Hamdi Salihi was D.C. United’s marquee acquisition during a busy winter, a European-tested striker who would poach goals in the penalty area and fill an essential need in an already formidable attack. He would alleviate pressure on the returning scorers and serve as the target man for crosses.
He was, in essence, the final piece in forming a playoff contender.
“We’ve been searching for the right [pure striker] for some time,” Coach Ben Olsen said at a cheery preseason gathering at RFK Stadium, “and we think we found it.”
But seven months later, Salihi has spent more time on the bench than in the lineup.
Salihi is classified as a Designated Player, or DP, the MLS rule that allows clubs to exceed salary guidelines in order to acquire marquee talent. In Salihi’s case, DP could also stand for: Doesn’t Play.
He has logged 53 minutes in the past eight matches and hasn’t started since July 21. Several times, he has been passed over in the substitution pattern for midseason acquisitions with inferior scoring credentials.
Even now, with starting forward Dwayne De Rosario sidelined with a knee injury, Salihi remains a secondary option.
“I have never before been in this situation, not playing,” said Salihi, 28, an Albanian national team regular who scored bundles of goals in the Austrian league before moving to MLS. “You have to accept the decision. It’s a little hard for me. I try to work, I try to do some thing better and get some more minutes.”
Salihi’s disappearance has drawn growing scrutiny because of the hefty salary United invested in him: a base of $305,000 and compensation of $487,000, which is guaranteed for two years. De Rosario is the only United player earning more ($617,000/$663,000).
Each time Olsen has been quizzed about Salihi’s inactivity, the answer has been consistent: He is in the mix, he is doing fine but someone is either outperforming him or is a better fit for that particular match.
Salihi started five of the first six games but didn’t score. His playing time decreased and he didn’t record a goal until the 10th game — the start of a prosperous month in which he had four goals in league play and one in the U.S. Open Cup.
However, Salihi fell out of favor again, and in doing so tumbled down the depth chart.
“Goal-scoring is a tricky thing, a streaky thing,” assistant coach Chad Ashton said. “When you are on a team with a bunch of forwards and you are not scoring, sometimes you can get buried in that rotation.”
Seven players have started at forward this season, including De Rosario, who excels in the midfield and on the frontline. In late June, De Rosario moved almost exclusively to the front, squeezing the amount of time available for the other forwards.
In United’s first game without De Rosario on Saturday, Olsen paired Maicon Santos (seven goals in 21 appearances) with Lionard Pajoy (one goal in six games since being acquired from Philadelphia).
United officials won’t pinpoint Salihi’s deficiencies, but typically with lineup selections, performance in practice, not just games, is weighed heavily. When he was chosen, Salihi lacked presence, had a heavy touch on the ball and couldn’t create opportunities on his own.
Salihi (10 starts) hasn’t complained publicly about playing time, like Montenegrin midfielder Branko Boskovic did Tuesday in the wake of his removal early in the second half last weekend against New England. But those close to Salihi say he is frustrated and confused.
The most playing time Salihi received of late was for Albania in a World Cup qualifier.
“It’s not easy when you are not playing for your club and you go into the national team and play 90 minutes,” he said. “It means a lot to me because at some point you think you can’t play. It helped me a lot.”
Upon his return, Salihi served 23 minutes as a substitute against New England — a positive performance that might lead to a larger role down the stretch.
“He might have to start sometime in the near future,” said Olsen, whose club will visit Philadelphia on Thursday night. “We have a lot of faith in him. He can score goals. He’s going to play a part if we have success in these next six games.”