From Wayne Rooney’s plans to leave after the season to a swell of transactions and a burst of rumors, D.C. United has been caught in a 48-hour tempest.
But when calm is restored, and Rooney is back at practice and the newcomers have found their lockers, Coach Ben Olsen will begin plotting a course over nine weeks to steer a wayward team into the MLS playoffs.
Although United is in the thick of the Eastern Conference race, four points out of first place and three above the postseason threshold, this season of heightened expectations has been a disappointment.
That is why United has taken action before the transfer and trade deadline closes Wednesday at 11:59 p.m. Central time. In a swirl of activity since Monday, D.C. spent an estimated $2.5 million to acquire former MLS scoring ace Ola Kamara from Chinese club Shenzhen; traded for central midfielder Felipe Martins and winger Emmanuel Boateng; and swung two deals involving financial considerations (known in MLS as allocation money) to help accommodate the moves.
The Martins trade was announced late in the day Tuesday. The Kamara and Boateng moves will go public Wednesday.
The organization will continue weighing trade options Wednesday and, with teams allowed to sign free agents from around the world until Aug. 30, additional moves could occur.
“We’re going to have a lot of interesting pieces, and we’re going to have to figure out the best group and who we are going forward,” Olsen said Tuesday. “Who we are in the moment [before the latest moves] is not good enough.”
Amid the incoming rush, Rooney was in England finalizing plans to join second-tier Derby County as a player-assistant coach after the MLS season, which will cut short his D.C. contract by two years. He is expected to rejoin United’s full workouts Thursday.
Putting the pieces together, forging chemistry and keeping morale high during a 2-4-7 rut will fall on Olsen.
United has played two primary formations this year: 4-2-3-1 and 5-2-2-1. Will it change? And if so, is there enough time to properly implement something new?
“Whether we are in a 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1, 3-4-3, I can’t tell you right now,” Olsen said. “I can tell you we are doing a lot of work and figuring it out. And I can also tell you we’re not going to figure it out in the next week.”
Time is not on United’s side. Only nine matches remain, just four at home, and several are tough tests, including Sunday night’s clash with Swedish star Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the Los Angeles Galaxy at Audi Field.
The schedule also includes home and away matches against the rival New York Red Bulls; a trip to Philadelphia to face the Union, which scorched host United, 5-1, this past weekend; and meetings with Seattle at home and Portland away.
Only two games are against teams fading from playoff contention (Cincinnati and Vancouver).
“It hasn’t been good enough, but we are still in a good position in the league,” Rooney said. “We have to refocus and get back to winning ways if we are going to push on in our quest for a playoff spot.”
United will have to do so after making changes later than usual in the campaign. The transfer and trade deadline is at about the same time as in most years; the difference is the regular season schedule was shortened by three weeks.
Kamara’s arrival will allow Olsen to play a second proven scorer alongside, or in front of, Rooney. He scored 48 times in three MLS seasons with Columbus and the Galaxy before failing to make an impression in China this year.
Kamara’s international paperwork is pending, and it’s unclear whether it will clear in time to play Sunday.
If, at some point, Rooney is playing behind Kamara, what will Olsen do with Luciano Acosta, the Argentine playmaker who, in the final year of his contract, is not having a great season? He could pair with Rooney or he could take a seat.
Martins, acquired from Vancouver, is an instant option to start in defensive midfield, where all three regulars are sidelined. Russell Canouse (collapsed lung) and Chris Durkin (sprained ankle) are out for weeks, and Junior Moreno will serve a red-card suspension this weekend.
United has played with two defensive midfielders all year; this weekend, Olsen seems likely to use one, and a new one at that.
Boateng, an elusive speedster, will provide an option on the flanks. His acquisition from the Galaxy came after United failed to strike a deal to purchase Argentine winger Mateo Garcia from Spanish club Las Palmas. The asking price was in the $3 million range.
United has apparently passed on the opportunity to reacquire Argentine attacker Yamil Asad, who returned home last winter. He was asking for too much money, which scared away not only United, but MLS teams interested in trading with D.C. for his league rights.
United chose Martins over, among others, former U.S. national team midfielder Danny Williams, 30, who is a free agent after Huddersfield Town was relegated from the Premier League last season.
Another former U.S. figure, Jose Torres, impressed the coaching staff during recent workouts. But the longtime Mexican league midfielder is not fit and, in the club’s belief, would not offer much in the short term. He might end up signing with United, but with an eye on 2020.
As for Rooney’s situation, no one in the organization doubts that, despite his departure in a few months, he will continue playing hard and serving his captain’s role with honor.
“Because it’s Wayne, this whole thing [about him leaving] is amplified, but there are a lot of guys who might be going at the end of the year,” Olsen said. “This is what professional players do: You get back to work and play at the highest level you can.”
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