With training camp four weeks away, here are seven things to know about D.C. United:
1. The regular season will open March 4, a Saturday night, against Sporting Kansas City at RFK Stadium. The club is billing it as the “final home opener” at RFK, but until the last city zoning obstacle on the Buzzard Point project is cleared in February, an asterisk is necessary (jussst in case). The second weekend, on the afternoon of March 12, United will visit Yankee Stadium to face New York City FC. The league will announce the full 34-match team schedules in the next two weeks. D.C. will face expansion side Minnesota United (Western Conference) once and newcomer Atlanta United (Eastern) at least twice.
2. Sean Franklin, the first-choice right back who became a free agent this winter, will return for his fourth season in Washington after signing a multiyear contract. Terms were not disclosed, but he probably received a modest raise on his $225,000 base salary and, as a longtime MLS player, multiple guaranteed years. He turns 32 in March. With Luke Mishu retiring after just two seasons and Chris Korb (knee issues) out of the picture, United could not afford to lose Franklin (80 league starts in three years). Even with Franklin’s return, D.C. remains thin on the corners, with Franklin, starting left back Taylor Kemp and few other options. When needed, the club could deploy midfielder Nick DeLeon at right back — he did step in for the injured Franklin late this past season — but the club will surely need to address the dearth of depth via trade, signing or draft.
3. Jose Guillermo Ortiz, who can play as a center forward or wing, will join the club on loan from Herediano in Costa Rica, replenishing the attack after the offseason departures of Alvaro Saborio (released) and Kennedy Igboananike (traded). United has the option to purchase his contract after the 2017 season. Ortiz, 24, scored 33 goals in 140 appearances (87 starts) over four years with Alajuelense. He moved to Herediano this month, then was loaned to United. Both of his CONCACAF Champions League goals came against D.C. (first leg of the 2015 quarterfinals). He has suited up for the national team once (2015 friendly vs. Paraguay but did not play). In Washington, he and Alhaji Kamara are slated to provide depth behind striker Patrick Mullins.
4. United is poised to sign defensive midfielder Ian Harkes to a homegrown contract. After a highly decorated career at Wake Forest, he has hired prominent agent Lyle Yorks, who handles many high-profile U.S. players overseas as well as MLS figures. Ian’s father, John Harkes, captained United and the U.S. national team. Ian — born in England while John played for Derby County but raised in Fairfax, Va. — featured in United’s academy before enrolling at Wake, where he graduated in 3 1/2 years. He is a finalist for the Herman Trophy, awarded Jan. 6 to the nation’s top collegiate player. If the 21-year-old Harkes signs, he would join a D.C. outfit that includes Kamara, 22, Luciano Acosta, 22, Julian Buescher, 23, Jalen Robinson, 22, oft-injured Collin Martin, 22, and Chris Durkin, who turns 17 in February and will report to the club full-time this summer. Robinson and Martin are also homegrowns who played at Wake Forest.
5. In an eerie reprise, another veteran is hoping to overcome concussion issues and revive his career. How that turns out will affect the salary cap. Last winter, it was Davy Arnaud. This winter, it’s Chris Rolfe. After a comeback bid, Arnaud decided to retire and join Ben Olsen’s staff. Rolfe, United’s 2015 MVP, hasn’t played since last spring. Like Arnaud, he has a guaranteed contract. If he can’t play, United could put him to work, though not every player is the right fit for a coaching position. (Arnaud, a Texas native, left this offseason to take a similar job with Houston.) In such situations, the roster slot opens but the contract continues to count against the salary cap. MLS teams do have the right to buy out one guaranteed contract per offseason and free the corresponding cap space, but at the club’s expense. United did not exercise that option last winter. In Rolfe’s case, United’s investors would have to pony up about $300,000. (Contracts below the designated player threshold of $480,625 are fully paid by the league, not the team.)
6. United holds the No. 12 pick in the first round of the MLS draft Jan. 13 in Los Angeles. The club has two selections in the second round (34th and 43rd overall), none in the third and one in the fourth. For practical purposes, only the first round matters. For United, the past three drafts have yielded Buescher (11th overall), Miguel Aguilar (17th) and Steve Birnbaum (second) in the opening stage. The league will conduct the last two rounds via conference call the following week.
7. At the conclusion of the 2016 season, Olsen said he expected most of the squad to return. Two months later, it’s sure looking that way. The only semi-regulars to depart were Mishu and Saborio. Goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra joined Sporting Kansas City via the re-entry draft. Igboananike went to Portland. Aguilar was dealt to Los Angeles. Including Ortiz and Rolfe, the roster count is 24. Harkes would make it 25. One or two draft picks would almost fill out the roster, which cannot exceed 28. Often, a club will leave roster space for in-season additions. Trialists and late signings are common in training camp, which is slated to commence no earlier than Jan. 23. United plans to spend the bulk of preseason on Florida’s west coast.