The soccer careers of David Stokes and Brian Carroll have followed almost parallel paths, from their beginnings in the burgeoning youth leagues of Northern Virginia, to premier high school programs, to top-flight ACC teams, to the U.S. under-23 national squad and, finally, to D.C. United.
Stokes, a tall and agile central defender, was the fifth overall pick in the Major League Soccer draft, while Carroll, a clever midfielder, was the first choice of the second round (11th overall).
On draft day in January, while MLS coaches were gathered in Kansas City, Mo., Stokes and Carroll were in Portugal with the under-23 team for exhibition matches. Many of the team members were eligible for the draft, so they gathered around a laptop computer to monitor the picks. Not only did Stokes and Carroll go to United, so did under-23 teammates and ACC rivals Alecko Eskandarian of Virginia and Doug Warren of Clemson.
"It was pretty cool once we figured out we were all going to the same team," Carroll said. "We were saying we'll be teammates for a long time hopefully."
Despite their similar career routes and proximity to each other much of their lives, Carroll and Stokes had never been on the same team until the under-23 training camp last year.
Carroll played youth soccer for the Springfield Lions and Springfield Phoenix, Stokes for the nationally recognized Braddock Road Warhawks. Carroll attended West Springfield High; Stokes went to nearby Hylton. Both were two-time Washington Post All-Met selections, with Carroll being named player of the year in 2000.
Carroll starred at Wake Forest, Stokes down the road at North Carolina. The Demon Deacons ascended to No. 1 in the country, but never reached an NCAA final; the Tar Heels won it all in 2001, with Stokes being named the most valuable defensive player of the final four in Columbus, Ohio.
After three college seasons, both decided to leave school and sign with MLS. Besides the desire to play professionally, both want to be in position to play on the under-23 squad that will represent the United States at the Summer Olympics in Athens, providing it qualifies.
But the transition from the mundane college game to the pro ranks has not been completely smooth, even for a pair of all-Americans.
"It's like stepping on an elevator as it's moving," United Coach Ray Hudson said of the pair's progress. "Both of them glitter, but right now they're not capable of holding that light because of their age and experience. They're full of talent, wonderfully gifted, but they're still learning the geometry of the game, the speed of the game. . . . It's really down to the individual. There's no glass ceiling here. Whoever pushes themselves the most is going to make it on this team and in this league."
Hudson is hoping Stokes will gain confidence and earn playing time in central defense -- a position more vulnerable on United following the trade of World Cup veteran Eddie Pope to the New York/New Jersey MetroStars in December.
Carroll is experienced in central midfield, but Hudson sees his future on the left flank or at left back. Central defense also is an option.
Stokes remembers Carroll scoring a fabulous goal against his North Carolina team last fall -- a long-range left-footed shot. "It was the best goal anyone scored against us all season," Stokes said. "He's so technically sound -- his touch, his vision, his passing ability. He's a smart player and he never gives the ball away."
Carroll, a two-year captain at Wake Forest, comes from a soccer-playing family. His brother, Jeff, started 15 games as a freshman midfielder at national power St. John's last fall and brother Pat, a junior sweeper at West Springfield, is considered one of the top high school players in the area this spring.
"I'm just trying to help make the best second-team we can and push the first team," Brian Carroll said of his role with United. "Hopefully I can be the first, second or third guy off the bench when game-time comes and slowly work my way to showing these coaches that I can step on as a starter for a few games. I just want to show them I can play at this level."
Like Carroll, Stokes didn't miss a game during his college career, making 71 consecutive starts. He had knee surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament after his freshman season, but was at full strength the following fall, which yielded a national championship.
Of Stokes, Carroll said: "Obviously, he brings his presence [at 6 feet 3 and 185 pounds]. He's a big guy and a good ball-winner, and he's good with his feet.
"He brings a lot of potential, just like a lot of young guys on this team. We're looking forward to showing everyone what we can do."