Sunday, August 26, 2012


Tomorrow night, the Maryland men's soccer team's 2012 campaign will officially begin against the school -- Louisville -- that closed the book on the 2011 season.

This season I will not head to Ludwig hoping to see budding D.C. United contributors; not because I believe that this year's team isn't replete with talent (it is), but because I would prefer not to see Terps cut their professional teeth in a team led by Ben Olsen.

While Marcelo Saragosa, Mike Chabala, and Emiliano Dudar put in questionable shifts for United this afternoon in Montreal, Maryland alums Ethan White and Stephen King weren't even included in the 18.

Young players are not excluded from Ben Olsen's side.  Perry Kitchen (20) started again, along with Andy Najar (19), Bill Hamid (21), Chris Korb (24), and Long Tan (24).  Nick DeLeon (22) was ill, but otherwise would likely have been involved, while Chris Pontius (25) and Joe Willis (24) were available off the bench.

The issue isn't a lack of opportunity for young players generally.  Olsen has no problem going with youth.  The issue is, instead, player development. Najar, Hamid, Pontius, and Korb have shown improvements in their game this season --  Najar is more aggressive defensively and has ideas in mind after exhilarating runs; Hamid's confidence is exceptional; Pontius has become a legitimate scoring threat; and Korb's exhibited some surprising offensive skills.  But from the perspective of sitting outside the club, the margin for error for younger players not named Perry Kitchen is substantially smaller than for veterans, even where (particularly in the case of players like Jakovic, Dudar, Russell, Saragosa, and Morsink) the deference isn't warranted by on-field performance.

I've enjoyed D.C. United this year.  Even fleeting glances of lineups featuring Boskovic-DeRosario-Pontius-DeLeon-Najar justify the costs (both temporal and monetary) of season tickets.  Ethan White's total freeze-out has grated.  So has watching Saragosa ascend to the current throne of guileless midfielder fueled by piss and vinegar.  Even with all the problems at fullback, I harbored no desire for United's front office to find ways to return Rodney Wallace or Jeremy Hall to the region.

Jimmy Burns' fantastic "La Roja" highlights a quote from Johan Cruyff that unmasked the parochial origins of my frustration:
"Fans the world over like to see good players who share their mentality, and preferably come from their country, and if a coach has to choose between a foreign and a local with equal qualities, he should go for the local.  That way the fans are less likely to whistle him if things go wrong.  In Barca, people like seeing players from the cantera in the first team; it makes them feel that the coach somehow is more a part of Barcelona that way."
 For me, this is undoubtedly true.  I would be willing to sit through five horrid performances by Conor Shanosky well before sitting through the ninety minutes of mediocre meaninglessness embodied by Marcelo Saragosa today.  No matter how many times commentators try and paint a different picture, Perry Kitchen is having a very disappointing season in United's midfield -- yet, in the stands, we shrug off the unforced giveaways and poor passes.

Superficially, this whinge makes no sense because it is aimed at someone who spent over a decade in the black and red.  Olsen is hard-woven into the fabric of the club.  But while he is indelibly part of the franchise, Ben Olsen, on his own, is not D.C. United.  The qualities that Olsen embodied are inconsistent, as a governing philosophy, with United's image of itself.  A cagey, veteran team with "bite" that gets stuck in every match might compete well in the league and, possibly, be in frame for an MLS Cup, but it is certainly not what D.C. United has been selling to supporters.

But more important than the marketing sleight of hand is what it means for the talent trapped on the roster.  When supporters of the Houston Dynamo weighed in with "Free Geoff Cameron" signs, I half-hoped that offers would come in for Pontius, Najar, and Hamid before the close of the August transfer window.  All three are a joy to watch, but all three would be better served somewhere else.

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