- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 27, 2020

Forget everything you think you know about D.C. United.

One of the league’s founding teams will look pretty different when Major League Soccer’s 25th season kicks off Saturday. It’s not as though the Black and Red have gone through a complete overhaul, but Wayne Rooney isn’t walking through that locker room door.

And the absence of Rooney, the English superstar who revitalized the club over the last year and a half, isn’t the only change.

“It was something I saw even before I got traded here,” new acquisition Julian Gressel said. “This is gonna be a little different D.C. United than maybe what people are used to or what they have seen in the past.”

Here’s what’s new at Audi Field and around the league in 2020:

⦁ All new attack: Rooney departed D.C. United at the end of last season to take a player-coach position with Derby County in his native England. But besides him, attacking midfielder Luciano Acosta transferred to Mexican club Atlas after four years wearing Black and Red.

To top it off, reliable midfielder Paul Arriola, who’s become a frequent starter for the U.S. men’s national team, tore his ACL in a preseason match and will miss the season.

So get ready for a new-look group scoring United’s goals. Norway’s Ola Kamara, acquired last August, figures to fill in at striker. United also signed up-and-coming Peruvian midfielder Edison Flores on a club-record $5 million transfer.

Finally, they traded with Atlanta United for Gressel, the MLS Rookie of the Year in 2017, and signed him to a long-term contract. Gressel had six goals and 12 assists for Atlanta last year.

The new group still needs some more work together after a “very short” preseason, Kamara said, but he is excited about their potential. As for how far they can take it, Kamara said there’s “no doubt” he and his teammates expect to return to the playoffs.

“Before, when I came (to MLS) in 2016, it was maybe four or five good teams,” Kamara said. “Now I feel like it’s a strong competition with probably almost half the league or more than half the league has very strong teams. I’m kind of excited to see what the level of the other teams (is) as well, because a lot of teams have done great with acquisitions and spending money on everything. Infrastructure, players, salaries. So it will be a very interesting year in MLS.”

⦁ Keeping up the defense: United players and coach Ben Olsen have said they want to more aggressively press on attack this year, but that doesn’t mean straying from its defensive-minded identity altogether.

Certainly, defense is one of D.C.’s strengths. United allowed just 32 goals last season, third-fewest in MLS. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid was third in the league in saves and tied for the MLS lead with 14 shutouts.

The question here will be how to fill out the back line. Gressel played some right back for Atlanta, which, coincidentally, is another of D.C.’s needs after their loan for Argentine right back Leonardo Jara expired. Russell Canouse could also fit there alongside captain Steve Birnbaum, a solid presence at center back.

United’s defense has made an impression around the league.

“I’ve always hated playing against them, so I think that’s a pretty good compliment right there,” Gressel said.

Uniforms and anniversary celebration: Every MLS team is wearing a newly designed uniform in celebration of the 25th year of the league. In United’s case, what’s old is new again.

D.C.’s new home kit is a homage to its original look: a black shirt with three white stripes, which now will appear on the right shoulder of the shirt rather than across the chest where they originally were. The sleeves will be red on the fringe, and the right sleeve will bear a new sponsor, Caesars Entertainment.

As one of the league’s founding clubs, United also figures to feature prominently in other anniversary-themed events. For instance, MLS will announce a quarter-anniversary team called “The 25 Greatest” a la the recent NFL 100 All-Time Team; some United greats could appear on that list later this year.

⦁ Back on cable: Even the way fans can watch United matches on TV is changing again. WJLA 24/7 News, the sister station of ABC 7, will broadcast every match in 2020 not otherwise on national television. The station previously was the club’s broadcast partner from 2016 to 2018.

The change comes after United brought a premature end to its agreement with the subscription service FloSports less than a year into a longterm deal. United’s non-national TV games last year were only available on FloSports, and not only did fans have to pay for a subscription they likely were not already using, FloSports’ telecasts often crashed or were beset by technical glitches.

Dave Johnson and Devon McTavish will return in their play-by-play and color commentary roles, respectively. Last year, FloSports did not have the announcers travel to United’s road games, and they were forced to deal with broadcast glitches from their studio just like fans.

“We are thrilled to partner with D.C. United to bring the games back home where they belong on WJLA 24/7 News,” ABC 7 vice president and general manager Michael Miller said in a statement. Fans will surely agree.

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