Friday, March 16, 2007

More on D.C. United and the Beautiful Game: While watching Jaime Moreno labor through the first half of tonight's game, I was really struck by the transformation in D.C. United, from the plan for the squad that appeared to be coming together a few years ago. It wasn't that long ago that D.C. United seemed determined to bring together the finest soccer-playing American teenagers. There was Bobby Convey, Santino Quaranta and, of course, Freddy Adu. Convey went to England, Quaranta struggled through injuries and was dealt to L.A. last year. When Adu was dealt in the offseason, the youth movement project was officially over and done.

Instead, United has embarked on a much more interesting, and promising strategy. United's ship has tacked to the south, where United has carved out a unique model in pursuing underappreciated South American talent. By and large, United is aiming for 'tweeners -- those players who have shown ability, but who are not being considered for national teams, or even top European leagues. That makes them expendable in their South American and Central American leagues, and approachable by United at salary levels that make them attractive additions to the United roster.

There have been successes: Christian Gomez exceeded all expectations, becoming the league MVP last year. Facundo Erpen has become a fixture in the starting lineup, even if an unspectacular one. Of course, the model for this approach is the veteran Jaime Moreno, who may be the league's all-time leading scorer when he finally retires. Of course, there have been a few misses, as well -- including, recently, Luciano Filomeno and Mathias Donnet. The successes have been well worth the few misses, and the latest moves may bring United its fifth MLS title.

This off-season, United added Luciano Emilio. After three games, the decision to sign Emilio is looking like the best player move any MLS team has ever made. This isn't just because of his own prodigious scoring skills, but also because of the way he has so neatly fit into United's game, taking their offense to a new level.

As exciting as Emiio's debut has been, his signing is already old news. United has added another potential star this week. If early scouting reports on United's latest addition bear out, the team will have the most formidable attack the league has ever seen. This latest signing is the Brazilian known as Fred (Helbert Frederico Carreiro da Silva), who starred for Melbourne, helping them to the recent Australian Grand Championship. Still waiting for visa work clearance, Fred should join the lineup soon. Fred's an attacking midfielder with a knack for producing goals.

Apparently, United made a failed pitch for former Argentina national team star, Martin Palermo. No matter. If the quartet of Moreno, Emilio, Gomez and 'Fred' can stay healthy, United should be the heavy favorite to bring raise the MLS Cup, when the final returns to RFK this October.

There is a blog on the ESPN site that examines United's bargain-basement South American strategy. Jen Chang contrasts the strategy with that of other teams which have pursued big-name European stars. Certainly, Youri Djorkaeff wasn't enough to make winners out the New York team. Apparently, the Chicago Fire, having been turned down by Zinedine Zidane, are on the verge of signing the aging Mexican star, Cuahtemoc Blanco -- for more money than United will be paying in total to its 'Fantastic Four'. Chang argues that Blanco's biggest impact may be in destroying the good team chemistry that the Fire have enjoyed.

Chang is spot on, when he notes the MLS shot itself in the foot, with the inflated pronouncements regarding the value of David Beckham's contract with the L.A. Galaxy. That contract, as it turns out, will pay Beckham a bit more than one-tenth of the purported $250 million the MLS originally claimed. That announcement torpedoed negotiations with a number of European stars, as well as United's own talks with Martin Palermo.

The international stars, including Edgar Davids, increased their salary demands in response to the suddenly inflated expectations generated by the Beckham announcement. By creating false salary expectations, the MLS' priced itself right out of the market for these players. On the other hand, if the other teams were to take the money they have saved, by not signing overpriced big-name talent, and use it following D.C. United's model, they might be better off.

Chang concludes by naming three foreign players who would fit the D.C. United model, as talented players, who are playing in lesser leagues and would jump at the chance to play in the U.S. I don't know the first thing about any of these players -- and I urge you to read Chang's blog -- but here are their names: Ismail Matar, who plays for Al-Wahda in the UAE; Ledesma, a young Brazilian, with Kaunas, in Lithuania; and Allan Delon, another Brazilian, but one who has stayed at home, with Brasiliense. They may bear watching.

For now, it is D.C. United that bears watching, The Dynamo may be the defending champs, but United are the team to beat in the M.L.S. This promises to be a fun year in the nation's capital. The Washington Nationals may stink, but politics isn't the only sport worth watching in D.C. this year. Go, United!

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