By Ridge Mahoney
Is it desperation or delusion that prompted D.C. United to bring back Guatemalan Carlos Ruiz for his third stay in MLS?
Few recent moves by an MLS team have met with such strong reaction. Though his antics can aggravate – he's a notorious diver and incessant complainer to referees – he’s also scored 88 goals in 169 MLS games. He played only 14 games for Philly in his last MLS stint (2011), yet collected six goals.
On paper, he’s the point man who can occupy defenders and make space for Dwayne De Rosario and Chris Pontius, who racked up a combined 19 goals and 16 assists last year while different forwards were shuffled in and out of the lineup. United has bought out the contract of Designated Player Hamdi Salihi and cut loose Maicon Santos and Long Tan, so goals will be needed. Lionel Pajoy, who scored three goals in 12 games after being traded by Philadelphia, has been retained.
As a rookie Nick De Leon scored six goals and registered four assists while playing on both flanks. His emergence and that of second-year man Perry Kitchen and other younger players were among the most encouraging developments in 2012. United ended a five-year playoff drought by finishing second in the Eastern Conference despite losing De Rosario to a left knee sprain suffered Sept. 11 while playing for Canada.
After United beat New York in the semifinals, De Rosario came back for the second leg against Houston but wasn’t able to avert a 4-2 loss on aggregate. Crowds grew steadily in numbers and volume during the season as the team racked up 17 regular-season wins, yet the poor average attendance of 13,846 leaves a lot of room for improvement. A sellout of 20,015 at RFK Stadium for the second leg against Houston bodes well for 2013, as does renewed talk of a legitimate stadium project.
KEY PLAYER MOVES. Ruiz is just one move United has taken to bolster the forward corps, so there’s options if he fizzles out. Former Maryland striker Casey Townsend was acquired in a trade with Chivas USA, Michael Seaton signed on as a Homegrown player, and loan deals were struck to land Brazilian Rafael and Indonesian Syamsir Alam, who can also play midfield. Veterans James Riley and John Thorrington have been added in trades as well.
Along with jettisoning Salihi, United got rid of former DP midfielder Branko Boskovic by declining his option, and also parted ways with defender Emiliano Dudar. The sale of Andy Najar to Belgian club Anderlecht marked the first time in league history a Homegrown Player had been transferred to a foreign club, though it leaves a void at right back that will be filled by Riley and Chris Korb.
WHY BE OPTIMISTIC? Last year’s dramatic improvement doesn’t seem to be a fluke. Pontius raised his intensity level and confidence, Kitchen and De Leon handled themselves well, and the centerback pairing of Dejan Jakovic and Brandon MacDonald held firm most of the time. Coach Ben Olsen is still learning on the job but there’s no doubt his passion and knowledge have been infused into his players.
WHY BE PESSIMISTIC? De Rosario has been fit in the preseason but he turns 35 in May, which gives a rather elderly look to the front line if Ruiz is also on the field. Najar’s energy and tight control are huge losses. A howler of a goal conceded by keeper Bill Hamid when he bobbled a ball over his own goal line in the playoffs is a stark reminder of his youth (22). The new ownership group, headed by Jason Levien and Erick Thohir, will go forward without president and CEO Kevin Payne, who has been synonymous with the team for most of its existence. He resigned in late November and oved to Toronto FC.
WHY WATCH THIS TEAM? Ruiz is 33, and can’t be looking too far down the road in his career. He’s going to be under the microscope every minute he’s on the field. Will he flop or will he swim (or both)? Pontius is literally learning at the feet of a master in De Rosario, and those two are capable of conjuring up some breathtaking combinations. Even a relic like RFK can rock when the action is good, and at home, United’s goal difference of plus-20 was second-best in MLS.
MLS PREVIEW SERIES:
Eastern Conference: Columbus | Houston | Montreal | New England | Philadelphia | Toronto FC | New York
Western Conference: Chivas USA | Colorado | FC Dallas | Portland | Seattle | Vancouver | Real Salt Lake