WASHINGTON — The idea of building a team around a strong spine won’t win any points for originality. But if executed properly, it almost always brings results.
It doesn’t take much for D.C. United supporters to turn misty-eyed and nostalgic about their club’s effective central partnerships of the past, with names like Etcheverry, Harkes, Williams, Olsen and Gomez mentioned readily and reverentially.
But they might also look over the likes of Carroll, Kovalenko, and Fred, United midfield alumni presently plying their trade with teams sitting above D.C. in the standings. Then consider the degree of turnover in the engine room over the past three seasons. There’s been no shortage of quality in the center of the RFK Stadium pitch during that time, but a lack of consistency has led to successive rounds of overhauling.
Holding midfielder Clyde Simms represents the only constant during that period, and by his own admission, an injury-plagued 2010 suggests that several seasons of hard miles have taken a toll on the heretofore reliable veteran’s body. At the close of the current campaign he’ll undergo his second sports hernia surgery in as many years, and while the prognosis points to a full recovery, both the club and the player recognize the need for more cautious management of his minutes in the future.
Stylistically, United would surely prefer to field an attack-minded creator in the tactical space in front of Simms. Whether that is realistic given the evolution of the league as a whole is an open question, however. Midsummer acquisition Branko Boskovic is the second designated player in three years to be secured for a central attacking midfield role, and 11 matches into his MLS career, the jury is still out.
The Montenegrin’s performances at the international level leave no doubt of his talent, and he’s seen as a central cog in next year’s rebuilt D.C. squad. But a large salary leads to large expectations, and Boskovic is still finding his feet in the new environment of MLS.
“[MLS] is not like people in Europe think,” Boskovic said recently. “I see a lot of good players here. I think it’s physical and technically it’s very good. It’s a very, very hard level.”
This year Kurt Morsink and Stephen King have competed for playing time alongside, or in relief of, Simms, and they have usually been steady enough. Not spectacular, but passable. At 26 and 24, respectively, both are relatively young and represent minimal hits on the salary cap. But their involvement in such a discouraging season may count against them if United elect to revamp in a position usually considered one of the deepest in North American soccer.
Simms and Boskovic have secured their roles for next year. Beyond that, auditions are ongoing, and will extend into preseason, when new faces—not to mention a new coach—will also be brought in for consideration.
“You want to take every opportunity now to show them that you want to be on the team next year, when we’re turning things around and starting over again,” said King last week. “It is a crowded position right now, especially having brought in Branko and with Curt and Clyde and myself all battling for two out of those four spots, more or less. But everything’s positive. I think we as an organization are just looking for the right team chemistry, the right cohesion.”