Updated: Feb 27
By RJ Rolsen
Where DC United is Today
Welcome to Wrexham became a bit of a phenomenon in American soccer culture this past year; and if there was any MLS team that could have a Wrexham style documentary series, it was 2022 DC United.
The Red and Black are one of the original MLS Teams, the original dynasty of the league with an amazing supporters culture. Then came the lean years as DC United were coached by team legend Ben Olsen. During those years the team would yo-yo back between good and horrendous, all the while not spending any real money as the team sought a new stadium and to leave dilapidated RFK Stadium.
The promise of a new stadium and the revenues it would generate was long held out as a carrot for supporters. So when the stadium was mostly finished, and Wayne Rooney was brought in as a player, it was easy to see why fans got excited. Yet the hope was fleeting as one magical season was cut short, and the next was ho-hum, and then the Rooney era was over.
The season following Rooney’s departure started roughly, then came Covid and the promise of the stadium’s rewards was stalled as the facility stood empty when it was supposed to be bringing in new revenue streams. When the season finally restarted, the rough play of the early season proved to be more than a stumble as DC United was unable to get out of the group stage of the MLS is Back tournament, and the regular season continued with the play on the field matching the dismal results of the scoreline. This led the front office to make its first managerial change in a decade as Ben Olsen was let go. Chad Ashton came in, and he was able to right the ship to the point that the decision day match was a win and you're in the playoffs.
But it did give a modicum of hope, and when DC brought in a young and engaging new coach, Hernan Losada from the Belgian top league, the fans were excited. Losada promised fun, energetic soccer, and he seemed to imbue the team with energy and purpose. That along with the Front Office hiring Lucy Rushton as the new General Manager, with her use of metrics, and it seemed like DC was finally catching up with the rest of the league in the 21st Century. Again the team went right to Decision Day with a chance at the playoffs, a slight dip near the end dropping them from mid playoff spot to needing a win and some help to get in.
DC won, but the help didn’t come.
Still fans were excited. Losada had been hired late. He basically was still playing with Ben Olsen’s team. Now the Front Office would get him players better suited for his frenetic pressing, while those who were held over would be better having already learned the system. But, dark clouds began to form. New signings were few and underwhelming, then fan favorite and maybe best player on the roster, Paul Arriola began to agitate for a transfer. The team did transfer him for an MLS record amount to FC Dallas, and at the same time also sold Kevin Paredes to VfL Wolfsburg for a club record fee. Suddenly two huge keys to the team’s success were gone and the Front Office was scrambling a bit.
The 2022 season started with two wins, neither of which were very convincing, and then the floor began to drop and suddenly loss after loss began to mount. The team’s play was lackluster and there wasn’t the spark that had defined the team in 2021. Losses mounted and then seemingly out of nowhere Hernan Losada was let go as head coach just six games into the season.
To say fans were shocked would have been an understatement.
The Front Office quickly promoted Chad Ashton back into the interim manager spot, with the hopes he could repeat the performance from when he replaced Ben Olsen. He was going to have more time to make a difference this time, and he was going to have the team’s new Designated Player in Taxi Fountas. There was genuine belief that Ashton would be able to do enough to make DC a playoff contender.
This was not to be.
Ashton tried to keep Losada ball, while not instilling the pressure and pace that are absolutely necessary for Losada ball to work. After a small uptick in play from the new manager-bounce, the team’s slow but steady decline continued.
After one truly horrendous result, and with the team spiraling, DC United’s Front Office decided to throw a Hail Mary and hired Wayne Rooney to come in and take over the head coaching duties for the team. Due to visa issues he spent the first few weeks watching from the stands and evaluating. Once he was able to take a hands-on role, Rooney spent a lot of time mixing and matching players, formations, and tactics. A number of key players were shown the door or saw their playing time diminished. At the same time he and the Front Office began to bring in a new batch of talent.
There was definitely an emphasis to bring in more experienced players, even as Rooney was giving a number of young homegrown players a chance to play. Because he was looking to improve the experience level, DC brought in Ravel Morrison from Rooney’s former team, Darby County, on a TAM deal, while two new Designated Players were acquired, giving DC United 3 DPs for the first time in club history. The first was a defensive midfielder, Victor Pálsson, and the second was a Striker, Christian Benteke. These players took time to get bedded in because of visa issues, and when they were able to play the season was lost, so it is difficult to say how well they will play. In addition, between injuries and other troubling events, the three designated players only had one game together.
Because of these many different factors, it’s difficult to say what 2023 will look like. In terms of overall talent, this team is much further along than last season’s team, but how well they perform is completely up-in-the-air.
5 Key Questions for 2023 DC United
Any team that finishes the season prior as the Wooden Spoon recipient is going to have a boatload of questions, and DC United is no exception. Some of the most pressing questions for the Black & Red going into the 2023 season.
5. Can DC United Homegrowns step up?
For a while now the front office for DC United has looked at the academy pipeline of their two biggest rivals with envy. The New York Red Bulls and Philadelphia Union have utilized their homegrown system to great success, so DC United has put a lot of resources into improving their academy system. They have also created a better pathway to pro system through their USL affiliate Loudoun United. United did have quick success with Kevin Paredes, but not so much with Griffin Yow and Moses Nyeman.
Now there’s the next wave of Homegrown players and the question is has DC learned from the mistakes made before? The good news for DC fans is that Rooney seems committed to playing his young players. At the same time DC has utilized Loudoun United to ensure the homegrowns continue to get playing time and don’t stagnate on the bench.
Now it’s up to Jackson Hopkins, Ted Ku-DiPietro, and Kristian Fletcher to take the opportunity given them. Hopkins has the most MLS minutes, and has all the tools to be a top forward. Ted KDP has the most professional minutes between MLS and USL. Another forward, he currently has the best foot skills and passing. Fletcher is the youngest, is also a forward, and has the most potential. The goal he scored in the final game of last season shows he has the potential to be a top scorer.
Just behind this group is another group of young prospects, Jeremy Garay, Jacob Greene, Hayden Sargis, and Matai Akinmboni, who will most likely play most of their minutes in Loudoun, but offer potential depth for a very full season schedule. Who steps up this season will have a profound effect on this season.
4. Can Rooney’s signings make the MLS adjustment?
DC United was in a hard way already when Wayne Rooney took over last season. The third head coach in the season, having just been historically routed by the Philadelphia Union, Rooney initially spent a lot of time evaluating what was in the cupboard, and then began cleaning house, and bringing in his own players.
For the first time, DC United filled all three of their Designated Player slots, bringing in Victor Pálsson and Christian Benteke to go with Taxi Fountas, who had only joined the team in late March. In addition Rooney brought Ravel Morrison, who had played for him at Darby, in on a TAM deal, and welcomed Martín Rodríguez who had been signed by the team just prior to Rooney’s hiring.
All these players had moments that showed they could be really good, maybe even great, but none was consistent. There’s a theory that players often need a season to adjust to MLS, and DC United fans hope that this is the case here. Given a preseason to work with the coaching staff, and for Rooney to design tactics to go with his strategy, there should be improvement.
Pálsson’s contract was bought down with GAM, and is now a TAM deal, which allowed DC to bring in another DP, this time a Center Midfielder from Leeds, Mateusz Klich. He is a ball controlling midfielder who Rooney hopes can help DC to transition into the attack faster. He joins a handful of MLS players the team brought in to both improve the defense and provide squad depth.
Two veteran goalkeepers were brought in to replace club legend Bill Hamid. Neither Tyler Miller nor Alex Bono are as good as Bill Hamid was in his prime, but Hamid was no longer in his prime last season, and both should offer more than he could this season.
The center backs were a definite weakness last season, and it could be questioned whether DC has adequately addressed this issue when it traded for Derrick Williams from LA Galaxy. It at least gives the team a left-footed center back. The team also traded for Orlando right back Ruan, and signed Pedro Santos as a free agent from Columbus to serve as backup to newly signed Mohanad Jeahze at left back.
This mix of MLS veterans, plus the time last summer’s signings have had to adjust to MLS, should provide DC United with a strong starting 11 and depth it just hasn’t had the last few seasons, but if they don't, it could be another long season.
3. Can United score?
Considering this team gave up 7 goals and then 6 goals respectively in two games versus Philadelphia Union, and had multiple games where they conceded 3 or more goals, one might think that defense was the team’s biggest area of weakness. One could make many compelling arguments for that to be the case. Yet, it was the offense which truly was the weakness of 2022 DC United. As a team the Red & Black only managed 34 goals, and the team’s second and third highest goal scorers, Ola Kamara (9) and Michael Estrada (4) are no longer with the club. That’s over a third of the team’s already paltry scoring.
Observers of DC United could easily see what the problem was. Passing was slow, methodical and rarely showed any courage. Build up didn’t seem to have purpose, though this did change slightly after Rooney arrived. Often after matches, Rooney was quoted as saying his players needed to be more courageous in their play, and his recent additions show a desire for the team to control the ball and move it forward quickly.
Expect the two new fullbacks to push the ball, along with new DP Klich, whose game is predicated on moving the ball forward. Now the question will be, can these players get the ball to Benteke and Taxi in positions to score?
2. Can Taxi be the player he was when he first joined DC United?
When Taxiarchis Fountas first joined DC United in late March of 2022, he took the team by storm. He helped DC United get a couple badly needed victories, and was a prolific scorer. In 21 games, Taxi scored 12 goals. His play on the field for a really bad team was enough to get him noticed by the league and he was even selected to play at the MLS All Star Game.
Communication was a little difficult for the player at first as his English was nonexistent, only a few players spoke German which he’s fluent in, and there was even less understanding of his native Greek. This would be a precursor to a major issue later, but at the beginning it was only a mild irritant, as his vivacious nature endeared him to his teammates and fans.
This all came crashing down on the 59th minute of a match versus Inter Miami, when a Miami player accused Taxi Fountas of using a racial slur. By the 66th minute Rooney had pulled Fountas, and he would not see the field again in 2022.
Major League Soccer investigated the incident and true to form, MLS was less than satisfactory in their investigation and findings. The investigation was too drawn out, and the findings released when attention would be the least notable. Even the findings were less than conclusive, as Taxi was cleared as nothing could be corroborated, but the accusation was found to be credible. Basically it left a cloud that didn’t really allow for closure in either direction.
Taxi Fountas will be back for the 2023 season, but it’s a huge question if he will be accepted by the fans, both DC’s and those for the opposition. Will he be the scorer DC needs, or be an unnecessary distraction? A big part of DC United’s success will hinge on the answers to these questions.
How long will Wayne Rooney be DC United’s Head Coach?
It came pretty much out of the blue last July when suddenly there were rumors, followed quickly by confirmation that Wayne Rooney was to be the next head coach for D.C. United. It marked his return to the MLS club he played for in 2018 and 2019. United were coming off a 7-0 drubbing at the hands of Philadelphia Union, which was the ultimate low point for a trash fire of a season.
Rooney had recently stepped down as manager of another trash fire in Derby County. For 18 months he had done everything possible to keep Derby County in the English Championship, but finally had succumbed when the club was docked a 21-point penalty for violating EFL accounting rules. Many saw Rooney’s handling of Derby County’s difficult circumstances as great preparation for turning around eventual Wooden Spoon Recipient DC United.
Rooney has made it abundantly clear that “There's no chance I'm finishing bottom of that league again, there's no chance.” He has done a near-complete overhaul of the squad since he signed on, and it will be a new-look squad that takes the field on opening night. His hope is that a better balanced team with experienced professionals will instill a culture of excellence and winning. To that end, the Front Office went out and obtained a number of MLS-proven veterans, who could especially help reshape the defense, while focusing the Designated Players on the team’s offensive play.
Everyone believes Wayne Rooney is all in to make DC United live up to its historical legacy. He has openly called for improving the culture of a club desperately in need of it. The question is though, will he be here long enough to truly set this club back on the right track? Time will tell.
Taxiarchis Fountas: Taxi Fountas was initially signed on a pre-contract agreement from Rapid Vienna, but as the team struggled DC United were able to bring the DP in early. The 27-year-old was able to score 12 goals and 1 assist in 21 appearances with the Black & Red, on a really bad team. His personality and performance made him a fan favorite and he even represented at the MLS All Star Game, and then came the on-field incident with Inter Miami. The accusation of Fountas using a racial slur meant Taxi Fountas did not play again for the rest of the season. Taxi Fountas had denied using racist slur, and a MLS investigation into the matter left an ambiguity which leaves questions. Will he be able to put the incident behind him? Will his play on the field and actions off help people to move on? Or will he need to move on this summer? The answers to these questions will go a long way in determining if DC United is a playoff team or in contention for the wooden spoon.
Christian Benteke: Joined DC United at the very last minute of the summer transfer window. Because he was signed so late, and started the visa process late, Benteke was only available for the final 7 games of the season. In that time he was only able to score one goal, and his impact was rather limited. Now with preseason, and better teammates surrounding him, it will be interesting to see if he can become a true goal threat for the Black & Red. Benteke is straight up a Rooney man, having admitted in interviews he joined because he wanted to play for Rooney. He is exactly the type of player Rooney wants in his number 9; he’s big, powerful, and has the ability to control the ball in hold up play. It will be interesting to see if Rooney will be able to get the best from this talented but underperforming player.
Mateusz Klich: DC United’s newest Designated Player. The 32 year old Polish center midfielder came to DC from Leeds United. It seems Rooney has brought him for his ball control and experience in the middle of the pitch. From interviews last season, Rooney felt DC United were often too timid, and didn’t transition into the attack fast enough. Klich has expressly been brought in to address this shortcoming. Rooney describes Klich as being a Premier League talent with his vision, range of passing, and scoring ability. If Klich, who is 32, is able to deliver these traits he will be a huge asset for DC this season.
Prediction for DC United in 2023
Wayne Rooney will be with DC United the whole season, and he will steer the team to a fourth place finish in the Eastern Division. The team will take on his personality, which will remind Black & Red supporters of Ben Olsen’s better teams, when they played tenacious defense, and hustled for every ball. Expect the attack to be similar to what DC used in 2018, where players moved to create overloads along with long cross field passes to quickly shift the point of attack.
In addition DC United will make the US Open Cup and Leagues Cup a priority this season.
Very Specific Prediction Sure to be Wrong
Wayne Rooney will own a portion of DC United when he moves on from being the head coach.