Get to Know
By RJ Rolsen
DC United will go into the 2023 season with a relatively new front line, with only one player having been with the Black & Red at the beginning of the 2022 season, and that player was injured at the time. It will be interesting to see how Head Coach Wayne Rooney utilizes this versatile group, as a number of these players offer the flexibility for multiple different possible formations.
The expectation is that Rooney will utilize a two forward system that pairs the team’s two Designated Players at the top, either as a flat two, or one dropping back as a false nine. The team could however also play with a front three, or with a single striker and three attackers just behind. However the team lines up, it will revolve around Christian Benteke. The other given will be Taxi Fuentas, and whether he plays out wide, or tucks underneath. How Benteke and Taxi play off each other will mean a lot as to whether DC challenge for the playoffs, or is again the Wooden Spoon recipient.
For the beginning of the 2023 season, DC United’s Forwards are:
Christian Benteke - Possibly the biggest signing by DC United since Wayne Rooney was signed. The Belgian striker definitely came to MLS to play for Wayne Rooney, just as Benteke is exactly the type of striker DC’s Manager wanted for his offense. Brought in during the final hours of the MLS Summer Window, Benteke was acquired from English Premier League side Crystal Palace.
In his 280 Premier League matches, Benteke played for Crystal Palace, Liverpool and Aston Villa, and scored 86 goals withand 23 assists. At Aston Villa and his initial time at Liverpool, Benteke showed that he had the ability to score. This proved harder at Crystal Palace.
Now in MLS, Benteke is hoping to regain his scoring touch, while Rooney is also looking for Benteke to be a traditional striker who is strong on the ball, good in holdup play, and able to pass and move in the box. Benteke showed flashes of this last season, but never had a fully settled team around him. In preseason he has shown an ability to get the ball into the net. It’s imperative for that to continue in the regular season if DC United is to be successful.
Taxi Fountas: Definitely the biggest enigma going into the 2023 season. No matter what he does, there will be a cloud hanging over the Greek player. How he plays on the field, interacts with teammates and opponents, and acts off the field will help mitigate the issue, but unfortunately the cloud will remain. It’s too bad, as when Taxi first arrived his fun-loving personality translated to his play on the field, and he was the slim silver lining of a dismal season.
The first of a new wave of Designated Players for DC United, Taxi brought a creativity to DC’s attack that had been missing since Lucio Accosta had controlled the midfield. This creativity and flexibility will serve Wayne Rooney well as he can use Taxi in multiple positions, which will allow him to use multiple formations. Taxi could be a second striker in a 4-4-2, a right or left wing in a 4-3-3, or a traditional 10 in a 4-2-3-1.
It will be interesting to see how well Taxi works with Christian Benteke. So far they have only played less than 150 minutes together. However, the potential for a potent attacking duo is still there. Part of Taxi’s scouting report before coming to DC indicated he plays well off of bigger, hold-up forwards. Maybe Benteke is the key he needs to really springboard into the MLS this season. Likewise, Benteke will likely benefit from Taxi’s off the ball movement and dribbling. Both players have a skill set that should complement the other DP and bolster DC’s attack this season.
Pedro Santos: The free agent pickup from the Columbus Crew was the first player added to the DC roster this offseason, and was a declaration of intent by Wayne Rooney. A big issue for DC United last season was its youth and its lack of resolve when things got tough. Pedro Santos was signed specifically to help with both. Right off the bat he helps with the youth of the team, as he’s 34 years old, and will turn 35 during the season, and while this is a concern, Santos has a history of staying in excellent shape and taking care of his body. The Portuguese player also has a strong reputation for being a locker room leader, of being super intelligent both on the pitch and in practice. Santos was brought in to give this team both depth in play but also fortitude for when the long MLS season gets tough.
Originally Santos was seen as a pickup at Left-Back, but was always going to be like Andy Najar, a bit of a Swiss knife who could be plugged into multiple positions. Always seen as a depth player, the unfortunate season ending injury to Martín Rodríguez means that there is a good chance that Santos starts the season further up the pitch, most likely as a left wing forward or midfielder, depending on Wayne Rooney’s preferred formation.
The natural left footed player can play every position on the left, as well as a Right Wing Forward and as an attacking option in the middle. This flexibility will allow DC United to use a number of different formation strategies, which will be a key to DC United’s tactical plans this season. Santos is also a proven goal creator in MLS having scored 25 goals and 34 assists while with the Columbus Crew.
Injuries are already playing havoc with DC United, so the team will be looking to Pedro Santos from the start to be a leader to help get them through this rough patch. His versatility, creativity and playmaking ability will be key to starting the season on the right foot.
Nigel Robertha: The Dutch forward is the longest tenured forward on the team, but has never lived up to his full potential. There have been flashes, but between injuries, and inconsistent play Robertha has never been able to put together a run of matches where he seemed settled. He does offer some flexibility which has allowed head coaches to play him wide on the wing. His speed both on and off the ball makes it feasible, but it’s definitely not optimal. Robertha’s continued presence on the DC roster, despite taking up an international slot, suggests that Rooney envisions a role that Robertha can contribute, which again suggests the use of a 4-4-2 formation.
Jackson Hopkins: This young homegrown sprang into the consciousness of DC United fans during the preseason of 2022. Reports of a young academy player scoring during preseason preceded the signing of the then 17 year old homegrown. Hernan Losada didn’t waste time and inserted the tall young forward into the starting lineup versus Austin. The young man showed he has the skills and athleticism to play MLS, but he’s still a bit raw, and will need to continue to develop his game.
His play was good enough to get him a late call-up to the U.S. U-20 National Team in 2021, which earned the United States a spot in the U-20 World Cup and the next Summer Olympics. Primarily a center forward coming up through the academy, Hopkin’s speed and ability to pass has allowed him to play on the wing. His flexibility will allow DC United to play in a 4-4-2, a 4-3-3, or a 4-2-3-1, which is why I believe Rooney has been a fan of his.
Kristian Fletcher: Another homegrown who signed during the 2022 season, the 17 year old Fletcher saw his first minutes under Rooney, and his first start in the last game of the season. It was reported during the summer of 2022, Fletcher went on trial with a number of European academies including Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund, with one report suggesting Fletcher was close to signing with Dortmund in the Bundesliga. In the end Fletcher signed a contract with Loudoun United FC, where he played 12 matches and scored 4 goals. This led to him being promoted to DC United on a homegrown contract. He then made his MLS debut in a 2–1 win at New York City FC.
Another versatile attacking player, Fletcher plays primarily on the left, but likes to cut inside, which he demonstrated against FC Cincinnati in the final game of the season, when he crossed over the defender and shot from the top of the box to score. Plays like this helped earn Fletcher a call-up for the United States U-19 Men’s Youth National Team. He will be an intriguing prospect to keep an eye on during the 2023 campaign.
Martín Rodríguez - Out for the Season Injured: A Chilean professional soccer player that DC United signed to a TAM contract from Turkish Super Lig side Altay SK at the beginning of the 2022 Summer Window. The hope was Rodríguez could add some width and dynamic play to an offense that was stagnant and bereft of goal scoring. Unfortunately he was only able to deliver a single assist in 14 matches;. Although heRodríguez did deliver the pass that led to the most exciting play of the season., Though Rodríguez was signed prior to Rooney coming onboard, he is the type of player Rooney seems to want. His skills allow him to move about the pitch, break defensive lines either via the pass or by dribbling, and will be able to create effective overloads with accurate passing. It will be interesting to see if Rooney uses Rodríguez more as an attacking wing, or a left midfielder; most likely he will be used in both roles.
Ola Kamara - Without a Club
Miguel Berry - Traded to Miami
Kimarni Smith - Signed with San Antonio
Adrien Pérez - Without a Club