Will D.C. United trades serve as springboard for surge in standings?

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As the first half of the 2011 MLS season unfolded, it became clear that D.C. United needed to fill voids on their roster if the club wanted to emerge from the middle of the Eastern Conference pack and contend for an MLS Cup.

Specifically, it was no secret United coveted back-line experience and an increased attacking presence out of central midfield. Monday, the front office seemingly solved both those problems with a pair of trades — including a stunning blockbuster swap.

United acquired five-time All-Star playmaker Dwayne De Rosario from the New York Red Bulls for Dax McCarty, a 24-year-old midfielder who came to the nation’s capital during this past offseason and was named United’s captain in March.

Earlier in the day, the San Jose Earthquakes shipped fourth-year center back Brandon McDonald to D.C. for allocation money.

“It gives you more options,” United coach Ben Olsen said. “But we’re not throwing what we built out the window because we got some additions. They’ll fit into what we’re doing here.”

De Rosario, an all-time MLS great coming off a career-high 15 goals in 2010, is expected to add an instant offensive spark to a United squad that, in just 15 games, already has surpassed its goal total from last year’s 30-match campaign.

The Canadian national team veteran is expected to slot into the creative midfield role designated player Branko Boskovic was hoping to occupy before tearing his ACL in late April. The need was further exacerbated by the team’s announcement earlier this month that Brazilian midfielder Fred, another option at the position, would be leaving for Australian side Melbourne Heart in mid-July.

With Josh Wolff and MLS scoring leader Charlie Davies up top, Andy Najar and Chris Pontius on the flanks, and De Rosario pulling the strings in the middle, United’s attack can now make a case for being one of the league’s most potent.

“It’s just another threat to add to our offense,” Pontius said of De Rosario, who has won four MLS Cups. “Now, teams have to worry about someone who has put up a lot of goals in this league, who has won a lot of championships. It just makes us more dynamic as an offense.”

De Rosario, however, does arrive with his fair share of baggage. An ugly contract dispute with Toronto FC, his hometown team, saw him traded to New York on April 1, where he stepped into a star-studded lineup widely considered the most talented in MLS.

But less than three months later, the 33-year-old found himself on the move again, seen as an expensive luxury the Red Bulls could afford to part with.

Although De Rosario is guaranteed $493,750 this season, Toronto still is footing a chunk of the bill. As general manager Dave Kasper put it, “Dwayne’s budget number is very attractive to us.”

The move marks an abrupt end to McCarty’s tenure in Washington. A gritty midfielder coming off a career year with FC Dallas, he was trusted with the captaincy before playing a minute for United despite his young age.

With D.C., though, McCarty never replicated the form he showed while playing his way into the U.S. national team picture with Dallas. Last week, he acknowledged not performing up to his standards while feeling the weight of the club’s high expectations for him.

After missing more than a month with a groin injury, McCarty returned to the starting lineup during Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Houston. But Olsen allowed Wolff, who had been serving as captain in his absence, to wear the captain’s armband.

In retrospect, it perhaps was a sign of McCarty’s impending departure.

“It’s just a whirlwind of emotions,” Pontius said of McCarty’s exit. “As a player, you just have to take it for what it is.”

Largely lost in the shuffle of the De Rosario-McCarty trade was United’s acquisition of McDonald, a 25-year-old defender with 64 MLS starts to his name.

United have allowed 27 goals in 15 matches, the second-most in the league, and recent injuries to defenders Dejan Jakovic and Marc Burch have left D.C. sorely lacking depth and leadership in the back.

“They know I bring a lot of communication,” McDonald said after his first training session with his new teammates. “I just think that trying to be one as a group in the back line can only bring great things.”

To Kasper, adding McDonald and De Rosario were necessary transactions that should help balance what remains one of the league’s youngest rosters.

“We’ve built a foundation of young players here,” Kasper said. “Young guys sometimes need some veteran guys to help move them along, to help move the team along. It’s not entirely fair to just put young guys out there all the time and expect them to get results.”

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