To Take the Field, All Kpene Needed Was a Visa

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 6, 2007

Almost every day for three months, before practice, at a team meal or during a phone call, D.C. United's Guy-Roland Kpene would ask club officials the same eager question: "Is it ready?"

And each time, they would offer the same deflating answer: "Not yet."

Kpene, a rookie forward from Ivory Coast, had been with the club since the start of training camp in late January. He had a contract agreement, a uniform number and the promise of a reserve role on a team stocked with attacking flair.

What he did not have was a work visa, which meant he was permitted to practice but forbidden from playing in an official game.

Under normal circumstances, newly signed foreign players in MLS must wait two or three weeks for clearance. But Kpene's situation was complicated by the fact that he had come to the United States four years earlier with his mother, a finance attache at the United Nations, who held a diplomatic visa.

So he waited . . . and waited . . .

"I knew it was going to come, so I tried to be patient," he said Friday. "Now everything is nice."

Kpene, 24, arrived at RFK Stadium on Thursday afternoon prepared to work out with the reserves before United's match against New England. Coach Tom Soehn called him into his office. The visa was in, Soehn told him, and he would be on the 18-man game roster.

When Brazilian midfielder Fred departed with a groin injury in the 79th minute, Kpene made his long-awaited debut. Despite his inexperience, he was lively and confident with the ball as United, with a man advantage, pressed for a go-ahead goal before settling for a 1-1 tie.

"I thought he was pretty good," Soehn said. "He looked for the ball and when he got it, he looked very composed. He hardly looked like a rookie."

Kpene is hoping to get another chance this afternoon when United (0-3-1) hosts Chivas USA (2-2-0).

While Kpene waited months for a visa, the club waited months for him to understand the demands of the professional game. As a 38-goal scorer in two seasons for 2006 NCAA Division II champion Dowling (located on Long Island), he had not been required to make much defensive effort. Upon arrival at United training camp, he quickly learned he would have to diversify if he wanted to play in competitive matches.

"In college, I would always get the ball and do my thing," he said. "But when I got here, Coach was always after me to defend. Now I defend a lot and run more. My game changed a lot."

Said Soehn: "My meeting [in preseason] with him, he said to me, 'I've never been told by so many guys how bad I am.' And he meant, 'I am making a lot of mistakes.' The division he was playing in in college, he didn't have to defend much. . . . He's an intelligent kid and he's made a lot of progress."

Throughout preseason, United seemed to view him as a long-term project, but as his understanding of MLS improved, he moved into contention for a coveted slot on the game-day roster -- if only he were eligible.

"That's why I respect him a lot, because he's been very patient," said English midfielder Kasali Yinka Casal, one of Kpene's three roommates at a group house in Fort Washington. "It hasn't been easy for him because he's been waiting a long time, but he's been working hard and he has improved a lot. He definitely deserved his chance."

United Notes: Fred and defender Devon McTavish (hip flexor) did not practice yesterday and will not play today. Midfielder Clyde Simms, coming off an ankle injury, did not participate in full workouts and appears doubtful. . . . Chivas USA will be without midfielder Sasha Kljestan (second of a two-game league suspension) and star playmaker Amado Guevara, who was released after refusing to accept a trade to Toronto. . . .

United is 4-0 all-time against Chivas USA with a 9-1 scoring advantage. . . . Inductees into the Virginia-D.C. Soccer Hall of Fame will be honored at halftime. They are Kathy (Kelly) Erickson, Gary Etherington, Lauren Gregg, Jay Hoffman, Rael Vodicka and John Ellis.

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