The young quartet is also becoming acquainted in MLS matches.
Being housemates helps D.C. United quartet be better teammates
With four regulars unavailable, three of the housemates are slated to start and the fourth is a prime option tonight in Columbus against the Crew.
Willis will replace Bill Hamid, the top-choice goalkeeper serving a red-card suspension. Korb will step in for Robbie Russell, the veteran right back sidelined for at least a month with a foot injury.
Cruz seems likely to retain his job on the right side of midfield, a position lacking depth while Andy Najar is on Honduran Olympic duty. DeLeon is in the mix for time in midfield because Branko Boskovic (calf) is sidelined.
All four were on the field in the second half of a 4-0 loss at Houston last Sunday; Cruz played the entire match and the other three entered as substitutes. It marked the third time the group had been on the field at the same time in a regular season game.
“Chris and I had an apartment with [former D.C. forward] Blake Brettschneider last year,” Willis said. “This year we got the house with Danny and Nick. We didn’t have much time [in the preseason]. Found it on Craigslist, called the landlord and moved in.”
It’s a five-bedroom home in a neighborhood near the tangle of I-395, I-495 and I-95 south of Washington. The group piles into one of the four vehicles and takes advantage of the HOV lanes for the — fingers crossed — 30-minute commute to the stadium.
Korb, 24, and Willis, 23, are in their second seasons with United, which acquired Cruz, 22, and DeLeon, 22, during the offseason. Cruz arrived in a trade with Houston and DeLeon via the first round of the MLS draft.
The living arrangement eases the financial burden for young newcomers on modest salaries in an expensive area. It has also created bonds that carry over to the field, especially for Willis and Korb, who, as defensive players in constant communication, must always be synchronized.
“You know each other well enough for you not to have to say as much as with someone else. We’re close,” Korb said of his friendship with Willis. “It’s nice to have that camaraderie with someone in the back.”
As rookies, Korb and Willis were regulars in reserve matches and appeared in 12 and three first-team games, respectively. This year Korb has started seven times at one of the outside back positions, while Willis stepped in when Hamid was away at the Olympic qualifying tournament in March. He performed well enough to retain the job even after Hamid returned.
Hamid regained the job in May and made nine consecutive starts until earning a suspension for a red-card foul early in the Houston match. With United short-handed last weekend, Willis was under siege much of the remaining 70-plus minutes and, despite yielding each goal, also made three quality saves.
“He’s a very good No. 2 [on the depth chart] and potentially a very good No. 1 in this league at some point,” Coach Ben Olsen said. “The problem is, he hasn’t had enough of an opportunity to prove himself over a long stint because we have another good young goalkeeper we believe in.
“This is another chance to show we can continue to rely on him. We have a lot of faith in him.”
Cruz and DeLeon were reunited this year after having known one another since childhood in Glendale, Ariz. Both played at UNLV, but Cruz left early to sign with MLS in 2009 and DeLeon transferred to Louisville. They have combined to make 23 starts this season.
The housemates’ familiarity has helped foster chemistry on a team seeking its first playoff berth in five years.
“We are very comfortable with each other and we communicate well,” Willis said of his two-year bond with Korb. “We’ve played so much together on the reserve team and on the same group in practice that I know Chris’s tendencies and adapt that to my play. We definitely have a mutual respect. The relationship off the field definitely translates.”