After a fun and exciting 2018, D.C. United is looking to make an even deeper run in the 2019 MLS Playoffs. The first task, though, is getting there, by being one of the best seven of 12 teams in the Eastern Conference. That task is manageable if United, who didn’t make many drastic changes to their personnel in the offseason, can find success once again at Audi Field, and pick up a few more road wins this year.
But who will be the most important player to the cause? Who, more than their teammates, must produce over 34 games to get United back into the playoffs once again? Maybe the most obvious answer is Wayne Rooney, who in 20 games after his arrival last year scored 12 goals and tallied seven assists. If Rooney can stay in form and continue to contribute at a similar rate, the Black-and-Red should find themselves in contention at the end of the year.
Aside from Rooney, which other player is most important to United’s success?
The writers at FloFC sat down to give their opinions.
Steven Streff, FloFC D.C. United Beat Writer: United had little trouble scoring goals last year, both before and after Rooney’s arrival. What they struggled with the most though, was conceding too many goals. Steven Birnbaum rebounded nicely from a poor 2017, but for United to have success once again, their center back is going to have to continue to put in strong performances.
Leonardo Jara might be the only change to the backline from last year, which ended with Joseph Mora at left back, Frederic Brillant at center back, a rotating cast at right back, and Bill Hamid in goal. That makes Birnbaum’s job a little bit easier, but as one of the more tenured players with the club, he needs to continue to command the backline.
Birnbaum, having just turned 28 years old, is right in the prime of his career. If his play from 2018 translates into 2019, and United can keep clean sheets like they were at the end of last year, then United seems a sure bet to be back in the playoffs.
Wesley Davidson, FloFC Contributor: I’m a huge fan of players who can do a little bit of everything in the middle of the park, and the engine known as Russell Canouse fit the billing last year. The decision to return to the States from Germany has proved such a wise move as his game really took off under Head Coach Ben Olsen. Player absence/inclusion statistics can sometimes be deceiving and there are always a host of other factors to account for, but the fact that D.C. won nearly 65 percent of games when Canouse started and only 17.6 percent when he did not speaks for itself.
His command in midfield will be needed that much more this season as opposing teams key in on the Rooney-Acosta partnership, as well as new signing Lucas Rodríguez. The side will continue to thrive up top if Canouse can maintain his high level of vision and passing success. Likewise, his ability to read the game and break up attacks is so important for providing stability to the back line.
Hunter Sharpless, FloFC Managing Editor: Short answer: Luciano Acosta.
Longer answer: When I was not watching the Super Bowl the other day at a Super Bowl party, my friends and I were discussing Friends. The question necessarily arose about which character we liked the most, and so we each kind of gave our answers — mine is Chandler — until one of my friends said she wished she could have the relationship between Chandler and Monica be her favorite character, but in playing along with the question she ultimately chose Chandler.
I’m in the same boat.
What I really want to say is the partnership with Rooney and Acosta, but I’ll go ahead and choose the latter if forced to pick just one.
There are so many complicated things going on here, it’s kind of insane: First, Rooney is still getting his striker legs back after playing further back on the pitch in his final days in England. Second, as of right now United don’t have a backup striker. Third, Acosta is coming off what must be a pretty darn disappointing almost-but-not-quite transfer to PSG to be the stand-in for Neymar. Very insane!
You could understand one of two reactions from the player’s perspective: Disappointment in missing out on this opportunity, or else extreme and manic motivation at wanting to prove to PSG (and other European clubs) you’re worth the dimes next transfer window.
United’s second-half run last year saw some fantastic high-scoring efforts, but with a normalized schedule, a full season, and opponents who are on red alert for the Acosta-Rooney partnership, this is still going to be the most important phase of the pitch. If the attackers — especially Acosta — are able to take the next step and become a consistently dangerous, explosive force, that might be what separates a good season from a great season for Ben Olsen’s side.