D.C. United, leaning on its designated players, looks to rebound in 2023

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By Amit


If D.C. United is to rebound from an MLS-worst campaign — and bring joy back to Buzzard Point after missing the playoffs three consecutive years — it is going to need production from three players who were nowhere near Audi Field when last season began.

Striker Christian Benteke was with Premier League club Crystal Palace. Midfielder Mateusz Klich was 190 miles north of London, helping Leeds stave off relegation. Forward Taxi Fountas was winding down his tenure with Rapid Vienna in Austria before a stateside move in the spring.

A year later, the trio of MLS designated players is in Washington playing for another recent European import, Coach Wayne Rooney. Starting Saturday night against visiting Toronto FC, the consortium will seek to elevate a club that has not finished better than fourth in the Eastern Conference in nine years and last made it to the MLS Cup in 2004.

How they go, United is likely to go.

“I know people expect a lot of things from us,” Klich said. “I know how it works here in the U.S. with DPs; they expect more from them. As long as we play good as a team and everyone performs, and I can add something to it, I will be happy.”

Klich was the last piece to United’s high-profile puzzle, signing in January and receiving his work visa in time to join training camp three weeks ago.

MLS season preview: The Starting XI

The DP reconstruction began last spring, six games into the season, when the Greek-born Fountas arrived from the Austrian league and immediately became United’s best player. He was followed by the Belgian Benteke in late August, six weeks after Rooney, a former D.C. star, agreed to coach.

The piecemeal approach failed to rescue the season, but with Klich’s arrival and a proper preseason behind Fountas, Benteke and Rooney, United believes it will surpass predictions of another losing season.

“For me, DPs can be your match-winners,” Rooney said. “They are the ones who tend to make a lot of the difference, but also what I have been really happy about is how they’ve interacted with their teammates. Sometimes that can be difficult. They’ve been fantastic.”

Each MLS team is allowed three designated players, whose contracts exceed the league’s wage guidelines and salary cap restrictions. The flow of DPs began with David Beckham signing with the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007, followed by the likes of Thierry Henry, Didier Drogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Last year, United’s DP situation was unsettled. United traded winger Paul Arriola to Dallas before the season started. Fountas arrived, but by midseason, the club had transferred midfielder Edison Flores, a three-season bust, to Atlas in Mexico. Then in September, MLS launched an investigation into whether Fountas directed a racial slur at an opponent during a match. The league ultimately found the allegation credible but couldn’t verify it. Fountas, who had denied the allegation, wasn’t disciplined but didn’t play for United for the rest of the season.

Benteke’s acquisition filled a slot, and, for the last half of the season only, midfielder Victor Palsson was classified as a DP. In seven matches, Benteke scored once — hardly the output needed on a team that finished last in scoring (and last in goals conceded, too). It wasn’t an easy situation: He had to hit the ground running after a long pause since Crystal Palace’s season ended and partnered with Fountas, 27, in just one game.

“When you get a move as a big name, you have an expectation,” Benteke said. “So I know I have an expectation.”

Rooney said, “If we get him scoring goals and playing the way we know he can play, he will be a huge player for us.”

From 2022: D.C. United acquires Christian Benteke from Premier League’s Crystal Palace

Benteke, 32, is upbeat about the prospects of combining with not just Klich and Fountas (12 goals and three assists in 21 matches last year), but a team that added nine players in the offseason overall.

“We have got all the ingredients to make a good meal,” Benteke said.

United is hungry to see Klich collaborate with the returning DPs.

“Taxi and Christian got a taste of what the league’s like,” captain Steven Birnbaum said. “Klich coming in, he has been really lively. He wants to be on the ball, he wants to create for us, and that’s what we want. He’s going to dictate the game a lot for us.”

Klich, 32, will need time to build stamina, polish his game and forge chemistry. A key figure at Leeds for four years, he was a role player this season, appearing in 16 matches across all competitions but starting just two, the latest coming in November.

“It’s not perfect yet,” Klich said of the player alliances. “Our connection, our shape, our understanding looks better with each training session.”

To complement the DPs, Rooney will turn to midfielder Pedro Santos, a free agent signing from Columbus, and returning defensive midfielders Palsson, Chris Durkin and Russell Canouse.

Homegrown attackers Jackson Hopkins, 18, and Kristian Fletcher, 17, will help compensate for the loss of winger Martín Rodríguez (ACL injury).

United added two fullbacks — Ruan, in a trade with Orlando, and Mohanad Jeahze, in a transfer from Sweden’s Hammarby — and center back Derrick Williams, in a trade with the Galaxy.

Williams is out with a leg injury, opening an opportunity for possibly Matai Akinmboni, a 16-year-old homegrown who debuted last year. All three goalkeepers are new: Tyler Miller (Minnesota) and Alex Bono (Toronto) via free agency and Luis Zamudio from second-flight Loudoun United. Rooney has yet to announce the starter.

Benteke said the team is “full of ambitions, full of dreams, full of ideas, full of goals.”

“We’ve got a good group,” he said. “It’s a fresh start for myself, for the new boys and for the whole team.”

Notes: Ravel Morrison, a midfielder whom Rooney brought to Washington from Derby County last summer, is no longer in the club’s plans, though he is still under contract.

United has not included Morrison on the season roster, disqualifying him from appearing in matches and opening an international roster slot. The club will try to trade him, transfer him abroad or mutually agree to terminate his contract. He scored two goals in 14 appearances last year.

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