United Faces Difficult Stretch

Injuries, suspensions pose challenges at key time
by Peter Muller   |   Friday, August 15, 2014

United Capitol – column on DC United (DCU) & the Washington DC/DMV area soccer scene.

Through the first two-thirds of the Major League Soccer season D.C. United has been one of the league’s most pleasant surprises.  The team that set a franchise record for fewest wins last season is not only well-positioned for post season play but has even spent time recently leading the Eastern Conference.

But as United enters a busy stretch of the season, including trips to Kansas City and Los Angeles and the start of its CONCACAF Champions League campaign, the club is facing significant injury and suspension issues that will challenge the depth of the squad and determine just how successful a year this will be.

United overhauled its roster in the offseason and brought in several veteran players with long experience in MLS.  Those changes have paid dividends as the team survived a slow start to the season and proceeded to grind out results en route to a first place position in July.

Fabian Espindola and Chris Rolfe, in particular, have given United’s attack a creative spark that it lacked last year while Bobby Boswell and Jeff Parke locked down a defense that leaked the most goals in the Eastern Conference a season ago.

With the growth of youngsters like midfielder Perry Kitchen and goalkeeper Bill Hamid and the leadership of midfielder Davy Arnaud, United has made a turnaround nearly as epic as its disastrous performance last season.

But cracks are beginning to show in this feel-good story and the coming weeks will determine whether United has the depth on its roster to succeed without key players and whether the club’s management will be willing to make moves to augment the squad.

The immediate problem for United is on the back line, especially in the fullback position. 

Spaniard Cristian Fernandez, who started at left back for the first half of the season, departed in July because the club said he was not happy living in the United States, which was evident in his play.  Chris Korb assumed the left back spot and has played well but is now expected to miss the next month with a hamstring injury. 

Untested Taylor Kemp is next in line and Tuesday Head Coach Ben Olsen expressed confidence in him.  Still, it would make sense for United to look for reinforcements at the fullback position – especially because they also lack a legitimate backup for Sean Franklin on the right side.

The depth in the middle of the defense is questionable as well.  Veteran centerback Parke who has missed several weeks with mysterious headaches is out indefinitely following inner-ear surgery this week.  Rookie Steven Birnbaum has stepped in and performed at a rookie-of-the-year level but the options behind him are questionable. 

Nana Attakora has yet to play a minute this season so Kofi Opare, who was recently acquired from the Los Angeles Galaxy, would appear to be the next in line should Birnbaum or Boswell go down. 

The other challenge for United is the enigmatic Eddie Johnson.  Just when the high-priced forward was starting to score goals (albeit, often from the penalty spot) he once again engaged in petulant behavior and lashed out against Carlos Salcedo in Salt Lake last weekend, which resulted in a two match ban by the league. 

To make matters worse, he followed up his attack on Salcedo by getting into an unseemly Twitter fight with United fans.  Olsen reportedly spoke with Johnson about his behavior and the striker expressed regret.  But this is just the latest in a pattern that Johnson established years ago.

That leaves United without not only Johnson but his backup Conor Doyle as well, who will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury.

The good news for United is the Eastern Conference is weak and the points D.C. built up in the first half of the season should be enough to see them through to the playoffs.  And their Champions League first round draw, which will see them play home-and-away games against Jamaican side Waterhouse FC and the Panamanian club Tauro FC, seems eminently winnable.

The question is whether they will enter the postseason and the Champions League as a team with a legitimate shot to compete or a team that stumbles its way to early tournament exits. 

The answer may depend on whether the management is willing to make moves to strengthen the club.  While an extra DP seems out the question and the international transfer window has closed, United still has the option make a move within the league to bolster the club. 

NEXT UP: August 17 - DC United vs. Colorado Rapids, RFK Stadium, Washington, DC, 8:00 PM ET, Univision and Comcast Sports Net


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Peter is a government relations professional in Washington, DC, and Los Angeles, CA. He has been a DC United season ticket holder since 1997 and has attended every MLS Cup except one – in 1998 when he was busy helping his boss get re-elected to Congress.