By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 29, 2006; E03
Alecko Eskandarian is enjoying a very productive season for D.C. United, but last weekend, when the veteran striker returned from suspension for a road match against Chicago, he found himself on the bench.
It wasn't because Coach Peter Nowak was upset with him or concerned about a matchup issue.
The stark reality for Eskandarian -- and almost every other regular on the first-place club's roster -- is that Nowak has an abundance of depth and is not afraid to use it.
Consequently, ninth-year midfielder Ben Olsen was not guaranteed his starting job back when he returned from U.S. World Cup duty last month. Defender John Wilson played all 90 minutes during one early season game, one minute the next.
Rookie midfielder-defender Devon McTavish was passed over the first 13 games, then played at least a half in four consecutive outings. Midfielder Domenic Mediate, a former Maryland Terrapin signed in the preseason after being dumped by Columbus, had not played a minute when he was given a surprise start in the seventh game of the year.
"You can't go into one single practice thinking you have a spot on Saturday," midfielder Clyde Simms said. "It's good for the team because everyone takes every practice like it's a real game and you're fighting for a job."
Simms is one of those players whose playing time has been tenuous. He started the season opener, played just 64 minutes the next seven games and started the past 12 matches. However, he could end up back on the sideline tonight when full-strength United (13-1-6) visits Real Salt Lake (4-10-5) and attempts to stretch its unbeaten streak to 15 games.
Many of Nowak's lineup modifications have been borne from necessity -- injuries, suspensions, national team commitments -- but others the result of intriguing performances in training sessions and his desire to get most of his players game experience.
"You look at Clyde, you look at McTavish and Mediate and the others, you say you have to trust these guys," Nowak said. "There are still a couple things we have to polish, but we can trust them, we can trust all 27 guys. This is what they appreciate and they know when we call them, they are going to be ready."
Despite last season's first-round playoff exit, United made few changes to the core of its roster. It did, however, overhaul its stable of support players. The result, players say, has been feistier practice sessions and intense competition for playing time.
"I think we address this whole thing a little different than everybody else in the league," assistant coach Tom Soehn said of the younger players. "We don't look at them as developmental guys; we look at it as a roster of  and everybody has a chance to play. With that mentality, those guys are pushing the starters. At any time, we have no problem injecting them into the lineup."
Nowak and Soehn were particularly pleased with the diverse contributions during an exhibition against Scottish champion Glasgow Celtic on July 12. Despite giving several regulars the day off and making 10 substitutions in the second half, United roared to a startling 4-0 victory. Among the goal scorers was rookie forward Andy Metcalf, who has yet to play in a regular season game.
Nowak might turn to some of his secondary players in the U.S. Open Cup, a tournament that runs concurrently with the MLS season. United will make its debut Tuesday in the round of 16 against the Columbus Crew at Maryland SoccerPlex in Germantown and, if it wins, host an Aug. 23 quarterfinal that would fall in the middle of a busy week.
By the time the playoffs roll around, Nowak is likely to turn to his veterans. His options, however, are more varied than ever.
"We definitely don't have too many weak spots," said Eskandarian, who entered in the second half at Chicago last weekend and scored the tying goal. "There's no one on this team that I can look at and say, 'They're not good.' In past years, there's always been a couple guys who weren't on par with everybody else. With this group of guys, even the young players have loads of potential to be starters."
United Notes: Forward-midfielder Santino Quaranta, who left the team early this week for personal reasons, did not rejoin the club yesterday in Salt Lake City as club officials had hoped. It is unclear whether he will be back at practice Monday at RFK Stadium. . . . McTavish underwent minor knee surgery and will be out approximately two weeks.