Not so long ago, D.C. United was throwing inexperienced players into the starting lineup and calling up minor leaguers to fill the game-day roster.
Now, with his team regaining its health and two newcomers in the mix, Coach Peter Nowak is confronted with a wealth of candidates and, subsequently, an abundance of difficult decisions, particularly concerning the midfield.
"Everyone has a fair chance," Nowak said after workouts yesterday at the RFK Stadium training grounds.
For Saturday's match at New England, Nowak's choices for five starting midfield slots are Earnie Stewart, Ben Olsen, Freddy Adu, Josh Gros, Dema Kovalenko, Brian Carroll, Nana Kuffour and recent signees Christian Gomez and Tim Lawson.
Olsen, who sat out last weekend's 2-2 tie at Columbus, and Kovalenko appear to be the only certain starters. If Nowak wants to use a second defensive midfielder, Carroll or Olsen would pair with Kovalenko. Stewart has been a mainstay on the right flank and Gros on the left, but with the addition of Gomez in a central role, Adu could move to the flank.
Kuffour, a Ghanaian who joined the active roster last month, and Lawson, who has a quadriceps injury, appear to be lowest on the depth chart.
"You really have to respect how they've played lately, but you still have to see the whole picture and what has happened the last six, seven, eight months," Nowak said. "Every positive thing, every negative thing you have to combine together and then decide what we're going to do."
The most intrigue surrounds Gomez, an Argentine playmaker who debuted in the second half at Columbus, and whether he's ready to start. If he isn't, Adu will likely make his fourth straight start in a central midfield role. If Gomez gets the call, Adu could be pushed to the wing as a third forward -- which is what happened last weekend when the Argentine entered in the 71st minute.
Adu had been quiet most of the evening, but when Gomez entered, "he got more space. It was very good for Christian, too, because he found his space, he held the ball really well, he switched the [point of attack] very well," Nowak said. "We said after the game that Christian brought something new to us and he made a difference. For Freddy, he was very dangerous 40 or 50 yards from the goal instead of 60 or 70, and he didn't have to waste his energy and time."
Gomez is working himself into game shape after enjoying a brief offseason following the end of his stay with Arsenal de Sarandi in the Argentine league. With only eight games left in the regular season, United's coaching staff wants him on the field as much as possible.
"Sometimes you see at the end of the play he's tired and he cannot finish this thing and the pass is not exactly what it's supposed to be," Nowak said. "But he's pushing himself. He stayed [Monday] after practice, he stayed [yesterday] after practice. It's a great thing."
United Notes: The team is close to finalizing an exhibition against a Guatemalan club, believed to be Municipal, on Sept. 29 at RFK. . . . Defender Ezra Hendrickson (hamstring) did not practice yesterday, but goalkeeper Nick Rimando has returned to backup status after undergoing minor knee surgery. . . . United has until the end of the month to fill out the roster. Nowak said three or four players are being considered and, although he wouldn't specify who they are, he indicated the club would like to add a defender or, if the situation arises, a reserve striker.
-- Steven Goff