Depth keeping D.C. United afloat in the wake of injuries
By ADAM CURTIS
College Contributor Network
D.C. United's star forward/designated player, Eddie Johnson, hasn't played a single minute this season after it was discovered that he had a serious heart condition that could force him to retire from the game altogether. Fabian Espindola, a key piece in D.C.'s success last season, was issued a six-game suspension to start the season because the Argentine pushed an assistant referee after United was eliminated from the playoffs by the New York Red Bulls last season.
The club has also suffered a laundry list of injuries to key players: goalkeeper Bill Hamid and midfielder Markus Halsti have missed time with knee injuries; backup keeper Andrew Dykstra, and defenders Steve Birnbaum and Sean Franklin have missed time with ankle injuries; midfielders Luis Silva, Nick DeLeon and Michael Farfan have dealt with hamstring issues; and the list goes on and on, with the likes of midfielder/forward Chris Pontius and midfielder Collin Martin also missing games due to injuries. If that wasn't enough, Espindola also suffered an injury after coming back from his suspension.
Despite all that, D.C. United finds itself atop the Eastern Conference standings while also leading the race for the Supporters Shield, an award given to the team with the most points at the end of the regular season. So how are they consistently getting results while playing with different, depleted lineups each week? The answer is depth. While MLS has come a long way since its inception roughly 20 years ago, one problem that still plagues the league is that many teams lack quality players outside of their starting 11.
While D.C. doesn't have that one superstar on their roster, they have many quality players who can fill in seamlessly whenever their number is called. A prime example of this has been center back Kofi Opare. Opare was acquired by D.C. United last July from the L.A. Galaxy, but mostly rode the bench last season. This season, when Birnbaum suffered an injury, Opare took his place in the starting 11, doing such a great job that when Birnbaum fully recovered, head coach Ben Olsen kept Opare in because he didn't want to mess with the team's chemistry. In the offseason, United's marquee signing was midfielder Markus Halsti, a player with champions league and international soccer experience in Europe. While Halsti has as impressive a resume as any player in the league, he's been coming off the bench for United because of how stacked with talent they are in the midfield.
D.C. United, just two seasons removed from the fewest wins in an MLS season, has a DP slot open (and if Eddie Johnson retires, they would have two), meaning they could go after big-name players. While stars David Villa and Kaká came to MLS this offseason with NYCFC and Orlando City SC, respectively, their individual success hasn't translated to team success. Sure, both teams are expansion franchises new to the league, but if you're going to pay big money to these international stars, you expect your team to be higher in the standings than fifth and ninth place in the league.
A more extreme example of this would be the Chicago Fire, who brought in three DP's this offseason and yet sit in last place in the Eastern Conference. At the end of the day, sure, United could use a DP, but history has shown that DP's don't just come into the league and dominate from the get-go. With the CONCACAF Champions League group stage to worry about, D.C. is going to be able to have success in league play, but not at the expense of this tournament.
Many MLS clubs make the choice to focus on the league, and don't worry about outside tournaments because in the grand scheme of things, winning the MLS Cup is the goal every club aspires to, and so they'll send benchwarmers to these tournaments and hope for the best. D.C. has the unique luxury of being able to send quality players out every single game. With their recent success in league play and in the U.S. Open Cup/ Champions League, they are proving that clubs don't have to spend big to win big.
Adam Curtis is a rising sophomore at American University. Growing up, he played soccer and tennis and is a die-hard D.C. sports fan. Follow him on Twitter: @actennis96