Early this week, D.C. United Coach Peter Nowak was throwing around the idea of pulling on a jersey and inserting himself into the starting lineup for tonight's match against the Dallas Burn at the Cotton Bowl.
He was only half-joking.
With six starters and a key reserve unavailable for an assortment of reasons, Nowak has barely enough players for United's final test before the MLS all-star break. The club has been riddled with absences throughout its erratic season, but never to this preposterous degree.
"We're professionals. Whoever is going to play, it's our job to play our best," Nowak said yesterday after a light workout with only a handful of players. "For me, it's just another game. We're missing players, it's not easy, but I'm never going to complain about that because I feel our group can still deliver what we want. The soccer part maybe cannot be beautiful, but the fighting and running, everyone can do it."
Midfielder Dema Kovalenko and forward Alecko Eskandarian are serving one-game suspensions for accumulating yellow cards. Midfielder Earnie Stewart (groin) and defender Ryan Nelsen (knee, groin) are sidelined with injuries. Midfielder Bobby Convey was sold to English club Reading this week. Midfielder Ben Olsen is attending his mother's wedding in Pennsylvania, but even if he weren't away, he wouldn't be able to play because of a sore quadriceps.
And forward-midfielder Santino Quaranta, who made his season debut in an exhibition last week, is experiencing pain in the area where he had adductor surgery and is out again.
United made a minor move yesterday to help solve its personnel crisis, acquiring forward Jason Thompson from the Burn for a 2006 fourth-round draft pick and future considerations. Thompson, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound second-round selection from Eastern Illinois in 2003, has played just one minute this year after suffering a serious knee injury while with the U.S. under-23 national team in early 2003.
Things are so desperate, Nowak hinted that Thompson could start tonight, although it's more likely he will enter in the second half as the team's only reserve forward.
United was also scrambling to find one or two minor league players to fill out the rest of its bench before kickoff. Only three of today's probable starters -- Jaime Moreno, Josh Gros and Freddy Adu -- have scored in league play this year.
"Everybody's prepared and wants to try to show that the team still has character and a lot of heart," said Moreno, the team leader in points (15) with four goals and seven assists.
With all the absences, rookie midfielder Nana Kuffour, who scored four minutes into his debut during Wednesday's 2-1 U.S. Open Cup loss to Richmond, will see significant playing time -- if, of course, his sore ankle doesn't flare up.
Kuffour and Adu were among the few players who made a favorable impression during Wednesday's defeat. Adu sparked the attack in the second half, creating several opportunities, including Kuffour's goal off a corner kick, and hitting the crossbar from 20 yards.
The Ghanaian-born teenagers worked well together and often communicated in their native language, Twi. Kuffour, who came to the United States this year, is bilingual but more comfortable speaking in his dialect.
"It was a lot of fun finally getting to play with him in a game," Adu said. "Just from those 10 minutes together, I learned a lot about him."
As for the team, Adu added: "It's going to be tough with all those guys out, but this is our chance. All the people who don't get a lot of playing time, we just have to take advantage of this golden opportunity. At the beginning of the season, [Nowak] did say that there are going to be injuries and people are going to be out, so you better be ready to play and prove to everyone that you belong out there."