Head coach Ben Olsen, along with the rest of the D.C. United organization, seemed content to write off 2011 as a rebuilding year. And the United fanbase was largely content with that as well. After an aimless 2010 season that set MLS records for goal-scoring futility and was the worst season in franchise history, the dedicated rebuilding process laid out by Olsen in 2011 was welcomed.
That rebuilding came to an apparent end yesterday though, as a surprising trade sent shock waves through the MLS community. United acquired five-time MLS All-Star Dwayne De Rosario in a trade with the New York Red Bulls for Dax McCarty.
The expectations for United have suddenly been raised. That's what happens when you trade a 24-year old midfielder with loads of potential for a 33-year old midfielder with loads of experience. De Rosario's talent is proven. He won two MLS Cups with the Houston Dynamo before moving to Toronto FC, and then New York. He'll instantly give D.C. yet another attacking option to complement Charlie Davies, Josh Wolff, Andy Najar, and Chris Pontius. United's offense could rival the best teams in the league if this talented group can all get on the same page.
According to Craig Stouffer of the Washington Examiner, United's General Manager Dave Kaspar has had De Rosario in his sights for quite some time now. United has won 12 trophies in its short MLS history by having skillful central attacking midfielders like Marco Etcheverry and Christian Gomez wearing the No. 10 shirt. With his defensive prowess and finishing deficiency, McCarty isn't a traditional No. 10, but De Rosario sure is.
United is losing a key contributor though with the departure of McCarty. The two-way midfielder came to D.C. in a trade with the Portland Timbers immediately following the MLS Expansion Draft last November. Hard-working, aggressive, intelligent, short - McCarty was seen as a young version of Olsen himself. The coach even gave his young midfielder the captain's armband this preseason.
He took it away on Saturday night. Then he sent the young version of himself to a division rival.
I was among a group of reporters who spoke with McCarty in the locker room after a disappointing 2-2 draw against the Dynamo on Saturday night at RFK Stadium. He spoke about his feelings associated with Olsen taking the captain's armband away from him in favor of veteran forward Wolff.
"For me coming into a new team, we [Olsen and I] had that discussion. I told him that I wanted that responsibility. I really did," he said. "In retrospect, you know, maybe I wasn't quite ready for that coming into a new team, being 23 and not really knowing what to expect.
"Look, I've had this conversation with Benny, Josh, Santino [Quaranta] and more of the veteran leaders of this team. It's going to be a captain by committee. I had a conversation with Benny and he said 'Look, nothing changes. Wolffy's just going to continue to wear the armband for now, and I had no problem with that because its a team. There's not one guy on this team that's the outright captain."
This was a different McCarty than we'd seen before. That's when we should have known something was up. The role of the reluctant hero didn't suit him quite as well as other roles he'd played in D.C., like the Ginger Ninja, or the Ben's Chili Bowl server. McCarty may have known then that he wasn't long for this team. He was evidently seen by the coaching staff as redundant. For a team that's constantly winning trophies with a traditional No. 10, starting two holding midfielders no longer made sense for Olsen.
With De Rosario, United now has a player capable of filling the shoes of Etcheverry and Gomez, at least from a creativity and goal-scoring perspective. Can he also continue to fill the trophy case, as United's central attacking midfielders have done so often in the past? He'll have to, because rebuilding is no longer the plan.