D.C. United's Depth Will Be Tested Early as Midfielders Fred, Quaranta Are Sidelined for Sunday's Opener

"We were looking to add a little depth [this year], and we are going to have to rely on it right away," D.C. United Coach Tom Soehn said of injuries to Fred, above, and others. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Santino Quaranta and Fred, D.C. United's probable starters on the midfield flanks this season, will miss the MLS opener Sunday at Los Angeles because of hamstring injuries, but goalkeeper Louis Crayton has recovered from a strained quadriceps and plans to be in the lineup.

All three were injured March 7 against Real Salt Lake at the Carolina Challenge Cup and did not play in the subsequent two matches at the preseason tournament in Charleston, S.C.

The early midfield ailments are a clear setback to a club that was ravaged by injuries last year and failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in five years.

"We were looking to add a little depth [this year], and we are going to have to rely on it right away," Coach Tom Soehn said. "We've built from the bottom and made sure that we had depth, and it gives other guys an opportunity."

Club officials have been upbeat all spring about the roster depth, but much of it is in the form of inexperienced players.

Quaranta and Fred, who were sidelined by hamstring injuries part of last season, said they hope to be in uniform for the March 28 home opener against Chicago.

However, "these things are tricky," Quaranta said. "I feel all right now. I tried to come back a little early last year and I hurt it again, so I want to make sure I give it the right amount of rest because it is such a long season."

Their absence against the Galaxy could result in starting assignments for Rodney Wallace, a first-round draft pick from NCAA champion Maryland, and Thabiso Khumalo, a South African who joined United late last season after playing for third-division Pittsburgh.

Wallace was primarily a left-side defender for the Terrapins, but with his pace and attacking mentality, he seems to be a natural replacement for Fred, a Brazilian in his third season. Khumalo played regularly on the outside of midfield last year.

Wallace and Khumalo might be part of a five-man midfield, which would be a change of course from the four-midfielder formation used most of last season. United experimented with both alignments in the preseason, and the consensus among players yesterday was that the five-midfielder, three-defender approach is wiser.

Assigning fewer defenders to a lineup that yielded the second-most goals in the league last season seems counterintuitive, but "sometimes with a young back line it is confusing" with four defenders, veteran midfielder Ben Olsen said. "Three in the back makes it a little more concrete for them as far as the decisions."

United's three primary central defenders for the two starting slots in a four-back formation are Dejan Jakovic, 23, who joined the team from Serbia less than two weeks ago; Greg Janicki, 24, who was Khumalo's teammate in Pittsburgh much of last year; and Devon McTavish, 24, a fourth-year pro who played in both defense and midfield in his first three seasons.

Eight-year veteran Bryan Namoff is slated to start at right back and Marc Burch, entering his third full season, will probably line up on the left. With a three-man back line, Soehn will probably move McTavish into defensive midfield alongside Clyde Simms and choose between Jakovic and Janicki to fill the lone central defense role.

"During the long run," Namoff said, "we might compare to other teams a little better with a 4-4-2, but at this point, the 3-5-2 allows us defensively to be a little stronger" by simplifying assignments and using two defensive midfielders to fortify the middle behind playmaker Christian Gómez.

While Soehn weighs his midfield and back-line options, Crayton seems certain to start in goal.

"I consider it a miracle because I should have been out for two weeks," he said, referencing the results of an MRI exam he underwent in Charleston. "I feel great."

Crayton, who joined United from the Swiss league last summer, is the club's only experienced keeper. The other goalkeepers on the roster are Josh Wicks, who made six appearances for Los Angeles last year and was acquired by United just last week; and rookie Milos Kocic, a second-round draft pick from Loyola College in Baltimore.

United Notes: Defender Mamadou "Futty" Danso, who was called into training camp on two occasions for workouts, has been let go and is pursuing a second-division contract. . . . Veteran midfielder Domenic Mediate remains in camp even though all 20 senior roster slots have been filled. "We are still evaluating how he would fit in," General Manager Dave Kasper said. "We will make a decision this week."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company