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DC United 2024 Season Preview

The Rooney experiment ended in failure and the long tenure of Dave Kasper came to an end. The Black & Red are a long way away from their glory days, and it’s time for the team to reset, and start a new legacy. 


New leadership has been brought in, and a massive overhaul of the roster was begun, but it leaves DC United at a place where success will not always be seen on the score sheet, but will be measured in the identity fans and opponents see every time the Black & Red step onto the pitch.


Key Additions

  • Ally Mackay (GM): The much needed change to the DC Front Office occurred when Ally Mackay was hired away from Nashville SC’s front office, Mackay replaced longtime DC chief Dave Kasper. He has been quick to start the reset of the team, DC have moved on from 13 players from last year's team. So far most player acquisitions though have been under-the-radar.

  • Troy Lesesne (HC): The interim Head Coach of the New York Red Bulls, but a few years experience as Head Coach of New Mexico United in USL Championship.  Lesesne is a young, energetic coach. The 40-year-old has tactical ideas that are similar to Curtin in Philadelphia and Noonan in Cincinnati.

  • Jared Stroud (RW): A journeyman MLS Winger who found his form last season in St. Louis City. Having come up in the Red Bulls academy, should take well to Lesesne’s tactics.

  • Lucas Bartlett (CB): A journeyman MLS Center Back who came over from St. Louis City with Stroud in the Chris Durkin trade. Started to get playing time last year, but is still a bit of an unknown.

  • Aaron Herrera (RB/RCB): Herrera, the 26-year-old Guatemalan international, arrived in the trade with Montréal. He's one of several new defenders, and provides flexibility, able to play as a wing, fullback, or center back. Herrera has been one of the better right backs in MLS prior to his move to Montréal. There’s a chance DC will be getting an undervalued resource.

  • Jacob Murrell (CF): DC United’s first round pick in this year’s MLS SuperDraft. The sophomore Center Forward out of Georgetown University is the perfect addition for the Black & Red. He’s young at 19 years old, a local kid, who has shown a knack for scoring at every level he’s played.

  • Christopher McVey (CB): A sneaky good acquisition, McVey has the most MLS Center Back experience of the new players brought in. His initial season with Miami suggested he could be a highly rated defender in MLS, yet he seems to have been unfortunately caught in the roster machinations that helped bring in Messi. 

  • Matti Peltola (CDM): Signed signed as a Young Designated Player, the Finnish International player has the speed and range to be a top defensive midfielder. If everything goes DC’s way, Peltola will help make DC forget about the loss of Chris Durkin.


Key Departures

  • Chris Durkin: The Homegrown midfielder was Mr Do-it-all for Wayne Rooney last season. He played multiple positions and put it all on the field, so it was surprising when he was traded to St. Louis City.

  • Andy Najar: When healthy, Najar was a dangerous option at right back for DC United, but staying healthy was an issue. A popular Homegrown, he will be missed.

  • Ruan: New Right Back depth was sought by Mackay, so Ruan was traded to CF Montréal and Andy Najar's contract option was declined.

  • Derrick Williams: Williams was selected and signed by Atlanta in the MLS Re-Entry Draft. His skillset and ability were too similar to Steve Birnbaum’s so they didn’t make a great partnership. With William’s contract ending, he was the easy out.

  • Donovan Pines: Pines tested free agency, and traveled to England to sign with League One club Barnsley as a free agent. A homegrown center back, he played in 87 matches for the club.

  • Brendan Hines Ike: 


State of the Team by Position 

Goalkeeper

New Arrivals: Nathan Crockford (21)

Carryover: Alex Bono (29), Luis Zamudio (25)

Out injured: Tyler Miller (30)

Departures: None

Comments: Alex Bono played well at the end of the 2023 season and when recovered from his injury, Tyler Miller should be better.  It is doubtful that the goal keepers will be asked to play sweeper-keeper, as they were by Rooney, which should make their lives easier.. Both Bono and Miller are still in their prime so there is no reason to think goalkeeping is a weakness for the team. 


Miller is currently injured, so Bono will likely be the starter for the beginning of the season. Third round draft pick Crockford will presumably compete with Zamudio for the third goalie spot once Miller's back.


Prediction: Either Miller or Bono is dealt over the summer to a team in need of a goalkeeper, and Zamudio moves to second in the rotation.


Center Back

Arrivals: Christopher McVey (26), Lucas Bartlett

(26), Garrison Tubbs (21)

Carryover: Matai Akimboni (17), Hayden Sargis (21)

Out injured: Steve Birnbaum (33)

Departures: Derrick Williams (32), Brendan Hines-Ike (29), Donovan Pines (25)


No position had a greater overhaul on the roster than the Center Back, nor had a greater infusion of youth. The Center Back pool got younger, a lot younger, but is also a lot more athletic. The three players that moved on were decent enough players, but were not a good fit for the style of play that Head Coach Wayne Rooney wanted to employ. Donovan Pines was the only Center Back who had the speed to play the high line the defense was asked to play, yet he rarely looked comfortable in space. At the same time Derrick Williams was a bad fit next to Steve Birnbaum. If the team had been playing a low block, bunker type defense, they would have been fine, but DC was trying to use a pressure defense with a high line.


Now the Black & Red’s Center Backs are a collection of players who have something to prove. Birnbaum wants to prove he still has a couple decent seasons in him. Christopher McVey has the next most experience after Birnbaum. The Swedish American defender did well in his first season with Inter Miami, but due to roster machinations to bring in Lionel Messi and a change in head coach, he fell out of favor and played fewer games and was a cheap pick up for DC United this off-season. Comfortably able to play in either a back three or a back for McVey is a low risk high reward player that DC should take a chance on. 


The next most MLS experience is Lucas Bartlett, one of two players DC United traded Chris Durkin for. A SuperDraft pick by Dallas, he was a fringe player who only got playing time with their lower division team and US Open Cup. However he did earn time with St. Louis City last season. After that you have seventeen year old Matai Akimboni and twenty-one year old Hayden Sargis who picked up some minutes last season. Then there is Garrison Tubbs, brought over from Atlanta, he will be trying to make the leap from NCAA to MLS.


There is also a question of what formation Lesesne is going to employ. If he plays a three-back line. Aaron Herrera and Conner Antley could see playing time as Center Backs.


Prediction: The early part of the season will be used to judge what DC has in players, and to give some younger players the opportunity to prove themselves. Then this summer there will be more changes.

Fullbacks

Arrivals: Aaron Herrera (26), Conner Antley (28)

Carryover: Mohanad Jeahze (26)

Out injured: None

Departures: Andy Najar (30), Ruan (28), Gaoussou Samake (20), Jacob Greene (20), Eric Davis (32)


The roster went from a plethora of Fullbacks to being threadbare. That it is so bereft of bodies suggests that Lesesne will employ a back three, and utilize the team’s wingers as Wingbacks.


The loss of Andy Najar hurts, but truthfully he played significantly fewer minutes in each successive season after rejoining the Black & Red. Ruan was super fast but that was it, his defense was okay at times, but he wasn’t much of a threat on offense. Davis showed some defense and offense in his brief stay, but took up an international spot. After early playing time, Rooney didn't seem to want to play Greene, but still it was a bummer to see United give up on a Homegrown player. Samake never looked to be MLS caliber.


What is left is , Mohanad Jeahze, who is basically a new player himself since he was hurt nearly all of last season. Aaron Herrera was brought in via trade that sent Ruan to Montreal. Herrera was one of the best Fullbacks in MLS up until last season when he played for Hernan Losada, so he could be in for a bounce back year. Jeahze was considered a great pickup before injuries and an off-field incident dampened his outlook. If those things are behind him and both players stay healthy, this could be a strength. Trouble is, the only backup is Conner Antley, a late addition acquired from the Tampa Bay Rowdies. He is considered one of the best defenders in USL, but it is a jump from USL to MLS. It’s uncertain how he will transition. There was a trialist with the team who is an Academy product who may get signed to a Homegrown contract as a Left Back.


The lack of Fullbacks makes it more likely that United plays some sort of 3-5-2  or 3-4-3, as there are more attacking style players who could also play Wingback. There is a worry about the use of Pedro Santos as a Fullback or Wingback. He will give his all, and isn't too terrible when he's faced up with someone, but he doesn't have any speed left and there's a lot of pacey wingers he will have to face.  Jared Stroud seems more than capable of playing as a Wingback, with his tenacity and speed, but Martin Rodriguez is a complete unknown, and  Cristian Dájome wasn’t very good as a Wingback when he was with Vancouver.


There is also an outside chance that Garrison Tubbs and Matai Akimboni get some minutes at Fullback, to help cover for the team, and to get them both game time minutes.


Prediction:  Troy Lesesne will utilize a back three more in the beginning of the season to help cover the lack of Fullback depth , and then acquire more Fullback and Wingback depth this summer.


Central Midfielders

Arrivals: Matti Peltola (21), Jeremy Garay (20)

Carryover: Mateusz Klich (33), Gabriel Pirani (21), Jackson Hopkins (19)

Out injured: Russell Canouse (28)

Departures: Chris Durkin (24) 


Losing Chris Durkin was both a bummer and unexpected, but acquiring two players, and GAM was really helpful in the roster building. His departure also opened up a spot for Matti Peltola, the Young DP. Peltola is United’s marquee acquisition this offseason. In part because he’s Finnish, and in part because he is a defensive player, his signing did not wow national pundits, but could be a tremendous addition if he helps DC United cut the number of goals they give up.

The leader of the midfield will continue to be 

Mateusz Klich, who had an impressive first season in the league, but he is thirty-three so fans will need to hope his legs hold up for at least one more season. Not a ten, he is an excellent box-to-box midfielder who will help transition the ball forward quickly. Russell Canouse did have an iron man season in 2023, but this hasn’t been his norm, and this year he’s starting with a knock. Canouse being healthy and available is necessary for DC to have a good season. Young players coming up the pipeline are Gabriel Pirani,  Jackson Hopkins and Jeremy Garay. Pirani and Hopkins are considered attacking players, but both have shown better as box-to-box midfielders who can also play on the wing. It will be interesting to see if the new Head Coach can put them in positions where they can succeed. Garay has been in the United pipeline for a while and has already logged 6,300 USL minutes but is finally getting his shot in MLS.


Prediction:  A more playmaker Attacking Midfielder will be acquired this summer, as Pirani is recognized as being more an 8 instead of a 10.



Wide Midfielders/Wingers

Arrivals: Jared Stroud (27), 

Carryover: Martin Rodriguez (29), Pedro Santos (35), Kristian Fletcher (18), Cristian Dájome (30), 

Departures: Yamil Asad (29)


This is the area of the roster that needs the most overhaul. Yamil Asad’s third stint with the Black & Red was ignominious and most likely his last. He is replaced by Jared Stroud who is younger and has been playing better the last few seasons. Stroud grew up is the Energy Drink academy system, and played a very disciplined pressing system last year with St. Louis City where he had five goals and five assists, so he should be a nice upgrade.

Martin Rodriguez is basically a new player for the Black & Red, having missed the entire 2023 season. His few games in 2022 were not much to go off of, but he was able to make some plays on a team that was basically floundering when he joined. If he can provide a bit of what he showed in 2022, he could be a good pickup for the team. Dájome is here at least until this summer, and I would expect him to be a substitute off the bench, with the hope he can deliver an offensive spark. 

There is one exciting player in this group, and that is Homegrown player Kristian Fletcher. The eighteen year old Winger played a little for the Black & Red last season, but really exploded during a loan stint with Swansea City’s Under-21 side where he scored nineteen goals across all competitions. While MLS will be a step up from the English Professional Development League, his success there suggests Fletcher is ready to step up.


Pirani, Hopkins, Murrell and Ku-Dipietro could all see some time on the wings, though their strengths would have them play in the middle of the field. Each brings something different, but they together offer Troy Lesesne flexibility in how he designs the attack.


This collection of players again suggests that United will often play a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 formation where Mo Jeahze would be included as a Left Wingback.


Prediction:  Martin Rodriguez and Cristian Dájome will get the first half of the season to show what they can offer, but will most likely be moved on this summer to free up international spots and possibly make room for new U-22 initiative players.



Forwards

Arrivals: Jacob Murrell (19)

Carryover: Christian Benteke (33), Ted Ku-DiPietro (22)

Departures: Nigel Robertha (25), Erik Hurtado (33), Jose Farjado (30)


The three players who moved did little to help United on offense and will not be missed save for bodies to soak up minutes. The two remaining players were the best of DC United last season. Benteke is the best pure Striker in MLS. He holds the ball up, wins every ball in the air, and knows how to put the ball in the net. He will carry most of the scoring for United.

Some might put Ted Ku-DiPietro on the wings or as a midfielder, but his best position is as a second forward or a false nine. KDP is strong and able to hold off defenders. He’s excellent at making well timed runs, and is the perfect partner for Benteke. No matter the formation Lesesne employs, it’s most likely a two forward attack that utilizes the strengths of both Benteke and Ted KDP. 


The only addition DC United has made to the forwards was Jacob Murrell, the team’s first round pick from the SuperDraft. A sophomore from Georgetown, the nineteen year old has scored at every level he’s played. MLS will be a huge jump, but he will have time to develop.


Prediction:  If DC is hovering below the playoff line in August, Benteke will be moved on, to get resources needed for the continued rebuild.


Coaching

Arrivals: Troy Lesesne (40) and his staff

Departures: Wayne Rooney (38) and his staff


Ben Olsen is the last Head Coach to get DC United into the playoffs, and that was five years ago. Last season Rooney seemed to bring energy and a bit of tactical innovation, but in the end he didn't bring enough positives to fully turn the team around.

Troy Lesesne has definitely been hired to see if he can get more out of United’s roster than has been done in recent seasons. There is hope based on his resume that he can develop talent, especially with the younger players. 


Prediction: It will start out slow, but Lesesne will make steady and discernible progress with United, and will help change the team’s perception among the rest of MLS.



Overview 


DC United has finally launched a long needed reset with Dave Kasper and Wayne Rooney out, and Ally Mackay and Troy Lesesne in. This has DC United fans and supporters filled with both excitement and uneasiness for the 2024 season. The changes that the team has undergone both on the roster and in the front office during this offseason have been significant. Expectations for the new season are uncertain, but there is hope for long term improvement.

New Coach Troy Lesesne was hired to take over the team and oversee a transformation of both the team’s play on the field and the culture of the clubhouse. He brings a new style of play, and a recommitment to developing young talent that the Red & Black so desperately need.


Though Lesesne comes to DC off a stint with NYRB, he started his coaching career at the college level, and worked his way up through the USL. He has been on the ground floor of two teams being built, so knows how to build a team culture and how to develop young players.


Between his time in New York and with New Mexico United, one can expect the Black & Red to press aggressively at certain points and to transition quickly into the attack off of turnovers. He will rely on long balls forward, taking advantage of having Benteke up top, but will not eschew advancing through possession.


The defense has undergone the most significant changes with the departures of names like Andy Najar, Brendan Hines-Ike, Chris Durkin, Derrick Williams, Donovan Pines, and Ruan. It will be important for Lesesne to get the new or underused players from last year and organize them into a coherent defense. It’s obvious that Mackay’s initial plan was to shore up the defense, but making such a complete turnover means it will take time for the new players to get comfortable with each other. It will be important for fans and supporters to give Lesesne and United the time to coalesce.


Scoring was not a strength for DC United in 2023, and this weakness has not been adequately addressed. This will obviously be an area of focus in the future as the Black & Red transition from the win-now roster that was built last season to the longer term vision of Mackay and Lesesne.


Formation


Nothing is for certain till we actually see DC United play, but I believe new Coach Troy Lesesne will employ a back three when on defense, but will transition to look more like a back four when on the attack with the Wingers playing high to give width, and one of the Center Backs moving into the attack to cause overloads.



Prediction


DC United will improve as the season goes along, and will squeak out an eighth place finish in the East, and host the play-in wild card game. The Black & Red will also take part in the US Open Cup, and win their first trophy since they last won the Open Cup.


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