United’s con­cerns clear at mid­way point of camp

The Washington Post - - SPORTS - BY STEVEN GOFF

D.C. United has reached the mid­way point of train­ing camp — three weeks down and three weeks to go un­til the March 3 opener against MLS Cup cham­pion At­lanta at Audi Field.

The ros­ter has taken shape with the ar­rival of a much-needed right back, but there re­mains an in­escapable va­cancy in the front­line corps, some con­cern about the back line and a gen­eral need to fill sev­eral open­ings.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion weath­ered a trans­fer storm in­volv­ing its ex­cit­ing cen­tral mid­fielder, but now con­tract is­sues with that play­maker have moved to the fore­front and, with­out a res­o­lu­tion be­fore the sea­son opener, could end up caus­ing a dis­trac­tion.

In the big pic­ture, though, Coach Ben Olsen seems happy with where things stand. The foun­da­tion of his team, which went on an al­most-spot­less run down the 2018 reg­u­lar sea­son stretch, has re­turned. And un­like most years, United does not have to jury-rig the ros­ter be­fore be­com­ing whole dur­ing the sum­mer trans­fer win­dow.

Af­ter a week­end break back home and in­door train­ing for two days, United will re­sume work­outs in Florida this week and pre­pare for three friendlies: against the sec­ond-di­vi­sion Tampa Bay Rowdies on Satur­day, the Philadel­phia Union on Feb. 20 and the Mon­treal Im­pact on Feb. 23.

Here are a few ques­tions on Olsen’s mind:

1. Who is Wayne Rooney’s backup? At the mo­ment, there is no nat­u­ral op­tion. When the English striker ex­ited the pre­sea­son opener with a bruised right shin, a rookie seek­ing a con­tract en­tered. Five days later, with Rooney sit­ting out un­til the sec­ond half, mid­fielder Ulises Se­gura stepped in.

Rooney was a war­rior last year, play­ing all but 159 min­utes in a 20-game rush over three-plus months. He can­not be asked to main­tain that pace over a full sea­son, one that will in­volve much more travel than dur­ing the home-heavy stretch late last year.

Dar­ren Mat­tocks was a nice op­tion last sea­son, tak­ing ad­van­tage of tir­ing de­fenses with his pace and ath­letic abil­ity. But he grum­bled about play­ing time and ended up join­ing ex­pan­sion Cincin­nati this win­ter.

United did not have any genu-

ine can­di­dates dur­ing the first stage of camp, and with time run­ning short, the search is be­com­ing ur­gent.

2. Is Lu­ciano Acosta happy? United is jug­gling two del­i­cate is­sues re­gard­ing the Ar­gen­tine mae­stro: the failed trans­fer talks with Paris Saint-Ger­main and the ex­pi­ra­tion of his MLS con­tract next win­ter.

Since ar­riv­ing in 2016 at age 21, Acosta has had some tem­pes­tu­ous mo­ments. The events that trig­gered him — be­ing sub­sti­tuted and be­ing the re­cip­i­ent of nasty tack­les — were mild com­pared with the dis­ap­point­ment of a lifechang­ing move to a ma­jor Euro­pean club fall­ing apart.

Acosta did not pout, at least not pub­licly. He re­turned from France right away, re­join­ing his team­mates for the first friendly — al- though Olsen rested him — and scored 21 min­utes into the sec­ond match.

The ini­tial re­ac­tion sug­gests he is com­mit­ted to United’s cause. And by do­ing so, he could bet­ter po­si­tion him­self in the eyes of Euro­pean suit­ors.

United re­mains in talks with Acosta’s agent about a long-term con­tract that would make him among MLS’s high­est-paid play­ers. Such a deal would not pre­vent United from field­ing of­fers from abroad, but it would en­sure both a hap­pier Acosta and a lu­cra­tive trans­fer fee if a move sur­faced.

With­out a new pact, United would be in dan­ger of both los­ing Acosta and not col­lect­ing a penny next win­ter. Play­ers are al­lowed to sign a pre­con­tract with a new team within six months of a con­tract ex­pir­ing.

3. Does D.C. need an­other cen­ter back? It’s not as high of a pri­or­ity as a sec­ond for­ward, but club of­fi­cials said they are in the mar­ket. Steve Birn­baum is a sure starter af­ter a strong 2018, and with Kofi Opare gone, Fred­eric Bril­lant is the only other ex­pe­ri­enced op­tion. Bril­lant will turn 34 this sum­mer, and nei­ther he nor Birn­baum is par­tic­u­larly mo­bile.

United has high hopes for Dono­van Pines, who left the Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land a year early to sign a home­grown con­tract, but he will need time to adapt to pro de­mands. Jalen Robin­son needs to have a break­out year af­ter mak­ing 14 starts over the past three sea­sons.

4. How does United want to play? With most of his starters re­turn­ing, Olsen has re­tained a 4-2-3-1 for­ma­tion in the pre­sea­son. In work­outs, he has em­pha­sized ini­ti­at­ing at­tacks from deeper po­si­tions, start­ing at the back line and cir­cu­lat­ing the ball through mid­field while uti­liz­ing over­lap­ping out­side de­fend­ers.

Greater at­tack­ing di­ver­sity would ease the pres­sure on Acosta and Rooney to make things hap­pen.

5. Will Loudoun United sign any play­ers? A month from the de­but of D.C.’s sec­ond-di­vi­sion team — which is de­signed to im­prove long-term player de­vel­op­ment — there is no one of­fi­cially on the ros­ter. Look for young play­ers in D.C. camp, acad­emy prospects and a few out­siders to make up Richie Wil­liams’s squad.

There’s still no word on the lo­ca­tion — or mul­ti­ple lo­ca­tions — of the first six home games, though the likely site is Audi Field, a tem­po­rary so­lu­tion un­til a 5,000-seat sta­dium in Lees­burg opens in Au­gust. The team is also in talks with Ge­orge Ma­son Uni­ver­sity.


Ques­tions re­main, but D.C. United Coach Ben Olsen has the foun­da­tion of his squad back from its strong fin­ish last sea­son.


Mid­fielder Lu­ciano Acosta did not trans­fer, but con­tract is­sues loom for the Ar­gen­tine play­maker who pairs well with Wayne Rooney.

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