Last year Brian Carroll couldn't get off D.C. United's bench. This season he hasn't spent one minute on it.

Carroll has been one of the few consistencies in a wildly incoherent spring, solidifying United's defensive midfield with a quietly effective style. After not appearing in any regular season matches last season as a rookie, the Springfield native is the only D.C. player to log all 1,080 minutes and is among a dozen non-goalkeepers in MLS to not miss a moment of action this year.

"Ever since I've known him, he's been one of the quietest kids but one of the hardest workers," said teammate Alecko Eskandarian, who has played against and with Carroll over the last nine years at the club, regional, college, youth national and pro levels.

"In my eyes, he truly is one of the unsung heroes of any team that he plays on. He might not be the flashiest guy or have a lot of tricks, but for the most part, he's a good, honest kid and I'm happy to have him as a teammate."

Carroll, a month shy of his 23rd birthday, is almost certain to be in the lineup again tonight at RFK Stadium, when injury-riddled United attempts to halt the Columbus Crew's seven-game unbeaten streak.

"It would be very nice to have five, six Brians on the field every single day because whatever he is doing, he's doing it 100 percent and he's always very positive," Coach Peter Nowak said. "He covers a lot of ground and he fights for everybody."

Carroll, an All-Met in 1999 and 2000 at West Springfield High and The Washington Post's player of the year as a senior, is not the only soccer talent in his family. His brother Jeff, now at St. John's University, was an All-Met in 2001 and '02, and brother Pat, who will play at West Virginia, was honorable mention in 2003 and first-team All-Met this spring while helping the Spartans win the state championship.

Brian's job with United is to win loose balls, disrupt opposing attacks and quickly distribute passes to attack-oriented teammates. It's not a glamorous position, by any means, but one that requires both physical and creative qualities.

United usually plays with two defensive midfielders: the graceful Carroll and the rambunctious Dema Kovalenko. The combination has worked well and, with the exception of a few matches, it has helped United control play centrally.

Carroll's contributions come a year after being overlooked by then-coach Ray Hudson, who had tried him as a flank player. His only appearances came in a pair of international exhibitions and three U.S. Open Cup matches, plus several minor league assignments. After leaving Wake Forest a year early and being selected in the second round of the 2003 MLS draft, Carroll didn't expect to watch the season pass from the sideline.

"I think you certainly have to take a look at yourself, see where you're at and evaluate yourself first before you say anything or try to figure something out with the coaches," Carroll said. "I never believed that I couldn't play at this level, so I just tried to work that much harder to prove to everyone around me that I could."

United officials were impressed with Carroll's eagerness to learn and his perseverance. "He never complained," technical director Dave Kasper said. "He accepted the notion of playing [in the minors] and working hard in practice, because he knew it would make him better. That's not always an easy sell to a player who wants to play."

Carroll said he remained optimistic during the offseason, when he played for the U.S. under-23 national team, saying, "That kind of led into this preseason and gave me an opportunity to come in fit, come in sharp, and prove to the new coaching staff and the team that I belonged on this team and I could help it out."

United Notes: Captain Ryan Nelsen (groin/abdominal strain) was limited to jogging on the side this week and appears unlikely to play tonight. . . . Club officials fear forward Thiago Martins, who re-injured his knee two weeks ago, has more ligament damage than initially believed and will miss the rest of the year. A final diagnosis will be made next week. He and Eliseo Quintanilla (broken leg) could end up on the season-ending injury list, which would open two roster spots but not clear any salary cap space. . . . Former MLS forward Musa Shannon, who's been playing in China, began a tryout this week.