It was a decently warm game when D.C. United opened the home season in 2006 against the New York Red Bulls. Despite the previous years ignominious defeat to Chicago, the mood was somewhat optimistic. Several prognosticators picked United to finish first in the East for the upcoming year. With Christian Gomez serving a red card suspension, and Nick Rimando injured from preseason, the line-up was perhaps not the entire first string. Onto the field came Troy Perkins, Brandon Prideaux, Facundo Erpen, John Wilson, Joshua Gros, Brian Carroll, Ben Olsen, Clyde Simms, Freddy Adu, Lucio Filomeno and , Jaime Moreno. The team would fall behind early, but the insertion of Alecko Eskandarian in the second half rallied the team, which drew 2-2. That team would go on to the Supporter's Shield in 2006, with Troy Perkins displacing Rimando as United's #1 keeper, and Christian Gomez returning to an MVP Award.
It is now 2008, and from that original line-up, only Ben Olsen, Clyde Simms, and Jaime Moreno remain. Substitutes Eskandarian and Quaranta are gone. Gomez is now gone, despite his suspension. Rimando is gone. Of the 16 players mentioned, only three remain, and only Brian Namoff can really be said to have been part of that club as well and still be part of the team. That's three-quarters of lineup that has changed in two years.
Last year I wrote frequently that it was a rebuilding year, and while the results may not have reflected that idea (another successful Supporter's Shield Campaign), you can not deny that since 2006, this team has been rebuilt. Entirely. New head coach, new players, and now a new designated player. The implications of this should not be lost, and BDR has voiced a point that I agree with: "Nothing that happens this upcoming season can be blamed on a nowakian hangover."
He's right, and let's state it in another way -- 2008 is a statement year for Soehn, Kasper, and Payne. This is a team, more than any other since roughly early in this decade, where they have made a significant moved to put the team they want on the field. They have made choices, in what to acquire, and in what not to acquire. They have put their vision, the vision they believe in, on the field.
Let us take Kevin Payne at his word (pretty easy to do, since he's not really given us much of a reason to ever doubt him): The mission of D.C. United is to serve the community and win championships. United has let their most visible humanitarian go to Houston. United has let the 2006 MLS MVP leave for a designated player. We are being told, in other words, that this team is more likely than that team to fulfill those two goals. Oscar may have a point about marketing to Argentinian population, but that's not the mission of D.C. United as stated. The two foremost principles are silverware and community involvement. And this, we are told, is the best team to embody those principles.
While it is easy to focus on players in a game, this is a year that demands that we truly examine our coaching and front office. Players will win or lose games, but the front office and management will win or lose this season. They, more than any other parties, are responsible for the 2008 campaign. They had done right by us in the past, but the price of professional sports is inevitably "what have you done for me lately." The departure of Boswell, of Gomez, of Perkins... these all signify that while I give the roster moves of the past great credit, they do not matter for this season. This season is about the choices we have seen being made. If they do not work out, the chances of hot-headed, impulsive fans like me yelling for a change at the top of the power structure are much likelier then if United had stood-pat or had greater continuity.
Of course, the reverse applies as well. If United is successful this season, then the Front Office and Tom Soehn will have earned themselves a lot of slack for the next several seasons. They will have made the choices they needed to make. Risk, in the markets, defines uncertainty, and riskier investments have a greater chance of crashing and burning, but also a greater chance of truly spectacular yields. D.C. United is now the most exotic South American tech stock in MLS. And I am invested in it. Fully. Utterly.