United Players Competing Hard to Make Active Roster Each Week

Midfielder Ben Olsen is one of just a handful of United players who have remained in place for all three games.
Midfielder Ben Olsen is one of just a handful of United players who have remained in place for all three games. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
Buy Photo
By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 11, 2009

SALT LAKE CITY, April 10 -- The task of foretelling D.C. United Coach Tom Soehn's starting lineup has always been a challenge. These days, ascertaining who will even be in uniform is a test.

Just three weeks into the MLS season, 23 of United's 24 players have been included on the 18-man game-day roster. The only exception is midfielder Santino Quaranta, who is expected to return from a hamstring injury Saturday against Real Salt Lake.

Forward Ange N'Silu made his MLS debut last weekend as a starter after not playing in the first two games. Midfielder Andrew Jacobson played in the season opener but watched last weekend from the stands. Rookie Brandon Barklage made an unexpected second-half appearance in one game and was in uniform for another.

"You are always going to evaluate each situation," Soehn said this week. "We've talked a lot to the guys about making sure that everyone knows we have a deep team and a lot of games this year, and there are going to be decisions that don't go your way."

Soehn's decisions have been predicated, in large part, by injuries, fitness issues and a suspension. But he has also created an environment in which players spend the week of practice fiercely competing for not only starting positions, but for inclusion on the active roster.

The purpose is to keep them well-seasoned and hungry over a seven-month schedule that includes 30 league matches, the U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League.

Fifteen players have started and five have entered exclusively as substitutes. Only Quaranta; rookie Milos Kocic, the third-string goalkeeper; rookie defender Anthony Peters; and midfielder John DiRaimondo, who was acquired off waivers two weeks ago, have not stepped on the field.

"It's a luxury for the coaching staff," said defender-midfielder Devon McTavish, who traveled here after missing the past two games with a head injury. He started all but five games last season and the 2009 opener but is not assured of rejoining the lineup.

"Sometimes it is difficult for the players because they think they should be starting or at least in the 18 [game-day roster], and they aren't," he added. "Week in and week out, you have to prove yourself. If you have an off week in training, you are probably not going to be on the field."

Midfielders Clyde Simms, Ben Olsen, Christian Gómez and Rodney Wallace, and striker Luciano Emilio have remained in place all three games. Veteran defender Bryan Namoff has also started every match, but shifted from his usual slot at right back to the left side for the opener.

Greg Janicki started the first game at central back in a three-man formation, but his collision with McTavish prompted Soehn to move newcomer Dejan Jakovic from the right side into the middle the following week. Rookie Chris Pontius has started every game -- at forward in the opener and on the right flank the past two matches.

Jacobson, a promising two-way player who signed with United after spending a year in France, was on the travel roster for the first game, entering in the 83rd minute, but remained on the bench against Chicago and was scratched last weekend against Houston.

"It's a long season and you're not going to go the whole year with the same 11 starters," he said. "To have that competition, no one feels safe and everyone feels they have to step up their game every week. You can never get complacent."

The competitiveness was fostered in part by MLS changes: Team roster sizes were reduced to 24 from 28 but the maximum number of senior players per club increased to 20 from 18. That meant two additional players, presumably with more experience and skill, are in the mix for playing time.

The other four roster spots are classified as developmental and given to young players usually regarded as long-term prospects. But for United, two developmentals have already contributed, most notably Wallace, a first-round pick who is exempt from the senior roster (and salary cap) because he left Maryland early to sign with MLS. The other is Barklage, a third-round pick who entered late in the Chicago game.

"It's very tough for Tommy because we are all competitive," Olsen said. "Everyone wants to travel or play, and he has to manage not only who is playing, but he has to deal with our egos, and that is not always an easy job. So far, the guys have done a good job with it and taken it as a challenge to make sure you are not the guy [in street clothes] or on the bench."

United Notes: Janicki remains out with post-concussion syndrome. . . . Saturday's game marks the club's first visit to Rio Tinto Stadium, a 20,000-seat, natural-grass venue that became Real's home last fall following four-plus years on artificial turf at the University of Utah's Rice-Eccles Stadium. United has lost three straight here, including 4-0 last spring.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company