By Chris Snear
Throughout their championship laden existence, DC United have produced their best results with experienced, savvy players in the most critical roles; Etcheverry, Harkes, Nelsen, Gomez, Moreno, Diaz Arce.
After respectable performances in multiple international competitions, a quick exit during the Major League Soccer playoffs after amassing the most points during the regular season a year ago left United with a decision to make about the personnel in those critical roles.
Hence, United decided to add another level of experience leading up to the start of the 2008 season by employing an old baseball adage: be strong up the middle.
“We brought in a lot of guys with experience, and I think experience goes a long way,” said United Coach Tom Soehn. “Anybody we inject, we always want to make sure they’re bringing the right type of energy and the right enthusiasm – and make sure that they can change a game. When a group of experienced players come together, anything can happen.”
Gone are midfielder Christian Gomez, a former league Most Valuable player, and center backs Bobby Boswell, only a year removed from his league Defender of the Year performance and Greg Vanney, a former US international.
Though two of those three have credible experience, the players United have replaced them with have experiences at the ultimate levels of the sport.
In come Marcelo Gallardo, Gonzalo Martinez, Gonzalo Peralta, and Franco Niell. All from quality leagues, all at a good price, with specific skill sets that complement the current makeup of the side and two with World Cup experience.
Gallardo, the centerpiece of United’s offseason moves is an attacking midfielder nicknamed “El Muñeco” (the doll) for his small, 5’6″ frame. He is tapped as United’s Designated Player to replace Gomez.
Niell, also small at 5’4″, was signed on loan from Argentinos Juniors (Argentina). A menacing forward, Niell will most likely be used as a contrast to the skillful Jaime Moreno, who currently is out with a hamstring injury. He will pair with reigning league MVP Luciano Emilio.
Peralta and Martinez, a former Colombian international, will be called upon to stabilize the center of the back line. Peralta’s size in particular (6’2″ , 190 lbs), could counter the likes of Taylor Twellman, Brian Ching, Danny Dichio, all big, strong, athletic forwards who can dominate the air in the penalty area.
“Let’s just say when the ball is in the air we are going to be pretty confident that he is going to win it,” said a laughing Bryan Namoff.
“This is one of the most experienced back lines we’ve had in a long time and everyone in the back has been playing big games at this level before,” he added on a more serious note. “Their awareness on the field is very good and give that credit to their experience; with Gonzalo (Martinez) having experience at the national team level with Colombia and (Gonzalo) Peralta being so big in the air. We have sort of lacked a big presence in the center and back since Ryan Nelsen. That is now an area we can look forward to winning.”
Nelsen was a dominant figure on United’s last MLS championship team in 2004 in a 3-back formation. United have not been able to find that complete package of size, skill and personality since he departed for Tottenham Hotspur of the English Premiership shortly thereafter.
With Gallardo orchestrating the attack and the back line seemingly solidified, the early returns have been good. United has advanced to the semi-finals of the 2008 CONCACAF Champions’ Cup. After a uninspiring performance in a 1-1 draw on the road, United came back home to pound Jamaica’s Harbour View 5-0 at RFK Stadium last week in their aggregate goal series. They will play Mexican power Pachuca in the semi-final series in early April.
Gallardo with his skills, vision and experiences could be viewed as an upgrade from Gomez, despite being the same age (32). His all-field play could expand the ability of others to get involved in the attack from different angles on the field while still maintaining good defensive shape.
“The interchange at any point in time and the ability to play direct and overlap is one of our strengths. It’s going to be to an advantage as we go through the course of the league and CONCACAF at exploiting teams,” added Namoff.
Overall however, the signing of these South American players further exemplifies United’s philosophy and modus operandi in recent years.
“This organization is about winning,” said Soehn. “Granted we won the Supporter’s Shield but we strive to do more. So we did a big search to bring in guys who complemented what we had, but also understood what the organization was about and strive for the same things that we’re looking for.”
South and Central American players have adjusted to the often-sweltering heat during the summer and to the athletic nature of the league far better than their European counterparts, many of whom were perhaps spoiled by the cushy lifestyles in their leagues. Also, the significant presence of the Spanish-speaking community in America makes the cultural transition very easy. Add the fact that the players who would consider playing in MLS generally come with a cheaper price tag, and you have a fertile recruiting ground if you are willing to put in the work
Consequently, this group of players has already fit in well in the locker room, something that Soehn and other veteran players value highly.
“Off the field-it’s a great team. The locker room is already set; it’s a good attitude, it’s a good vibe in there and now on the field, as long as we get better it should be a good season,” said veteran midfielder Ben Olsen, who will miss the start of the season due to surgery on both of his ankles.
After scoring a career-high seven goals last year, Olsen had surgery to remove bone spurs from both ankles immediately after the season. The surgeries proved unsuccessful for the second longest tenured United player behind Moreno. After more surgery, he is wading his way through the rehabilitation process but is likely to miss at least the first month of the season. Olsen missed the entire 2001 season with another ankle injury.
“The plan is the same. The plan is to do well every time we go out there and we deal with each game accordingly,” said Olsen, 30, about the team’s attitude.
“We’ll take each one as they come and make adjustments,” he added, about the demanding tournament schedule coinciding with always rigorous league slate. “We’d love to get the supporter’s shield again; In my mind, that’s the toughest thing to do in this league. Tommy and the coaching staff does a good job at managing us and making sure we are fit and ready.”
United will also participate in the 2nd SuperLiga and the U.S. Open Cup.