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There was certainly logic behind D.C. United's unprededented dealing.By Robert Wagman
(Thursday, February 15, 2001) -- No team in the history of Major League Soccer has ever made as many changes from its established roster as D.C. United made recently in a three-day period surrounding the league’s draft.
Seven players, including three United States national team players, the veteran core of United, were dealt away, replaced mostly by untried youngsters. In the aftermath, United president and general manager Kevin Payne, and coach Thomas Rongen, have been called everything from nuts to simply vindictive in the wake of United’s disastrous 2000 season. Bu while any such massive shakeup is obviously risky, every move possessed certain logic.
Moreover, if certain league-imposed conditions did indeed exist, what Payne did was mandatory if the team was to be competitive.
First there is MLS’s semi-mysterious salary cap. Since the league doesn’t reveal terms of its player contracts and maintains a shroud of secrecy around the cap, Payne can only be taken at his word that United was "way over" the cap for the 2001 season. What Payne maintained was the only way for his club get under the cap was to jettison two of its "big six " players -- Eddie Pope, Marco Etcheverry, Jamie Moreno, Raul Diaz Arce, Jeff Agoos and Carlos Llamosa.
Reportedly, United tried mightily to unload Diaz Arce, but there were not takes considering his high salary and diminishing output. With Etcheverry an untouchable and Moreno considered by many the best player in the league, it came down to the unenviable choice that two of the other three had to go. For a variety of reasons, especially age, Payne chose to keep Pope, a reasonable decision.
There was yet another logic behind trading Llamosa and Agoos. Both are national-team starters, which meant both would miss much MLS action this season and even more next if the U.S. makes it to World Cup 2002.
Last season, the eventual league champion Kansas City Wizards jumped off to a great start and one undeniable factor was that they started the same lineup for the first 13 games. United, by contrast, started 13 different line-ups in its first 13 matches. By trading Llamosa and Agoos, both popular players still at the top of their games, United gave up a lot, but also two players who were going to be gone quite a bit and who at ages 32 and 31 are nearing the end of their peak playing days.
Once it was determined that Llamosa and Agoos had to go, it became a question where. Payne said he talked to Llamosa who, if he had to be traded, wanted to go either to Maimi, with its large Colombian community, or to the MetroStars because he has family in the New York area.
United’s biggest problem last season was goalkeeping. Tom Presthus, despite his physical gifts, was terrible in 2000, conceding a large number of bad goals because of mental errors or bad positioning. Mark Simpson did not play badly, but given his history of injuries and as a reserve, was iffy as a starter.
United inquired around the league and asked the MetroStars about backup Tim Howard, only to surprisingly find the New Jersey franchise interested in dealing starter Mike Ammann, one of the best in the league. The Metros, deep in central defenders, weren’t interested in Llamosa, but needed a defensive midfielder and could afford an allocation which D.C. United possessed, but could not use because of cap constraints.
Add a swap of low draft picks and that deal was made. While Williams had been a long-time star for United, he was sub-par in 2000 and could spend time with the national team in 2001. Ammann could be the answer to the nagging goalkeeping problems United suffered, even in championship seasons.
That left Miami as a destination for Llamosa and the Fusion was quite interested, considering his ability and possibly his ability to lure Colombian fans to Lockhart Stadium. Miami had two things United wanted: journeyman Brian Kamler, a solid multi-positional player for United, and the draft’s fourth pick.
United lost perhaps the best pure defender in the league, but got Kamler, a player loved by the coaching staff, and midfielder Ryan Nelsen, a New Zealand national team who was one of the top collegiate players last fall at Stanford. Payne looked good on this swap.
This left Agoos and San Jose striker Abdul Thompson Conteh, who wanted to get out of San Jose in the worst way and return to Washington where he went to college and has family and friends. United had made previous inquiries about him, with no success, but the Earthquakes wanted Agoos and the deal was done with Payne swindling the Earthquakes out of the eighth and 10th selections in the draft.
The eight choice produced Baltimore 16-year-old Santino Quaranta, a high-scoring right midfielder for the national under-17 men, considered a major talent.
With Ammann, United sent Presthus and San Jose’s No. 10 pick to Columbus for the first round’s third selection, which Clemson Mark Lisi, a player of high character and one of the NCAA’s best attacking midfielders.
One key to success in MLS is having players who can play and who do not count against the 18-player roster or salary cap. Under the league’s strange and often changing rules, there are various classifications of players: regular, senior internationals, transitional internationals, junior internationals, Project-40, allocated players, discovery players, and so on.
United, taking advantage of roster loopholes as well as anyone in the league, has five players in training camp who are roster exceptions: Bobby Convey, Jose Alegria, Micah Cooks, Quaranta and Sergio Salas. Convey is a starter and Alegria likely could be one.
United has been transformed from a set veteran team to a work in progress, but has also emerged as younger team, comfortably under the cap and with 23 usable players despite reduction of league rosters from 23 to 18.
Whether things work out and United returns to MLS Cup contention remains to be seen. If they do, Payne and coach Thomas Rongen will be seen as geniuses; if not, possibly Payne and certainly Rongen, will be looking for work.
Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be
e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org..
Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at email@example.com..