A Slew of Rookies Are Already Paying Off for D.C. United

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

D.C. United's first goal Sunday at Giants Stadium was scored by a 2009 first-round draft pick from Rockville. The final tally, struck during added time to cap a 3-2 comeback victory over New York, was scored by another first-rounder, who had helped set up the equalizer less than two minutes earlier.

The goalkeeper who registered a shutout against FC Dallas last Wednesday was a second-round selection. The scorer of the second goal in that U.S. Open Cup match at RFK Stadium was chosen one round later.

Though United (2-1-3) is built around a veteran core, the rookie class continues to make the best of its opportunities and boost the club's prospects after missing the MLS playoffs last year.

Midfielder Rodney Wallace and forward-midfielder Chris Pontius, claimed with consecutive first-round picks in January, have started each league match. Pontius has played every minute and contributed two goals and two assists. Goalie Milos Kocic's pro debut was largely carefree, and midfielder Brandon Barklage followed his first career start and goal last week with 29 quality minutes against the Red Bulls.

"It's a dream start for a rookie," said Pontius, who knocked in the game-winner Sunday. "I have been very blessed with the opportunity that I've been given. I've put some shots away, which has helped my case and kept me on the field."

Pontius's versatility has complemented his statistics, having played on the right flank and forward before stepping into the playmaker role in place of the injured Christian Gómez at New York. Four days earlier, Barklage, projected as a winger at the pro level and with only four minutes of previous pro experience, was the surprise choice to conduct the attack.

Because all of United's league matches have been one-goal decisions or ties, the rookies have been on the field during stressful, late-game situations. On Sunday, after Wallace scored his first goal in the first half on a sliding shot at the back post off Santino Quaranta's cross, Barklage injected energy into the midfield after entering for Fred, and Pontius served a long ball to Quaranta that eventually led to Luciano Emilio's tying goal.

"I love the fact that some of these young guys are getting into some of these close, hard-fought battles early," midfielder Ben Olsen said. "They've all held up. They are very mature, young kids. They are slowly earning everyone's respect."

The rookies' performances this year belie United's recent draft history, early-round selections that didn't fulfill expectations. But after watching Wallace (Bullis School) in person for two seasons at the University of Maryland, club officials were confident he could make an immediate impact in MLS as a midfielder or left back.

At the draft, Pontius drew comparisons to MLS veteran Pat Noonan, a versatile attacker with U.S. national team experience, and United Coach Tom Soehn now likens him to another longtime league standout, Ante Razov, who scored at least 10 goals in seven seasons over a 13-year career.

"They're doing a great job -- they know that -- but it's a long season and you have to be prepared for big games," team captain Jaime Moreno said of the rookie quartet.

United Note: Gómez, who has missed the past two games with a hamstring injury, and reserve forward Ange N'Silu (hip flexor strain) have resumed training. Moreno said he is recovering from a heel ailment that sidelined him Sunday but "we have to be careful because these things sometimes play games with you." With three games in an eight-day stretch, starting Saturday against Dallas at RFK, United will monitor his status closely.

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