Several weeks ago, D.C. United technical director Dave Kasper was talking with Chris Economides, his counterpart from the minor league club in Rochester, N.Y., making final arrangements for an exhibition between the teams in July.
During the conversation, Economides mentioned that he had a talented player, defender John Wilson, whom his budget-conscious team could no longer afford to keep.
"He flat-out said to me, 'Look, he belongs in Major League Soccer and he's going to do well there,' " Kasper recalled yesterday.
United had informally monitored Wilson's progress over the years, so when Rochester let him go, D.C. officials decided to give him a tryout. It didn't take long for them to realize that he could help United's evolving back line right away.
A week after signing a long-term contract, Wilson made his D.C. debut as a substitute against San Jose on June 4. Then, with veteran Bryan Namoff sidelined with a hip injury, Wilson started against the MetroStars last Sunday and made a lasting impression with bold runs out of the back that created several scoring opportunities.
His performance earned him the starting job Wednesday against Chicago and will probably get him back in the lineup tonight when United (4-4-4) faces the New England Revolution (7-0-4) at RFK Stadium.
"Defense is my main priority, but I also like getting forward," said Wilson, 27, who played forward at Clemson before being converted into a defender for brief stints with Kansas City and New England in MLS and longer stays with Charleston (S.C.) and Rochester in the minor leagues.
"It's just a matter of realizing when I need to get forward on this team. Maybe it might mean I won't go up as much and sit back and concentrate on the defense, but when a chance comes up, I try to get forward and help the offense."
Wilson's speed and ball skills have brought a new dimension to United's defense, which until recently had taken a measured approach to each match. United's attack has finally found a rhythm after weeks of inconsistency and, although several players have raised their game, Wilson has had a profound impact.
Namoff is out again tonight, but when he does return, Coach Peter Nowak will have to decide whether to stick with Wilson or bench Brandon Prideaux.
"He's calm on the ball, he sees things and he's not scared to go forward and bring crosses to the box," Nowak said. "This was what we were looking for -- to have a defender who can be very solid in the back but also have his eyes open for what's happening in front of him."
What's also unique about Wilson is how long it took for him to reach this point. Kansas City selected him early in the second round of the 1999 draft, but he played at Charleston that year before rejoining the Wizards the following season and making three appearances during their championship campaign.
But Wilson was told he needed to gain more experience to become an MLS defender, so he ended up back with Charleston (plus one appearance for New England in 2002) and then joined Rochester for 2004 and the start of this season.
"Part of it was I wasn't totally ready to be a defender," he said. "In Kansas City, I never really grasped the position like I should have, but over the years, I have worked hard at my positioning and not just running all over the place. I had a couple of chances to come back to MLS, but I felt it was best to stay [in the minors] to improve my game and find the right situation. It's been a process and I wouldn't change any of it."
With minor league teams on tight budgets, Rochester decided to go with inexpensive young players this year. "There are players out there who are a little under the radar and may need to play in the [minors] for a couple of years," Kasper said. "John has clearly benefited from that experience."
United Notes: Eric Smith, the team's director of business development, has moved to the Chicago Fire to become a vice president. . . . Tyler Yates, a freshman goalkeeper at the University of Redlands (Calif.) who has an immune deficiency disorder, joined yesterday's practice and will sit on the bench tonight as part of the Make-A-Wish Foundation program.