D.C. embarks on offseason makeover
When Major League Soccer played host to MLS Cup XII at RFK Stadium in November, one person not in attendance was D.C. United coach Tom Soehn.
After enduring a weekend of festivities that he and his team weren't a part of after being knocked out of the playoffs early, Soehn stayed home and watched the MLS Cup on television, knowing that his team needed to improve in order for him to be playing in the next MLS Cup rather than watching it at home.
Two days later, Soehn was on a plane to South America.
It was one of several trips the D.C. coach would make as he and general manager Dave Kasper set about bolstering the team in a way we haven't seen an established MLS power transformed during one offseason. After a slow start that included the failed courtship of Argentine superstar Juan Sebastian Veron, D.C. rebounded to put together a group of foreign signings the club believes can help add a fifth MLS Cup to the trophy case.
Christian Gomez, Greg Vanney, Troy Perkins, Bobby Boswell and Brian Carroll were all key members of D.C. United's success the past two to three seasons, but all five have either left for better opportunities (Perkins) or have been shipped off to make room for the new wave of signings that promise to give D.C. an even more Latin flavor than it already enjoyed with the likes of Luciano Emilio, Jaime Moreno and Fred.
Argentines Gonzalo Peralta and Franco Niell, Colombia defender Gonzalo Martinez and Peruvian goalkeeper Jose Carvallo were the first to be introduced to D.C. fans, while Argentine playmaker and new designated player Marcello Gallardo was saved for last. Nobody is seeing the diminutive maestro as the team's second choice to Veron, but rather as the magician who could potentially be the best player in club history.
Will the transformation work? Will D.C. be able to integrate so many new players and be just as good as the team that posted the league's best record last year? D.C. is banking on the revamped club being better.
"We're in a league where there is a tight salary cap so change is inevitable," said Soehn. "We went into this offseason feeling like we needed to improve in certain areas and I feel like the group we have brought in will address those areas.
"We also put ourselves in a position to get a designated player and we feel we have a player who can make an impact in this league," Soehn said. "You look at the way our teams made up and the type of players he has around him, he's being put in a situation where he's going to be successful."
Soehn also down played the impact on the team's moves that MLS rules changes about international players had. MLS went from allowing four senior internationals per team to an average of eight, more if a team could acquire foreign player slots via trade.
"Looking at our roster we're almost compliant with the way the rules were before," Soehn said. "Our stamp has always been to make sure that we scour the earth to make us better and we feel that we have found players who are going to make us better across the board."
The first question most D.C. fans want to know is whether Gallardo will be better than Gomez. Based on their pedigrees, you would think the answer would be an easy yes, but Gallardo's success in MLS is not a lock. He has spent the past year out of favor with Paris Saint German, and there is some concern about whether he will be able to handle the physical play of MLS.
Gomez has nowhere near the experience or accomplishments of Gallardo but one thing he has done is show year after year that he can produce and be a force in MLS, his minimum of 10 goals and nine assists in each of the past three seasons will not be an easy mark to match. There is no question that Gallardo has the technical ability and ingenuity to be both productive and entertaining, but his success will hinge on being able to withstand the rigors of a league that is as physical as you will find.
It is easy to forget that, for all the changes to the roster, all the key components to the offense that led MLS in goals last season are back except for Gomez, from reigning MLS MVP Luciano Emilio to all-time MLS scoring leader Jaime Moreno. With Gallardo replacing Gomez and the club adding Niell, a speedy forward who could flourish alongside Emilio, you suddenly have a D.C. attack that could set records.
More important to D.C. United's chances of bringing home some silverware are the changes to a defense that just wasn't championship caliber in 2007. Shipping away talented but erratic central defender Bobby Boswell for goalkeeper Zach Wells was a necessary move, but showing the door to veteran defender Greg Vanney could prove to be the most costly of the team's moves.
D.C. is banking on Peralta and Martinez to bolster the back line, with Peralta providing the size (6-foot-2) and Martinez bringing the experience of a lengthy career that has included time in Italy's first division. Are Peralta and Martinez a better tandem than Vanney and Boswell? If it isn't, D.C. could find itself in a similar situation to 2007, a high-scoring team with no title.
D.C. United heads into its 13th season brimming with confidence over a busy and productive offseason that has the rest of the Eastern Conference looking comatose by comparison. It will be up to Soehn to make all the pieces fit, and to the newcomers to prove that they are better than the long list of former D.C. standouts that departed to make room for them.
If things go according to plan, Soehn won't be on a couch watching the next MLS Cup final. He will be on the sidelines.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.