Fresh off a 2017 season that can only be described as painful in which they could only muster 32 points (T-Last in MLS), D.C. United suddenly feels rejuvenated in what will certainly be an exciting 2018. With several new foreign imports and the opening of Audi Field, this MLS season promises to be different for soccer in our nation's capital—the 2018 D.C. United Renaissance is upon us.
Off-Season Grade: A-
By many accounts, it wasn’t a ‘flashy’ off-season for the Black-and-Red, but it was solid, and underrated by many. Losing Bill Hamid hurts, no question. The absence of the long-time leader of the backline will leave a hole in many hearts; however, replacing Hamid with a proven MLS goalkeeper in David Ousted was a very smart and safe front office play. To further bolster the defense, DC acquired fullback depth by signing Oriel Fisher from Seattle. In addition, Deportivo Saprissa left-back Joseph Mora has been heavily linked to D.C. United in the last few days, and many expect him to join the squad in the coming week. Lastly, D.C. acquired Frenchman Frédéric Brillant to pair with the talented Steve Birnbaum.
Adding MLS journeyman Darren Mattocks in a role of glaring need feels like a quick tape-job, something to keep things together until they identify a better solution at a later time. Regardless, the #9 is absolutely a position that D.C. is desperate for quality in, and Mattocks’ hot preseason start will surely erase some of the early season question marks, for now. Mattocks will battle for consistent minutes with Patrick Mullins, who is coming off a five goal/twenty game season in 2017.
With Paul Arriola, Luciano Acosta, Ian Harkes, and Chris Durkin, one could argue that going into the off-season the midfield was the strongpoint of the United squad. Despite that, the front office brought in several talented and versatile midfielders to stir up some competition. Ulises Segura was signed from the Costa Rican powerhouse Deportivo Saprissa and looks to square off against Ian Harkes for significant playing time. Venezuela native Júnior Moreno was brought in from Zulia FC and looks to challenge Chris Durkin in the #6 spot. This pair of 24-year-olds bring a lot of promise to a crowded D.C. midfield, and it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.
Of course, it’s impossible to get through the off-season recap without bringing up former Atlanta United loanee Yamil Asad. The Argentine is coming off a brilliant 2017 campaign, contributing on twenty goals, with seven goals and thirteen assists. Although Asad won’t have a Josef Martinez to feed the ball to, between Acosta, Arriola, and the combo of the #9’s, there are enough serviceable weapons for Asad to to utilize with his talented skill set. I expect Asad to reach double digits in assists again, which will be crucial for a team that struggled to put the ball in the back of the net. Signing Asad was a great showing of ambition for the D.C. front office, and expect his tremendous work rate to make a noticeable difference in 2018.
Key Player(s): Darren Mattocks and Patrick Mullins
With a freshly stocked midfield and backline, the area of concern falls to the forward position on this new look D.C. side. Darren Mattocks would have been a great signing had they also managed to attract a premier #9. Perhaps that’s an avenue they’ll explore over the summer with a DP slot, but for now the goal-scoring responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of Mattocks and Mullins.
Despite sounding like a first-class law firm, Mattocks and Mullins leave a lot to be desired as number one options. Combining for nine goals in forty-four games in the 2017 season, the pair will need to improve if the Red and Black are to secure a playoff spot. If the combined goal tally falls somewhere in the 14-16 range, D.C. absolutely has a strong enough side to sneak into the playoffs. However, if they fall short of that mark, in the tough Eastern Conference, United will once again be on the outside looking in come Decision Day.
Best Case Scenario: Lose in Knockout Round
Obviously, a lot has to go right in 2018 for D.C. to sniff a playoff spot. With twelve of the first fourteen games being played on the road, the first half of the season will be an absolute grind for Ben Olsen’s squad. If the 2018 campaign gets off to a rough start, Olsen may not be around to see the opening of Audi Field. The 2018 MLS season is all about hype for D.C. United—new players, a new DP, and a new stadium—if they stumble out of the gate with the grueling schedule, look for the front office to make some quick changes.
That being said, if they remain within single digits of the sixth spot come July, then look out. A late season push fueled by Acosta, Asad, Mattocks and a new ground could result in a turnaround of epic proportions. For this to happen, D.C. will need to grind out results on the road, steal points when they can, and capitalize on the run of home games in the second half of the season. With a talented midfield and solid backline, the only variable missing from the playoff equation is goals.
Bold Prediction: The Magic of Audi Field
The recent trend of new stadiums acting as good luck charms continues, this time for D.C. United as they collect points in their first seven home games to get back into the playoff hunt. Audi Field quickly becomes a fortress, and the stale atmosphere of 2017 is quickly forgotten. Goals are being scored, fans are in seats, and the Red and Black are climbing up the table. They enter Decision Day just two points off of a playoff berth, but an away draw to the Chicago Fire sees them just missing out on the playoffs. Despite this, D.C. is rejuvenated, and a promising 2019 awaits.