Roster overhaul, new stadium hope may finally end years of misery at D.C. United

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Two decades after building MLS' first dynasty, United's approaching its team with renewed ambition.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – D.C. United and Russell Canouse have gone back to the future.

A decade ago, summer expeditions to the nation’s capital for D.C. United matches were a central part of Canouse’s upbringing in the soccer hotbed of central Pennsylvania.

“As a kid, eight or nine years old, back in ‘03, ‘04, my dad brought me down to the games at RFK Stadium,” the young central midfielder told reporters at his introductory press conference as a D.C. player on Thursday. “I remember going and seeing Ben [Olsen] as a player, Freddy Adu, all those guys.”

“I think it's pretty special for everyone coming in now, when we have the opportunity to be part of the tradition at RFK and then slowly transition into Audi Field [United’s new home for 2018].”

The main focus worldwide is to get younger players who can grow with the club ... who can become a real investment down the line."

- Dave Kaspar

Two days later, Canouse and his fellow new arrivals Paul Arriola, Zoltan Stieber and Bruno Miranda got a look at how bizarre that tradition can be. Saturday’s home game against Real Salt Lake was postponed 24 hours by a furious deluge that flooded the 56-year-old facility’s field, dampening to the bone most of those on hand.

In the end, D.C. lost that one – its first-ever home setback to RSL – as it has 15 of its 24 games this season. It remains dead-last in the MLS standings, but this latest setback arrived in a distinctly different context from the others.

An abrupt change of course

United is suddenly one of the most intriguing teams in MLS. In the space of a few days, the Black-and-Red shipped out several of its most proven veterans, making room for the young additions who represent a combined financial outlay well beyond anything the club has ever spent on player acquisition, both in terms of intra-MLS monopoly money (which D.C. has grown adept at stockpiling) and cold hard cash, like the $3 million-plus transfer fee delivered to Mexico’s Club Tijuana for Arriola.

For years they’ve been MLS’ “Expendables,” a cheaply-assembled band of castoffs carrying an underdog’s chip on their shoulder as management slashed costs to limit financial losses at ancient RFK. It’s a stretch of futility that has tested and pushed a loyal fan base. But now, the team’s two-decade pipe dream, Audi Field – which stands to be the most expensive soccer-first venue in MLS history – is rising rapidly a few miles down the Anacostia River. And it seems to mean that owners Erick Thohir and Jason Levien are finally ready to rekindle the ambitions of when D.C. United won three of the league’s first four championships.

D.C.’s flurry of newcomers probably hit town too late to salvage this year’s disappointing campaign. But they’re the cornerstones of an ambitious plan to restore United’s status as a flagship club – albeit with a few lessons borrowed from one of the league’s newest teams.

“The main focus worldwide is to get younger players who can grow with the club, who are not the finished product, who have a ways to go in their development, who can become a real investment down the line,” said D.C. general manager Dave Kasper. “And that's the way our league is going right now, thanks to the level of investment that the ownership across the board in our league … is making.”

If that reminds you of expansion side Atlanta United’s much-ballyhooed gambit to pack their roster with talented young South Americans like Miguel Almiron and Hector Villalba – players who can both thrive in MLS and tempt European clubs into big-money transfer offers – you’re catching on.

Stieber, an established Hungarian international with Bundesliga experience, is 28 and Jamaican striker Deshorn Brown, acquired earlier in the summer via the MLS allocation process, is 26. But Arriola and Canouse are both 22. Miranda, though he already has three caps with Bolivia, is 19. D.C.’s incumbent star, sprightly Argentinian playmaker Luciano Acosta, is 23.

Homegrown rookie Ian Harkes is 22 and already a regular in central midfield. U.S. U-17 national team captain Chris Durkin, currently 17, signed a homegrown deal last year and could compete for minutes in deep midfield next year. Should their fellow Homegrown Player Jalen Robinson be included in the plans for 2018, he'll do so as a 23-year-old defender with four professional seasons under his belt.

Out with the old?

Perhaps even more importantly, a long list of veterans appear to be out of contract this winter, representing further flexibility for the front office, as longtime United watcher Ryan Keefer noted in a Monday column on BlackandRedUnited.com.

“From 2013 to now, D.C. needed to tread water to keep from drowning, and now that they’re in a better position to get out of the water, the cards are lining up for them to finally have a chance, for the first time in more than a decade, to catch up to those in the league who have passed or even lapped them,” wrote Keefer, who playfully called the blueprint “Atlanta lite” in a subsequent conversation with FourFourTwo.

Sprinkle in a bit of the Toronto FC model, too, with a premium paid to place a rising U.S. national team face (Arriola) front and center, “a very strategic investment” by Kasper.

It leaves D.C. United with a young core on contracts for the next several years. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid will also fall into that category if he can be convinced to re-sign for his hometown team this winter.

Finally, a coherent plan has taken shape, giving United’s long-suffering fans something to be excited about even in the throes of a last-place campaign at an antiquated venue.

“We want to create our own big names and win,” Levien, who isn’t based in D.C. and rarely gives interviews, told the Washington Post in June. “I don’t feel we need a marketing gambit. This is a soccer town, and they are going to come, especially for quality soccer and playing the right way. If we have a compelling product, people are going to want to be there.”

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