent,” co-owner Jason Levien said. “Now we need to take the next step.”
Chris Rolfe’s status United’s 2015 MVP and leading scorer suffered a concussion in April and never returned. In excruciating detail, he described a terrible time trying to resume normal life, let alone think about playing soccer again.
As the season wore on, Rolfe became a more frequent visitor to RFK, bonding with teammates and doing light exercise. His situation is eerily similar to Davy Arnaud’s last winter: an MLS veteran attempting to rebound from a serious head injury. Arnaud retired and, with a year left on a guaranteed contract, joined the coaching staff. Rolfe, too, has a guaranteed year remaining on his deal.
The stadium situation The last political hurdle is the D.C. Zoning Commission, which is scheduled to address the Buzzard Point plan Nov. 28. The city has already prepared the land in Southwest D.C. and handed it over to the team. However, United has run into opposition from neighboring landowners concerned about the project’s design.
Essentially, those groups have threatened to use United’s tight timetable for the 2018 season as leverage. They know United needs to break ground this winter in order to open the stadium by June 2018, which, for all intents and purposes, is the latest it can begin the home slate after many road trips. Any longer, and the team would have to continue playing at RFK Stadium (and continue taking a financial hit) or find a suitable temporary home. United wants to be in the new venue in 2018 — period.
Rejection by the zoning commission would push the project back up to a year.