Until the 76th minute of D.C. United's 3-0 victory over the MetroStars three days ago, Jamil Walker's first year in Washington had been a bust. Forwards are supposed to score goals, or at least create them for teammates. But through two-thirds of the MLS season, the 24-year-old couldn't seem to do anything right.
"I've been inconsistent," he acknowledged yesterday. "I've been working hard to get into the lineup and, when I did get a chance, I don't think I performed up to my abilities. That was a bit of a letdown for me. I've just tried to keep going."
On Wednesday, with United clinging to a one-goal lead, Walker got another chance. A minute after entering for Christian Gomez, he ran onto Santino Quaranta's through ball, fought off a defender and then snapped a cross past goalkeeper Tony Meola to the unmarked Dema Kovalenko for the simplest of goals.
Instead of converging upon the goal scorer, the ritual of almost every soccer celebration, the players, including Kovalenko, charged toward the beaming Walker.
"He deserved it," Kovalenko said. "It's his goal. We all felt good for him."
Walker was also credited with an assist on Josh Gros's strike in the 87th minute, although that one was all Gros's doing. For Walker, though, it marked his first points of the season following 11 appearances, 2 starts and 215 unmemorable minutes.
With Freddy Adu and Alecko Eskandarian injured and Jaime Moreno suspended, Walker would seem to be the logical choice to start alongside Quaranta today against MLS's worst team, Chivas USA, at RFK Stadium. However, Coach Peter Nowak might save him for the second half when his speed could have a pronounced impact on the pace of the game during a hot afternoon.
"He's working very hard to be one of the strikers in our rotation," Nowak said. "As I've said to all of them: 'You never know when your time will come, you have to be ready.' He did a great job [Wednesday]. This is what we're looking for from everybody -- being competitive, being hungry for success and when the time came, we'll come for you."
Walker has been effective this season -- just not in league matches. He scored during a 2-1 victory over Harbour View of Jamaica in the Champions Cup in March, had a hat trick in a 3-2 exhibition win over minor league Rochester (N.Y.) last month and is tied for the team lead with four goals in reserve league play.
"You only get a certain amount of chances, especially when you have so many good forwards on this team," Walker said. "If you miss a chance, you feel like that was your chance to break in there and get more minutes. When you do miss, it's kind of stressful and it can build up. So when I helped out with that goal the other day, it was a big relief."
Walker was born in the Rochester, N.Y., area and went to high school there, but in between, because of his father's job with Xerox, he spent much of his childhood in Herndon and still has strong ties to the Washington area. His soccer exploits earned him an appointment to the Air Force Academy, but after one year, he transferred to Santa Clara and became a 14-goal scorer in his senior season.
A fourth-round pick by San Jose in the 2003 MLS draft, Walker became a game-altering reserve and scored four goals in 19 regular season matches. By the playoffs, he had earned his way into the starting lineup and helped the Earthquakes win their second title with a goal and two assists during four postseason appearances.
Big things were expected from him last year, but ankle and back injuries restricted him to 10 games and only two starts. Left unprotected, Walker was selected by Chivas USA in the expansion draft last winter. He was cut late in training camp and was signed by United a week later.
Until Wednesday, however, United wasn't particularly pleased with his work.
"Everyone knows how hard I've been working and trying to help out the team," he said. "To finally get in there and make a difference was a huge weight off my shoulders."