In the final entry of our three-part D.C. United season recap, we take a look at some of the big questions left over from the 2011 campaign.
1. What will become of the center of D.C.'s backline?
There was a stretch during the summer, where it looked like United had fixed the issues in the middle of their back line. Brandon McDonald had an immediate impact upon being traded from San Jose and Dejan Jakovic was stringing together some of his best performances in Black-and-Red.
Understandably desperate to shore up the future of its defense, United quickly signed McDonald to a new deal. At the time, the results warranted such a move. D.C. had been shredded before McDonald arrived, but with him in the lineup Ben Olsen's team pitched shutouts in four of nine games.
But once Jakovic injured his hamstring in August, United's defense fell apart. McDonald isn't the greatest distributor out of the back, and it showed down the stretch. D.C. gave up 11 goals during their 0-5-1 collapse to end the year.
I'm not suggesting that McDonald can't help United, but on his own, I'm not sure he's the defensive pillar that D.C. was hoping for when they signed the 25-year-old defender to a long term deal.
The other major issue is Jakovic. There is no position where durability is as important as central back. Without consistency at its spine, no defense can succeed. With Jakovic making 201,000 in 2011 (according to the MLS Players Union) the cost of keeping the Canadian in 2012 might be too high considering his inability to stay on the field.
2. Who will make up United's forward corps in 2012?
Relative to 2010, United's forward line this season was so improved that it's hard to complain about the unit. On paper, it had everything. The speedster (Davies), the savvy vet (Wolff), the aerial-specialist (Brettschneider) and the tireless off-the-ball runner (Ngwenya).
Unfortunately for D.C., games aren't played on paper.
Davies inconsistencies were obvious and there were far too many stretches of games where he simply could not link up with the rest of United's attack. Ngwenya never looked the least bit dangerous, and after a promising start, Brettschneider's progress was stifled by injuries. Wolff was the most consistent of the bunch, but at 34-years-old, how much is left in those legs?
There's a good chance at least half of United's front-line won't be back. But replacing those players with guys who produce MORE is a must. United's forward line accounted for just 34 of United's 49 goals this year. If Kevin Payne, Ben Olsen and Dave Kasper can significantly improve that percentage, it'll make D.C. a sure playoff team in 2012.
3. What is Dwayne De Rosario's best position?
It may seem like I'm implying that Dwayne De Rosario is so good that it's a problem.
Not a problem, just a question.
Is Dwayne De Rosario's best spot atop United's midfield, pulling the strings on D.C.'s attack?
Or should the Black-and-Red's best finisher play closer to goal, allowing DeRo to capitalize on a greater number of clear-cut opportunities.
Much of the answer to this hinges on Branko Boskovic's return. How effective the Montenegrin is and whether or not he can consistently fill a central role, will determine whether Ben Olsen has the luxury of playing De Rosario up top.