New set of bargains key to D.C. United's postseason push

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Red and Black are relying on established players at margin prices, again. Paul Tenorio looks at how D.C. United hopes to revitalize its attack and contend for the playoffs.

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It takes a bit of resourcefulness to build a winner in MLS when the constraints of a salary-cap league are tightened even more by budget restrictions.

That’s the daily reality for D.C. United general manager Dave Kasper.

United’s roster ranks second-to-last in MLS in total salary and guaranteed compensation. A more accurate picture likely puts D.C. dead last when transfer and loan fees are taken into account. It’s a situation unlikely to change until United moves into its new stadium in 2018, which should open a revenue stream for – and the wallets of – ownership.

That hasn’t stopped Kasper from attacking the MLS transfer window this summer. No team has been more active than United, which is making an aggressive push to secure a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

“I’ve got to be a little creative,” Kasper told FourFourTwo.

D.C. made three trades to add attacking pieces from within MLS.  The Black and Red sent general allocation money to the New York Red Bulls for winger Lloyd Sam, shipped targeted and general allocation money to New York City F.C. for forward Patrick Mullins and on Friday dealt targeted allocation money and a 2019 third-round draft pick to the Chicago Fire for forward Kennedy Igboananike.

All three pieces made United younger, faster and more mobile in the final third. All three players also represent potential bargains. Kasper’s strategy is clear: Find MLS-ready pieces who are either out of favor with their current teams or represent undervalued assets. There are no guarantees, of course, but the theory is that you can win without splashing millions for a big-name designated player.

On Sunday, Mullins scored to help United to a 1-1 draw with Montreal – a game that easily could have been three points for D.C.

“Guys like Christian Gomez and Luciano Emilio, they were home runs,” Kasper said. “Those are harder to get now. … But you’ve got to just get some hits. If you get some singles and doubles, you can be successful.”

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Hamid's carried a muted attack in recent seasons. (Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports)

United followed this formula to great success in 2014 when it finished first in the Eastern Conference with 59 points. That year, Kasper raided the little-used re-entry draft to add Sean Franklin, Bobby Boswell and Fabian Espindola. D.C. also traded for Davy Arnaud and Chris Rolfe. All were considered on the downside of their careers, yet they all lifted United to a first-place finish.

Last year, as the roster continued to age, United had an up-and-down campaign. D.C. sits just below the red line this year. The team was in need of some new blood, and after signing forward Alhaji Kamara from overseas, Kasper went back to the MLS well to find solutions.

The need for help in the attacking third was clear. United has been one of the best defensive teams in the league, allowing just 19 goals despite missing star goalkeeper Bill Hamid for much of the season. On the flip side, however, D.C. had scored just 25 goals entering this weekend. That ranked second-to-last in MLS in front of only the Chicago Fire.

“We did want to get a little more mobile, a little younger and a little faster,” Kasper said. “Last year when we got knocked out of playoffs in New York, we felt especially in the wide spots we wanted to become a little more athletic. Players who are more dynamic and get in dangerous spots, who create more service. We think we’ve accomplished that now.”

The moves all fit United’s budget-driven mentality.

Mullins, a two-time Hermann Trophy winner at the University of Maryland, had been highly productive in limited minutes with New York City F.C. He scored six goals with four assists in just 1040 minutes with NYCFC last season, a strike rate of a goal every two games, but was expendable with David Villa and Tony Taylor ahead of him on the depth chart.

Sam had fallen out of favor with the Red Bulls, beaten out for a starting job by homegrown product Alex Muyl. New York also had designated player Gonzalo Veron on the bench. Yet Sam had been an integral part of the Red Bulls’ Supporters’ Shield run last season, scoring 10 goals with seven assists in 2015.

Igboananike was the most interesting addition. The designated player has a high price tag and had scored 11 goals over the last year and a half with the Fire. He showed promise, but hadn’t lived up to lofty expectations. The Fire knew it wasn’t going to renew Igboananike’s contract at the end of the season, so it was willing to ship him to United for TAM and a draft pick. The Fire also picked up most of the salary this season, which meant United had very low risk for a player who might perform well in a new environment as he tries to earn a contract. Whether United picks up his option or negotiates a new deal will be decided in December.

“Kennedy was a guy we watched with AIK [in Sweden] and he was offered up at the time and he was fairly expensive to buy,” Kasper said. “… He’s a player three years ago we couldn’t get, but you strike at the right time to get a guy we think is a fairly good bet.”

United now must hope its latest bargain additions are the push that can get them above New England and Orlando in the hunt for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot. Mullins’ goal on Sunday was a positive start.