Once, they were kings.
D.C. United rose from the primordial soccer ooze back in the mid-1990s along with nine other MLS teams, and they climbed out as champions. Bruce Arena’s team ran roughshod over a league where the two universals were Murphy’s Law and D.C. dominance, winning three of the first four MLS Cups and two of the first four Supporters' Shields.
They won the double (MLS Cup and US Open Cup) in their first season. They won a continental title in their third. All told, D.C. won 12 titles in their first 13 years of existence.
This year, a polite way of putting it is that things haven’t gone quite so well.
For the first time in team history, D.C. fired a manager, Curt Onalfo, in midseason. Post-concussion syndrome has forced long-time defender Brian Namoff into suspending his career. Stalwarts such as Clyde Simms and Santino Quaranta have missed chunks of time with injuries sundry and lingering. None of the forwards have been able to find the net with regularity.
But there’s a silver lining in the form of a US Open Cup semifinal run and four young talents, all of whom have been plucked from the D.C. Academy.
And that’s where interim manager Ben Olsen and the fan base will prefer to keep their focus. Lest anyone around the Beltway give up hope for the future, the two things to remember are that D.C. are one win away from playing for their 13th trophy, and that they’ll be relying heavily on four of their own products, aged 17 through 23, to do get the job done.
In short, D.C. – the club that wrote the book on how to win in MLS – look like they may be writing the book on how to resurrect a moribund team from within.
Andy Najar, a dynamic winger with a nose for goal and a nonstop workrate, is the youngest of the bunch at just 17. He’s also the biggest star at the moment, having already scored three goals in the league and another two in Open Cup play. D.C. will take on the Columbus Crew in the USOC semis on Wednesday in large part thanks to Najar’s heroics with a stoppage-time winner against Real Salt Lake in June.
Najar, a native Honduran who moved to the D.C. area as a teen, is already getting looks from his national team and, reportedly, from clubs in Europe.
The other potential star of the four is keeper Bill Hamid. D.C. may be anchored to the bottom of the standings at just 4-15-3 overall, but Hamid is a very respectable 3-4-0 in his seven appearances, with just nine goals conceded. It’s that kind of play that has attracted the notice of Scottish giants Celtic, not to mention the United States Under-23 National Team.
Hamid was originally signed by D.C. in September 2009 at the age of 18, the first of D.C.’s Academy products to put pen to paper, but didn’t make his debut until May of this year.
He did so in style, making a handful of highlight-reel saves and leading United to a 2-1 win over Kansas City. In so doing, Hamid because the youngest winning keeper in MLS history, besting the record of a fellow you may have heard of – Tim Howard – by four days.
The old hand of the bunch is right back Jordan Graye, who turned 23 this summer and has been part of the D.C. Academy for nearly a decade.
Graye had a solid but injury-plagued college career at the University of North Carolina, and on draft day this past January was an afterthought. He lasted to the 55th pick, and many figured he was a longshot to even make the roster.
Eight months later and it’s clear that Graye has what it takes to be an MLS starter. Unlike Najar and Hamid, he’s not going to be a star. But what Graye brings – stability, consistency and a link to D.C. United’s history – is just as important in its own right.
The fourth academy product is defensive midfielder Conor Shanosky. In the scheme of things, he has to be considered a great unknown since, unlike the other three guys, he’s yet to play a professional match (and won’t be eligible to do so until next year). But based upon his play with the US U-20 National Team, big things are expected of the 18-year-old.
It’s an unusual, and at this point unique, approach to team-building that the United braintrust have chosen. But it has the hint of success about it.
After all, Arena’s great D.C. teams were known as much for their stability and ability to function as a unit as they were for their individual stand-outs. The core was always there. Arena and Marco Etcheverry were the alpha dogs, and the likes of Jaime Moreno, Richie Williams, Carlos Llamosa and Eddie Pope formed the nucleus. As long as that group stayed together, new signings could come in and immediately understand where they fit and what was expected.
Olsen and company will hope that Najar, Hamid, Graye and Shanosky can replicate that and be the new core. In signing four guys from their academy, D.C. seem to be closing the book on the merry-go-round of foreign acquisitions of the last five years and doubling down on stability over hype.
If it works – and even with all the talent the four have, that’s still a big if – D.C. will be the first MLS team to have built a competitor from within.
Which would be a fitting way to reclaim their lost kingdom.