WASHINGTON, D.C. - In the moments following D.C. United's 1-1 draw with the Portland Timbers, head coach Ben Olsen was asked how he would approach Saturday's now-meaningless match against Sporting Kansas City.
"We want to win," Olsen said. "We don't want to end this year on a loss. We want to reward our fans with something to cheer about. We will go at it with the best team possible--that's still walking after this game."
Injuries notwithstanding, it doesn't require a great leap of imagination to think that some of those who will suit up for United on Saturday will be playing for their jobs next season. But a quick glance at the roster and Wednesday night's starting lineup reveals that any changes are likely to be mostly peripheral.
For reference, here's the starting lineup from Wednesday night's game. As Olsen pointed out Wednesday night, United started two rookies (former Akron teammates Perry Kitchen and Chris Korb) and brought on a third (Blake Brettschneider) as a late substitute. All three of these players are young, cheap and not going anywhere (Nor, for that matter, is Olsen himself). Bill Hamid, Ethan White, and Andy Najar aren't rookies, but all are very young players who will also be around next season. Brandon McDonald recently signed a multi-year contract with United, so his services have been secured for 2012 and beyond. Josh Wolff has a club option for 2012, which I believe will be picked up.
I think it was intriguing that Olsen dropped Clyde Simms and Stephen King to the bench Wednesday night. Of the two, King is younger and cheaper than the veteran Simms, whose absence raises the question: If Olsen won't use him for the most important game of the season, has Simms outlived his usefulness at United? I think he may have, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Simms move on and King take the central midfield role.
Continuing down Wednesday night's bench, we have Joe Willis, who's likely to supplant Steve Cronin as Hamid's backup once and for all next season; Kurt Morsink, who's cheap, but has only made two appearances all year; Austin da Luz, who will likely stay around to provide cover on the left wing; and Joseph Ngwenya, who managed to not score a goal in 15 appearances and is only staying in D.C. if he takes a massive pay cut.
Of those who didn't make the bench Wednesday night, Chris Pontius is a no-brainer to return next season. The 24-year-old was United's best all-around player until he broke his tibia Sept. 10 against Chivas USA and it's no coincidence that the Black-and-Red had won just once in the eight games since the injury.
Less certain are the futures of Branko Boskovic and Dejan Jakovic. Boskovic suffered a knee injury in a U.S. Open Cup match against New England back in April and hasn't played since. Jakovic injured his hamstring playing a Gold Cup warm-up match for Canada and struggled to return to fitness. Neither play comes cheap, but Boskovic's status as a designated player means that his salary is easier to absorb and is why I think he'll get one more chance to prove himself here. Jakovic, on the other hand, has White and McDonald breathing down his neck to be the starting centerback and might have to adjust his salary and expectations of playing time accordingly.
That brings me to two big names I haven't yet mentioned: Dwayne De Rosario and Charlie Davies. De Rosario's MVP-caliber performance, which I discussed some time ago, has given the Canadian international remarkable leverage in negotiations for a new contract. Fortunately for D.C. United fans, his performance hasn't gone unnoticed by Club President Kevin Payne and General Manager Dave Kasper. Throw in the fact that D.C. United has one designated player spot available, and I expect the club to make strong play for De Rosario.
As for Davies: Was it only seven months ago that he scored two goals in a 3-1 season-opening win against Columbus? It's felt like seven years recently, as Davies has grown frustrated with his playing time and seen his production dip. Davies' hat trick against Chivas USA Sept. 10 have been his only goals since June 25. At the moment, he looks less like the Comeback Player of the Year and more like the greatest "What If?" in the history of American soccer. If United wants to make Davies' loan move permanent, they'll have to pay his French club, Sochaux, $1.2 million. I have no doubt they'll think thrice before doing so. But in the end, Davies' 11 goals were still good for second on the club this season, and that's a very hard thing to throw away.
So, in the end, I see a D.C. United roster with very few significant changes, which is about what you'd expect for a team that is still young and still learning to win games together. Whether they can turn another year's worth of experience and cohesion into a playoff berth is anyone's guess.
Who should go: Steve Cronin, Kurt Morsink, Joseph Ngwenya, Clyde Simms.
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