D.C. United wrapped up their first preseason camp on Thursday night, playing to a 1-1 draw against MLS newcomers FC Cincinnati at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. In past years, the Black-and-Red have had relatively quiet visits to Clearwater, save for the addition of players. This year was a little bit different, first with the Transfer Day Deadline drama with Luciano Acosta, and then with Wayne Rooney picking up an injury in the first friendly against the Bethlehem Steel.
However, both situations turned out favorably for United, who return to the D.C. area today, before heading back down to Florida next week. In their second trip, there are games against the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Philadelphia Union, and Montreal Impact. Those games should give fans a first chance to see United in action, as neither friendly on this excursion was streamed.
Here are the big storylines that stood out as United gear up for the start of the 2019 season on March 3.
1. Luciano Acosta stays with United
First, there were the rumors of clubs from the Middle East tabling offers for United’s Argentine playmaker. Those were swatted away, giving way to one of the biggest transfer bombshells of the window — Paris Saint-Germain offering D.C. $10 million for Lucho. Acosta, accompanied by United general manager Dave Kasper, was quickly whisked away to the French capital, in hopes of getting a deal down at the deadline.
In the end, a deal was not made before midnight in Europe on January 31. The money involved in the deal was the main culprit, as PSG apparently offered one figure to get Acosta in France, and then submitted a lower offer once he arrived.
Had Acosta been upset and downtrodden about not getting a move, it would have been understandable. PSG is one of the biggest clubs in the world, and a soccer player only has so many opportunities to make a move like that. Ben Olsen offered Acosta a couple of days off after the move wasn’t completed, but the former Boca Juniors man immediately returned to Florida to rejoin the Black-and-Red.
And it seems that Acosta rejoined completely motivated to continue his play from the back half of 2018. Olsen withheld Acosta from the Bethlehem game, despite Acosta asking to play. Lucho then scored the only goal for United against Cincinnati, and that was without Rooney on the field. A version of Acosta this motivated to potentially earn another shot at a big move overseas might be the difference in United merely making the playoffs, and earning a top seed.
2. Wayne Rooney suffers minor injury
Of course, for United to continue to be successful, they will also need to have their main attraction on the field. Rooney, who last year surpassed 800 professional games played, suffered a shin bruise against the Bethlehem Steel, and had to be removed after only 18 minutes. Rooney downplayed the severity of the injury afterwards to the Washington Post, though he did miss a day of training this past Monday. Rooney wasn’t in the starting lineup against Cincinnati, but did come off the bench to play about 25 minutes on Thursday night.
It’s no secret that Rooney plays a vital part for United. As will be addressed below, currently, he’s United’s only feasible option at striker. At his age, and with the number of games he has played, there’s a non-zero chance that he might start to slow down or succumb to injuries more often. Keeping Rooney healthy and on the field is critical for the Black-and-Red, and fortunately, the injury against the Steel luckily turned out favorably for the club.
3. The search for a backup striker continues
Another reason why Rooney needs to stay healthy? For the time being, he’s the only striker on United’s roster. Darren Mattocks quickly became frustrated with his playing time last year when Rooney arrived and had already agreed that he wasn’t returning to D.C. when Cincinnati picked him in the Expansion Draft.
For now, that spot is the most glaring need on the roster. United could stand to add a couple of more depth signings in other spots, but with Rooney not in the starting lineup last night, Ulises Segura was given the role of forward. Segura has some qualities that would make him useful in that role, but finishing chances isn’t one of them.
United drafted Shinya Kadono back in January, and the former University of California forward scored against Bethlehem Steel. The Black-and-Red also apparently have forward Kyle Murphy on trial, but will likely be more of an option for the USL side, Loudoun United FC, if he sticks.
To fill the backup striker role, United will have to find someone who is content with maybe getting a couple of starts throughout the year, and some appearances off the bench as well. It’s not an envious position, but with a persona like Rooney on the team, it won’t be possible to supplant him on the field.