When looking at the five years of Union franchise history, this is what comes to mind:
2010 - Fun, despite the poor team.
2011 - Playoffs, baby.
2012 - Disaster.
2013 - Disaster in all honesty despite the "playoff push"
2014 - Could this have been the most disappointing season yet?
It's been a traumatic five seasons as a Union fan. This year started so promising with a good performance in Portland generating lots of excitement. Unfortunately that didn't last long, and Hackworth was gone. Jim Curtin came in, got the team to the U.S. Open Cup final. We filled the team with Designated Players and improved the quality of the midfield exponentially with the signings of Maurice Edu, Vincent Nogueira and Cristian Maidana. The mid-season additions of Rais M'Bolhi and Carlos Valdes should have put the team into the playoffs, however, things didn't work out that way. The good news for the Union is that D.C. United going from worst to first in the East shows that you are always one good off-season away from being a great run into the playoffs. So, what needs to happen for the Union to be next season's D.C. United?
1. Sign a real game-changing forward.
We all think back to the comment from Jim Curtin of "We don't need another striker." There was also a recent quote from Nick Sakiewicz that "you don't get a great striker for $240,000." Whether the reason the Union didn't get a striker in the summer was because they believed didn't need one or couldn't afford one, and it may have been the single thing that caused the Union to miss out on the playoffs.
When the going got tough, the strikers went missing all season. Jack McInerney was traded for Andrew Wenger, a player that can't finish, and the Union brought in Brian Brown. The issue was that it left Conor Casey with Wenger, Le Toux, Brown, Hoppenot and Wheeler. That is a great strike-force for Harrisburg City Islanders, it would win their league, but in MLS, Casey is getting old and ran out of gas, Le Toux was used wide, and the rest of the team are not good enough to be the strikers for a playoff caliber team. It doesn't necessarily need to be a DP level striker. Bradley Wright Phillips, Dom Dwyer and Chris Wondolowski all have had great years in MLS without being originally DP level. With the correct scouting it doesn't have to be expensive for the Union. But they need someone and without one, they may find themselves on the outside of the playoffs once again.
2. Become more tactically brilliant.
When teams change managers they often get a boost in play, often because a change in tactics yields more positive results. That is what happened with the Union in 2014. John Hackworth was fired, and the Union went from a team that controlled the game but were unable to create to a counter-attacking force. That was how the team got to the USOC Final, and managed to come back from Hackworth's traumatic start to sniff the playoff picture. However, at the end of the season that changed, and the team were back to the original tactics. That may have been the opposing teams sitting back as much as the Union changing tactics. In other words, Jim Curtin may be "found out."
Next season, whether it is Jim Curtin or someone else in charge, the Union need to be flexible in the tactics. That includes playing counter attacking soccer against some teams, or being more controlling but able to create chances against teams that sit in against you. It means making the correct subs by identifying weaknesses in the other team and attacking those weakness or changing things in game. If the Union get that correct, then that is another step toward being in the playoffs in 2015.
3. Cut out the silly errors.
Soccer is difficult. It is even more difficult if you give the other team easy goals. That happened a lot in 2014. The defense was a shambles at times from the Aaron Wheeler experiment to M'Bolhi's clearance against Chicago. With Valdes back and able to have a pre-season alongside either Maurice Edu or Ethan White the center of the defense should be better. Add in the likelihood of Raymon Gaddis continuing to improve and M'Bolhi starting fresh it should be a solid core. The one thing that would improve the defense even more is getting a quality left-back that is actually left footed. However, they are very difficult to find in MLS. If the Union can cut out at least most of the silly mistakes, that will be a major step forward.
4. Rotate the team better.
The thought of rotating the team better sounds both useful and easy. It allows the Union to give players some games off so that they don't get tired at the end of the season in addition to avoiding suspensions. However, when the choices are players of the caliber of Fabinho, Wheeler, Antoine Hoppenot, Fred, Leo Fernandes, Pedro Ribeiro (as striker) and Brian Brown, then it becomes difficult because there is a real lack of MLS quality there. The players who come in obviously don't have to be superstars but they need to be able to come in, do a job and give players a day off. Though occasionally maligned, Danny Cruz, Andrew Wenger, Michael Lahoud are these kind of players. The Union need to sign a few more.
Without signing those players, the Union need to give some of their best youngsters a chance to improve by getting playing time at the MLS level. Pedro Ribeiro may come into that (in the correct position). One player that definitely should is Zach Pfeffer. Having scored his first ever MLS goal, and often looked good, Pfeffer, and Roger Torres before, him have been horribly underused by the Union coaches. I wonder if playing Pfeffer more may have given the Union more points at the end of the season, even by just giving the work-horses like Conor Casey and Sebastien Le Toux more games off. If the Union can rotate the team, they will be improved.
So there you have it. Four potential game changing events that will get the Union to the playoffs in 2015. They were common points in all of the game changer threads throughout the season, and will likely be next year. Let's hope that the Union are the 2015 version of this year's D.C. United. Of course, the Union also have to get through the off-season without losing the key pieces they already have.