A Road Less Traveled to MLS
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
For almost every D.C. United player, the journey to MLS has followed traditional paths. Most of the Americans played at top college programs, were selected in the winter draft or signed as free agents afterward, and maybe spent a year or two in the minor leagues. The foreign-born players turned to the U.S. league after launching their careers in their native countries.
For Stephen deRoux, it went nothing like that.
DeRoux, a second-year midfielder-defender who made his MLS debut last weekend, was reared in Saint Mary parish on the northeast coast of Jamaica and moved to the Washington area with his three brothers and one sister when he was 13.
He starred at High Point High School in Beltsville, then Prince George's Community College and, after failing to land a spot on an NCAA team, competed in the burgeoning local amateur leagues. He sparkled in a prestigious tournament, the Copa Taca, at the RFK Stadium auxiliary field, where a chain-link fence is all that separates the weekend competitions from United's practice facility.
"I would sometimes see the United guys over on the other field," deRoux said yesterday. "It was a dream to be with them, but I never thought I would make it."
DeRoux, 22, did make it in 2005, impressing the D.C. coaching staff at a preseason tryout. He was sidelined with a foot injury almost all last season and did not seem to be in United's immediate plans this year, but with the roster weakened by injuries and suspensions Saturday, deRoux started on the left side of midfield and played all 90 minutes of the 1-1 tie with Real Salt Lake.
"His athletic ability is just enormous," said Coach Peter Nowak, who included deRoux on the 18-man travel roster for tonight's match at New England. "Right now, [the question is], 'How is his soccer brain going to work?' The decision-making process has to be better. We'll work on that because the other tools he has."
On Saturday, deRoux's acceleration allowed him to make probing bursts into the penalty area in the first half. Twice he created scoring opportunities for himself but missed the short side of the net with low shots.
"I thought I made some good runs and brought some speed to the game," he said. "I just try to use my speed and try to break defenders down. It's hard to defend a guy who is quick. You have one small move and you can change the game."
Although his short-passing and crossing skills need refinement, his potential intrigues United.
"I just told him to take people on," teammate Freddy Adu said after Saturday's game. At 5 feet 9 and 155 pounds, "He's stronger than he looks and he's aggressive. I was glad to see him do so well."
After being reared by their mother in Jamaica, deRoux and his siblings joined their father and his new wife about 10 years ago in College Park. "It was pretty hard -- I was homesick, felt sad, cried a couple times, missed my mom," he said.
Soccer helped him adjust to his new life. In the fall of 2001, he earned first-team All-Met honors from The Post after contributing four goals and 12 assists to High Point's Maryland 4A South Region championship campaign. At PGCC, he was named an all-American each of his two years.
DeRoux said he wanted to play for the University of Maryland, but didn't meet academic requirements. So he joined teams in the local leagues and made an immediate impact.
"I saw him play and thought to myself, 'This is a good player, if he only had an opportunity,' " said Elias Polio, who organizes the Copa Taca tournament. Polio contacted United officials, who granted deRoux a tryout. After impressing the coaches, deRoux was close to signing a developmental contract when he broke his foot. He did not officially join the roster until last September and played in two reserve division games.
This year, in addition to the reserve squad, deRoux played 13 minutes for the first team against Scottish club Celtic in July and 10 against Chicago in a U.S. Open Cup semifinal last week before getting the start against Real Salt Lake.
"He brought a very positive mentality and energy," Nowak said. "He still has to clean up a few things but he can go by a defender, and when he does, the situation is, 'What is the next option for me?' He'll get better at that part of it."
United Note: Forward Alecko Eskandarian missed practice yesterday because of a sore knee and did not travel to New England with the team.
Stephen DeRoux starred at High Point High School and Prince George's CC before making the D.C. United roster after an impressive preseason tryout.