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Hard Mode: Why 'doing a DC United' is a pipe-dream

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United won the East after being one of the worst teams in league history; what's to prevent the Fire? Well, the lack of massive stacks of allocation money, for one thing

The offseason's first move was a welcome one, as the club locked up new fan-favorite Lovel Palmer to a longer deal after the expiration of his one-year contract.
The offseason's first move was a welcome one, as the club locked up new fan-favorite Lovel Palmer to a longer deal after the expiration of his one-year contract.
Guy Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Whatever feelings linger on after a shambolic 2014 - the worst season in club history - the Chicago Fire have plenty of reason to hope for a brighter 2015. Buy wisely, find the right fit to complement the young talent on the roster, and they can bounce back like DC United have this year, right? It's the mediocrity, stupid; a group of professionals are never very far from above-average in MLS.

Thing is, DC United isn't the model we should be thinking of. DC United's worst-to-first season offseason makeover was a unique confluence of events in the history of the weird, murky game of MLS roster management, a money-gusher with an expiration date.

2013 United not only had the worst record in MLS (maximizing their 'you suck' allocation), but they also won the US Open Cup, which didn't supply any allocation money directly, but did qualify them for the CONCACAF Champion's League, for which they did get MLS funny-money to spend immediately. Finally, the club completed a massive transfer for Andy Najar; whatever Anderlecht paid ($2 million-ish), something like $750,000 would show up as a part of the club's allocation budget. DC's unprecedented losermax/champz0rs/Eurocash season broke the league's revenue-sharing system wide open, drawing allocation combinations that no one'd thought possible together into an extra 30 percent on their salary cap.

In other words, DC United had - in a league where the salary cap is less than $4MM - a treasure-chest of something like $1 or $1.5 million of league money outside the cap. This allowed them to be very aggressive in the Re-Entry Draft (a/k/a limited free agency), picking up guys like Sean Franklin and Bobby Boswell, quality proven MLS stalwarts who were solely available because of the stress their high salaries placed upon the cap for their former employers. It's to United's credit that they made the most of an offseason in easy-mode, but to pretend like it was an underdog fight is to ignore the fact of their (relative) wealth in salary-cap terms.

The Fire's situation is less an orgasmatronic dance around all the rules that bind everyone else than the quiet satisfaction of finally paying off that damned entertainment system. Unfortunately, the entertainment center had been a rapidly-declining asset; its left speaker had gone out for good four years ago, and the display was stuck in 'Fit to Screen' mode. Finally paying it off is more a relief than anything; "Thank god we're not still paying for those years of galling frustration" is not an emotion one cherishes, especially in reference to one's football club.

Orrin Schwarz was right to call for Designated Players, but I don't believe the team needs three name players; the team needs three guys who are worth taking a max cap hit over. Unlike DC United last winter, the Fire will not have a massive stash of expiring salary-cap exemptions. They need great players, and they need good players, and they need promising players, and there's only so much salary cap. Frank Yallop and the guys have to manage all this on the high wire, watched by a disgruntled fan-base, hobbled by a PR-obsessed owner, each step of the process possibly the one that starts you wobbling then sends you tumbling. Add in potential uncertainty about roster construction in 2015 - MLS and the MLSPA don't have a contract beyond this season - and it might feel like someone's giving the high wire a shake.

So it's not going to be easy. This is hard mode. Good luck and good work to you, Messrs. Yallop and Bliss. We are ever hopeful, but the years have taught us to be realistic, even wary, as well.