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D.C. gambles on offseason turnover

Editor's note: This is the third of 14 MLS team previews by ESPNsoccernet for the 2008 season.

2007 record and finish: 16-7-7 (best record in MLS, first in the Eastern Conference).

Key additions: M Marcello Gallardo, F Franco Niell, D Gonzalo Peralta, D Gonzalo Martinez, M Quavas Kirk, GK Zach Wells, GK Jose Carvallo.

Key losses: M Christian Gomez, D Greg Vanney, GK Troy Perkins, D Bobby Boswell, M Josh Gros, M Brian Carroll

Key questions facing the team

1. How much better is the defense?

The effectiveness of the D.C. attack helped conceal some real shortcomings in a defense that was just good enough in the regular season. That defense was exposed in the playoffs, leading D.C. to make some major changes.

Enter the Gonzalos, Colombian Gonzalo Martinez and Argentine Gonzalo Peralta. Martinez is a fast and skillful veteran with experience playing in Serie A as well as for the Colombian national team. He will be expected to provide the experience and leadership in the back.

If Martinez is the leader, Peralta is the muscle and attitude. A 6-foot-2 center back with his own share of experience playing in Argentina, Peralta brings size and toughness the D.C. back line lacked last year.

With Marc Burch and Bryan Namoff returning as fullbacks and Devon McTavish providing a quality option off the bench, D.C. has a defensive unit capable of being one of the best in the league.

2. What will Gallardo's impact be?

There is no debating that Argentine playmaker Marcelo Gallardo is an artist as a playmaker. What is uncertain is just how big an impact he will make for D.C. in 2008.

Overlooked in the wake of Gallardo's highly publicized arrival are the facts that he wasn't D.C. United's first choice (Juan Veron was) and that he is coming off a disappointing year with French club Paris St. Germain, a year when he made nowhere near the impact expected of him when he signed from River Plate.

Not only does Gallardo carry the burden of being D.C. United's first designated player but he also must play well enough to justify D.C.'s decision to unload former MLS MVP Christian Gomez, who gave D.C. at least 10 goals and nine assists for three straight seasons.

Gallardo will have no excuses, not with a D.C. attack around him that boasts good wingers and dangerous forwards (including reigning MLS MVP Luciano Emilio). Clyde Simms will be called on to do the heavy lifting in central midfield, but concerns about Gallardo's defensive liabilities could lead D.C. to consider a 3-5-2 to offer Gallardo sufficient support.

Eric Wynalda's Take:
"Obviously, Christian Gomez leaving the team is a big bold move by Tommy Soehn. We'll see how this team adjusts. They've brought in some new blood. It's always tricky to change the team that's doing well. I don't think the team underachieved last year, I think they got a little unlucky. If you pick out three mistakes in the playoffs -- two were by Bobby Boswell. I'm going to say this -- Bobby Boswell has got to get his act together. It's nice to have your own Web site, blog and opinion about everybody, but he needs to get his act together. He got moved. He's out of there ... which is good, because he lost it for them last year. [Soehn's] going to focus on building his team from the foundation up. Defensively, when Tommy Soehn has his way, he builds from the back first. They probably won't score a lot of goals at the start of the season, but they're going to be a hardworking team and I think they'll get better."

3. Will Olsen be healthy?

Although Emilio was the league MVP, you could make a case for Ben Olsen's being D.C. United's team MVP in 2007. His tenacity, underrated attacking contributions and vital defensive work were keys to D.C. dominating the league for a large part of the regular season.

Those contributions are why D.C. cannot afford for Olsen's ankle problems to become something more serious than they are. Olsen had surgery in December to remove bone spurs in both ankles, a procedure that is expected to keep him out until at least middle to late March. If Olsen struggles to recover, D.C. doesn't have anybody who can do what he does for the team.

With Olsen, who turns 31 in May, D.C. can compete for any of the several trophies it will compete for this year. Without him, D.C. will struggle to match last year's accomplishments, which consisted of winning the Supporters' Shield but no championships.

4. Who will be the starting goalkeeper?

When Troy Perkins left for Valerenga via transfer, there were some concerns about what D.C. would do in goal, but the club now has a pair of goalkeepers capable of starting and making fans forget about the departed former MLS goalkeeper of the year.

Zach Wells figured to be Perkins replacement when he arrived from Houston for Bobby Boswell, and he should be. The 27-year-old showed great promise starting 17 games for the MetroStars in 2005 and looked very good in limited duty for Houston in 2007. Capable of making the great reaction save as well as organizing his defense well, Wells is considered the favorite.

Don't tell that to Jose Carvallo, who has been impressive in camp since joining on loan from Peruvian club Universitario. A smaller and quicker goalkeeper than Wells, 22-year-old Carvallo should get his share of starts, considering the various tournaments D.C. will be entered in this year. Whether he overcomes Wells for the top spot remains to be seen.

MLS Primetime Thursday
April 3
New England at Chicago
8 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360)

San Jose at Los Angeles
10.30 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360)

Biggest X factor: Franco Niell

When Luciano Emilio and Jaime Moreno were unable to start in D.C. United's Game 1 playoff loss to Chicago, it revealed a lack of depth up top that the club had to address.

Enter Niell, a small but powerfully built striker who has the quickness and playing style that should make him a perfect complement to Emilio. On loan from Argentinos Junior, Niell will be vital to D.C. United's chances of lifting some silverware, especially considering Moreno is 34 and managed just three goals from the run of play in 2007.

Can Niell, who stands 5-foot-4, really be an impact striker? His speed and strength on the ball should make him difficult to handle, and he should benefit from the extra attention paid to Emilio this year.

Breakout player to watch: Quavas Kirk

It was a trade that didn't draw much fanfare, but D.C. United's acquisition of Kirk for Greg Vanney could prove to be one of the most crucial of the offseason.

Why is the acquisition of a 19-year-old winger who has yet to be an impact player in MLS that important? The uncertainty surrounding Olsen's status makes it so. Kirk played sparingly for the Galaxy in 2007, starting just five matches, but he does have the experience of playing in 22 games in 2006 and has matured physically into his 6-foot-1 frame.

Combining size and speed, Kirk has the tools to be a key contributor in 2008. If Olsen's return is delayed, Kirk could have the stage for a major breakthrough as a player.

Outlook

D.C. United made more significant personnel moves than any other team in the league this offseason, and it will be a while before we know whether the club was wise to give such a thorough makeover to a team that posted the best record in the league in 2008.

The changes weren't just about winning a fifth MLS Cup; they also were done to bolster the club's chances of securing hardware in one of the various international tournaments D.C. will be competing in this year. Improved depth at forward, on defense and in goal should give United the weapons to handle such a congested schedule.

Will D.C. actually put something in the trophy case in 2008? It will depend largely on Gallardo's effectiveness, Olsen's health and the cohesiveness of a revamped defense. If any of these things is a serious issue, D.C. could wind up taking a step back. If, however, Gallardo is truly an upgrade from Gomez, Olsen can recover from ankle surgery, and the Gonzalos settle in and play well, D.C. could be talking treble.

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.