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United: Defenders

In our continuing offseason look at D.C. United's roster, we turn to the backline:

Bryan Namoff: Veteran right back was enjoying an excellent season until a blow to the head resulted in a concussion and forced him to the sideline for good. He has been monitored very closely and, although doctors foresee a full recovery, the club has not forgotten the long-term effects of a concussion on Alecko Eskandarian (still having issues in L.A.) and Josh Gros (forced to retire).

Dejan Jakovic: The Canadian international has the potential to become one of the league's best center backs. He reads the game well, distributes the ball effectively and offers the athletic ability to foil top forwards. He was far from perfect last year, however, and will need to reduce breakdowns under pressure.

Julius James: Much-traveled center back showed well with United after being acquired from Houston in August. He has the size and strength to combat target forwards. The club must determine whether he is up to a full-time role or a reserve who is comfortable starting on occasion.

Marc Burch: Powerful left foot, serves a dangerous long balls but prone to one-on-one breakdowns. Top choice at left back but has also been used in the middle. Will he be bumped in favor of Rodney Wallace, a left back in college who played primarily in midfield for United last year?

Devon McTavish: His value is his versatility as he has shuttled between the right side of midfield, right back, center back and deep midfield during his four years. In 2009, he made 16 starts in all competitions.

Avery John: T&T World Cup veteran made three league starts at left back, but at age 34, is he worth re-signing?

Lawson Vaughn: Late-season addition provided depth to injury-weakened backline. He might be needed for cover on the right side if Namoff isn't ready. He's been invited to preseason camp and will have to earn a contract.

David Habarugira: Late-season addition played in the Champions League only. At 21, he might have a future with United. A decision is expected in the next couple weeks.

Greg Janicki: A starter early in the year, he fell from favor after several shaky performances and was waived after the season.

The draft offers some options, but probably no one, other than Wake Forest's Ike Opara, who would make an immediate impact. Assuming United is looking to bolster the backline, an international signing or trade is the best route.

By Steve Goff  |  January 8, 2010; 9:38 AM ET
Categories:  D.C. United  
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Come on Namoff! Unleash the healing factor!

Posted by: DadRyan | January 8, 2010 10:01 AM | Report abuse

John, Vaughn, and Jan' gone.

Posted by: troy6 | January 8, 2010 10:05 AM | Report abuse

How bad is college soccer such that the draft offers little prospects beyond the first few picks? Is it that a lot of these guys are going overseas?

BTW, keep Burch at left back and leave Wallace permanently in the midfield. He's shown he has the ability to score and is always looking to attack anyway.

Posted by: tundey | January 8, 2010 10:09 AM | Report abuse

Tundey, is there really a sport that has college players step right into pro ranks? To my mind there are few.

Generally speaking, there are very few rookies who have an immediate impact at the start of their first pro season, even in the NBA. Of course there are exceptions.

Posted by: JkR- | January 8, 2010 10:13 AM | Report abuse

I think the college game doesn't do a good job of preparing players for the professional game, and that's the reason so few players are able to make a big impact immediately in their rookie season. It's not that there isn't talent, there just isn't the experience, coaching, and know-how, so nearly all picks have to be an investment rather than an immediate fix.

Posted by: VercengetorixII | January 8, 2010 10:15 AM | Report abuse

Defense enters the season in 1000% better standing than it was last year, thanks to Jakovic and James. If those top four are fully healthy, they are a perfectly workable back line.

I think any real competition for those four spots will come from outside. Depth is a bigger issue -- Avery John had his moments, but I saw very little from Vaughn, and Habarugira looks like a flat-out liability.

A lot of people have agitated for Wallace to start in back. Strictly in positional terms that makes sense - I think Wallace probably sees the field best from that angle. But his inability to strike or handle the ball well in the best of times is a serious and lingering concern, all the more so in the defensive third. Let's hope his basic skills are still not fully developed and we see some improvement in year 2. But I wouldn't hold my breath. He's a starting DM or depth player on the wing.

Posted by: Godfather_of_Goals | January 8, 2010 10:22 AM | Report abuse

Keep Avery John. Depth is a major issue and he can easily step in. Plus, he's cheap. Look what happened to Man. Utd. when Ferdinand, Vidic, Brown, Evans, Neville, and O'shea all went down to injury. They're still reeling. DC needs competent depth players, don't get rid of them.

Posted by: IceNutz | January 8, 2010 10:35 AM | Report abuse

It'll be interesting to see what the team does. Onalfo has already stated that he will utilize a four man back-line to help stabilize the defense.

This typically means that he'll be looking for the outside backs to make more overlapping runs forward (a very Arena-esk tactic).

From that stand-point, the left back really looks like it's a fight between Wallace and Burch, with Wallace also being able to fill in at left Mid if Castillo or Fred aren't spotted there.

I think Bryan will be back at Right back. They're being cautious, but I can't see them holding him out longer than the start of the season.

I agree that right now, James and Jakovic are starting together. James isn't the best center back in the world, but with a four man back-line, and improved communication and understanding between the two players, they should be able to help one another out.

Posted by: TCompton | January 8, 2010 10:45 AM | Report abuse

tundey - In my mind, the college game is just an altogether different animal than the pro game. Slower, less physical, and with a broader range of skill and quality between the best players and the rest of the field. And this means coaches use somewhat different strategies in college and the pros.

Plenty of US college players have gone on to respectable or impressive pro careers, but with a few exceptions, they take time to develop and learn the nuances of MLS or whatever league they join. It's not the ideal development system, but with most of the US's best athletes playing other sports, youth development shouldn't be expected to be on par with European or Latin leagues.

Posted by: dcbird | January 8, 2010 10:46 AM | Report abuse

DCU's defenders demonstrate as well as any part of the roster the problems the team faces. Even if Namoff returns to full strength, his age is beginning to show. He was always athletically challenged, but he is likely to be more of a liability than an asset this season. James looked good at the end of the season, but it remains to be seen whether he has what it takes to start over the long term. Jakovic is solid and should benefit from playing in a 4 man back line. Burch has his bad moments, but is still better than many other left backs in the league. If DCU has promised Castillo a starting berth (and I bet they have) Wallace and Burch will be competing for a single position. That sounds good, but what's the point of having your two best athletes slated for the same spot? Vaughan offers some cover, but the rest are either over the hill or completely untried. Perhaps there is a good 4 man back line amidst all this, but it may take six to nine months to figure it out.

Posted by: Jphubba | January 8, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

BTW, keep Burch at left back and leave Wallace permanently in the midfield. He's shown he has the ability to score and is always looking to attack anyway.

Posted by: tundey | January 8, 2010 10:09 AM | Report abuse


I disagree, there were a lot of times last year where Wallace missed great opportunities in front of goal. Compared to our other attacking players, I think the only person with a worst shot is Fred.

Posted by: Springfie1d | January 8, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

I'm not a big fan of Burch at left back. Too many breakdowns on defense, especially in one-on-one situations. Keep him as a reserve, but start Wallace at left back. Hopefully Castillo will play up to his potential, and he and Wallace can play dynamic duo up and down the left-hand side of the field.

Posted by: Miles_Standish_Proud | January 8, 2010 11:05 AM | Report abuse

Keep Burch?

You must be a pink cow fan. Keep Burch?

Posted by: Ivanovich84 | January 8, 2010 11:10 AM | Report abuse


"Burch has his bad moments, but is still better than many other left backs in the league"

Wow. Jphubba you have to be joking!

Posted by: Ivanovich84 | January 8, 2010 11:14 AM | Report abuse

I really do not understand why everyone is so down on Habanugira. He only played in three games and was decent except for the Toluca match where he gave up a couple of goals to Mancilla (who by the way plays for the Chilean National Team). I still think he has potential being that he is only 21.

Posted by: no_recess | January 8, 2010 11:18 AM | Report abuse

Agree with Mr. Standish. Castillo and Burch would make for a more steady and dangerous left side. I don't see what Burch offers other than direct kicks repeatedly blasted into defenders or off target. Of course, he does provide Wicks a nice outlet for all his anger issues.

Posted by: FrancoNiell | January 8, 2010 11:19 AM | Report abuse


Namoff was arguably having his best year last season so I wouldn't say his age has begun to show. Going on 31, he has reached the age where some players start to slow down but I don't think we've seen any sign of it yet on the field.

The concussion problems, however, are a troubling development for his future. Let's hope he really makes a full recovery from them.

Posted by: Joel_M_Lane | January 8, 2010 11:47 AM | Report abuse

"Namoff likely to more of a liability than an asset this season"???

Wow. Jphubba you have to be joking!

Or, we saw 2 different teams last year. Namoff, for me, was United's best player last year -- the #1 asset, who supplemented his usual strong defending by becoming a force on offense, too.

Goff's analysis is succinct, but right on point, straight down the line. The concern with Namoff is his health, not his capabilities.

Jakovic has great upside, but did look very scary a few times when pressured in last man back situations. If he becomes more decisive and confident in those moments, United will have one of the best defenders in the league. I think he's probably better suited to a fullback position than center back, but he's still our best option in the center, where his vision and ball-handling will be a big plus. After Namoff and Jakovic, the questions multiply.

James -- had a lot of scary moments, and he wasn't even with United very long. Still, with James, the thing is always the raw potential of a gifted athlete. He really is better as a reserve for now, but he might be pressed into a starting role for lack of options.

Burch/Wallace -- Actually, there is one similarity. Both have one good leg. Wallace's speed makes him the better prospect, but Burch can do more with his left foot than Wallace. If course, Wallace is very young and raw. This one has to turn on who shows better in training on defense. Both should be kept, unless United gets a great offer for Burch.

Posted by: fischy | January 8, 2010 11:56 AM | Report abuse

If I were Onalfo I would check out what Julian Valentin is up to.

Posted by: OWNTF | January 8, 2010 11:57 AM | Report abuse

Adding to my post above -- looking at the depth (or lack of it):

John does provide some experienced back-up, and last season showed how critical it is to have depth. Vaughn -- looked confident and great to me his first time out, and plain awful after that. I hope we can do better, but again he provides depth that wasn't there last year. Habarugira -- interesting to read there's a decision to be made in the next few weeks. I'm wondering if there are options. He didn't really play well, but he did show enough to hint that he has potential. With no reserve system, though, he's got to be able to step in and play. If not, maybe there's a European side with a reserve team that would buy him? I'm hoping he can step up. Hard to find young defenders with his potential who want to play here.

As for the draft -- it isn't very deep in MLS ready-defense. Opara is seen as ready. He struggled internationally, but he's got to be as ready as Gonzalez and Franklin were. Next is Zach Lloyd, who played centerback a@ UNC, but he's really a midfielder. Might not be a bad pick, since he gives depth at both levels. Kwame Watson-Siriboe might be ready to make the jump to MLS, but he'd be a huge force at #7. Same with Ofori Sarkodie. If United had a 2nd-round pick, they might be able to pick up a good defender. There are some other good prospects, but it remains to be seen if any are left when DCU picks. One option could be a post-draft signing -- Sheanon Williams who left college a year ago (USA U20 player), but hasn't landed the European deal he wanted. Not ready for prime-time, but physically gifted.

Posted by: fischy | January 8, 2010 11:58 AM | Report abuse

It's a little surprising to hear people say Namoff is showing his age...outside of Pontius' hot start, I thought he was our best player last year (and arguably the year before as well), and by all accounts I've heard is still the fastest guy on the team.

Posted by: HowdyDCU | January 8, 2010 12:17 PM | Report abuse

Without a doubt Namoff was our best player last year.

Posted by: rockotodd | January 8, 2010 1:22 PM | Report abuse

McTavish was awful. Dump him immediately...In fact, dump the whole defense minus Jakovic and Namoff...

Posted by: alan19 | January 8, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

Namoff: If his concussion clears up, he'll once again be a solid, reliable starter at right back.

Jakovic: He was guilty of holding the ball for too long (the large majority of these happened in the first half of the season). As he gets older, that will improve. Good enough already to start for a contender.

James: I've said my piece here before. We probably shouldn't be starting him full-time this year, but every attempt should be made to improve his mental game. Like Marvell Wynne, he doesn't have to be the smartest defender because he's so gifted athletically. He just needs to be a little more cautious and patient.

Burch: Bench. His service is not as consistently good as you'd think, and he can't get past anyone down the wing (meaning everyone knows it'll be a long ball rather than a whipped-in cross from near the endline). His positioning is still not that great, his tackling still consists of leaving his feet, studs exposed, begging for cards (think Kovalenko), and for such a big guy he's not very good in the air.

McTavish: Will be in the 18 most times. Between right back, defensive midfield, right midfield, and possibly center back (where we are never deep), his versatility will keep him aboard.

John: Despite most United fans being unhappy with him before he even took the field, he actually did his defensive duties without making many mistakes (and those he did were mostly minor). However, he is utterly devoid of ability going forward, or even passing the ball to someone else. Onalfo probably isn't going to be interested in that, but I honestly see him as no worse than Burch.

Vaughn: Didn't exactly impress me, but he wasn't awful either. If we're talking about a $50K salary or less, then I'm OK with him as depth (though he would have to beat out Habarugira).

Habarugira: Has some potential, but really struggled in the CCL. It is worth pointing out that he was the most attacking right back we had last year, which Onalfo might like.


As for the Wallace vs. Burch debate, I'm puzzled as to how there is even a debate. Wallace is at least as good positionally as Burch, but provides more speed (something we need), covers more ground, and is not so one-dimensional that literally everyone in the stadium knows what he'll do with the ball. Wallace is also going to keep improving, while Burch hit his ceiling a couple of years ago and has just plateaued ever since. It's time to move on.

Posted by: Chest_Rockwell | January 8, 2010 4:53 PM | Report abuse

If you liked the results of last year, keep the same defenders around. Jakovic, James, and Namoff should stay. Tell Wallace he is the left back. Period. McTavish should get a chance to compete for a job. The rest should be in the USL. It is not "depth" you are providing if you just get torched when you enter the game.

Posted by: rcdwriting | January 9, 2010 7:20 AM | Report abuse

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