Just days ago, Atlanta United were in Kennesaw for the second leg of its Concacaf Champions League round of 16 matchup against Herediano. This weekend, it’s in the nation’s capital to kick off its third MLS season against D.C. United. For all the success the league champions have had over its first two years, Washington has been a place of horrors: inside the District, Atlanta are 0-3-0 and have been outscored 6-2. Will that change on Sunday?
Steven Streff covers D.C. United for our sister blog, Black and Red United. I chatted with him about a couple of new faces on the club’s roster, its ambitions for 2019 after a torrid end to 2018, and the man up top wearing No. 9.
We saw what a different team this was when Wayne Rooney entered the mix - he certainly raised the club’s play, including that of Lucho Acosta. What’s the ceiling for those two men in 2019, in your eyes? Moreso Rooney, with this being his first full season in MLS?
With just 20 games together last year, Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta wasted little time figuring each other out, and both ended the season on the MLS Best XI. In those games, Rooney went for 12 goals and seven assists, while Acosta added nine goals to go with his 10 assists. They were electric, dynamic, and fun to watch, bringing a joy to D.C. United games that had been absent for quite some time.
The ceiling for these two is matching that form. It’s not hard to imagine, if Rooney keeps up the same production, for him to get to 20 goals in 2019, something only two other players for the club have managed. Double digit goals and assists for both players wouldn’t be out of the question. Both could be MVP candidates, though they might cancel each other out at the end of the season if they are both excelling, and closing in on a total of 25 combined goals and assists for each.
What remains to be seen is if the two can sustain that production over the course of the year. It won’t be easy, and with 12 games on shorter rest this year, there’s likely no chance that either would start all 34 games. Plus, as teams see more and more of the two, they might not have as much joy scoring and setting up teammates as they did last year. Add in Rooney’s age and mileage, and I think if he hits 17 goals and 8 assists over the year, then he’s just about reached his ceiling for the campaign.
Atlanta United, of course, brought in an Argentinian player of some repute in Pity Martinez, but D.C. made some moves itself in that country with a pair of loaned-in players: Titi Rodriguez (who Atlanta formerly had signing rights to, and a former Leandro Gonzalez Pirez teammate at Estudiantes) and Boca Juniors man Leonardo Jara (who faced off against Martinez in Copa Libertadores a few months prior). What’s the hope for those two as far as how they acclimate themselves to this roster?
Atlanta United fans might not recognize Jara, but I assume many of them watched the Copa Libertadores Final, with Pity breaking away late to seal the cup for River Plate. Jara was on the field for Boca Juniors, having coming on as a substitute in the second leg, and playing 83 minutes at the Bombonera in the first game. At 27 years old, Jara has played over 200 games in all competitions for Boca and Estudiantes. He’ll be the opening day starter at right back against Atlanta, but he showed some signs of still trying to figure out the league in the preseason games. It seems he’ll get forward just fine to aid the attack, but his defending, especially in transition, wasn’t on par with what you’d expect from a seasoned pro in Argentina. At his best, it seems that he could be a top five right back in the league, but that is surely dependent on him quickly picking up the nuances of the MLS game.
Much to the disappointment of players, coaches, and fans alike, United were unable to bring back Yamil Asad after his loan from Velez Sarsfield expired. The former Atlanta man quickly won over fans in D.C., scoring and assisting, and putting up similar numbers to those he had in 2017. An ankle injury robbed him a couple of games in September, and he wasn’t quite the same player when he returned. After the season, Ben Olsen said that they might have pushed Asad too quickly in his comeback, which hurt his performances.
In his place, United is hoping that Rodriguez can fill the Asad-shaped hole on the left side of the midfield. “Titi” is only 21 years old but has over 100 games of experience in Argentina. There are a lot of similarities between Rodriguez and Acosta, who both joined United from Estudiantes on loan around the same age. Acosta didn’t have as much experience though as Rodriguez, so Olsen said before preseason training camp started that he hoped Titi would be able to acclimatize quicker. In preseason though, an injury robbed Rodriguez of two weeks of training, and he missed three of the preseason games. He played the first 33 minutes of the last game against the Montreal Impact, but didn’t have a good game, and I don’t expect him to be starting against Atlanta. Rodriguez will likely need a full season to get used to MLS, so if he chips in a couple of goals to go with six or seven assists, I think he will do well enough.
What will the measure of success be for D.C. United in 2019? The way it ended last season certainly provides a great deal of promise, but how far can this group go toward winning a championship?
The goal for United every season is to make it to the playoffs. This year is no different, but there are certainly much higher expectations now than there were a year ago at this time. For United, this season might be their best chance though to make a run at MLS Cup. There’s no guarantees that Acosta is still around next year, and Rooney will be 34 years old at the end of the season. Jara and Rodriguez are here just on loan, and though they have options that United could purchase, so did Asad. It’s reasonable to expect this team to finish in the top four of the East again, and host a playoff game. They’ve lost the last two home knockout round games in the playoffs, so they must get over that hurdle this year. If they make it to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they haven’t been since 2012, that will likely represent a successful year. But everyone at the club is thinking MLS Cup this year, which United haven’t won since 2004.