Youth infusion welcome sight in D.C.
WASHINGTON, DC -- As the MLS season opened, one of D.C. United head coach Tom Soehn's leading concerns was the manner in which he would blend his crop of new talent into a relatively grizzled incumbent lineup. While veteran leadership will surely be central to the squad's 2009 prospects, the youngsters made clear that they were ready to play their part."It's a bit of a mix, of course, when you've got the old guys and the young guys," said top SuperDraft pick Rodney Wallace in the leadup to First Kick. "But when everyone steps on the field, everyone's competing at the same level. It's a man's game, so you know you've got to play up to that."As a quick look at United's Week One statistics proves, it certainly hasn't taken long for the new boys to make their presence known among the men.Wallace and three other newcomers appeared in the first XI in Los Angeles on Sunday and another, Andrew Jacobson, came off the bench in D.C.'s 2-2 draw. Rookie Chris Pontius made the biggest splash of the day, winning the nod for the second striker spot ahead of club legend Jaime Moreno before marking his professional debut with a splendid curling finish past Galaxy goalkeeper Josh Saunders for United's second goal.Pontius' storybook introduction to MLS was capped by the presence of more than 100 friends and family members on hand to witness the UC-Santa Barbara product's triumphant return to his southern California stomping grounds."You know, having the family and friends there definitely put an added pressure on me," he said Tuesday. "But it made it more exciting for me as well. I always like playing in front of a hometown crowd; I was able to do that in college and this is kind of taking it to the next level, obviously, with my first professional game, which was a memorable one for me."His performance sends a message to more experienced teammates as well as opposing defenders around the league. Yet Soehn's decision to entrust his most recent arrivals, goalkeeper Josh Wicks and center back Dejan Jakovic, with pivotal roles in defense was perhaps even more notable.Few among the Black-and-Red rearguard will be pleased at allowing two late goals by L.A. star Landon Donovan -- including a controversial penalty kick decision against Wallace -- but a road draw is hardly a poor result given the jangling nerves that often accompany a bevy of club debuts."We're going to fight, during games and in practice. We're a team that's going to work hard and make the players next to us work just as hard, if not more," said Wicks, also a California product, who spent last season with the Galaxy before a March 10 trade to D.C. "The rookies and the new guys on the team came in, they stood their ground and they played well, really well."So far there's no trace of jealousy, as United's old hands are fully cognizant of the struggles that resulted from an unbalanced squad last season."It's beautiful. That's what we've needed," said Ben Olsen, who on Sunday started his first match in more than a year. "That's what, frankly, we haven't had in a while. You need that. You need a couple youngsters clipping at your heels, as a veteran, to keep you motivated and on the field. Some guys need that. Not to mention the quality at practice, day in, day out. I'm all for that, believe me."Soehn will have to strike a delicate balance throughout the months ahead as he looks to groom the youngsters while making optimal use of his substantial corps of veterans, though a busy midsummer schedule could eventually prompt him to utilize nearly the entire 24-man roster.The young bucks see no reason to wait until then, however."I think all of us newcomers are trying to come in and establish ourselves. We're all fighting for a spot," said Pontius. "We respect the older guys and we look up to them, but we're also trying to push them. We want them to be the best that they can be, so I think in preseason we've stepped up our games a lot and forced them to step up their games, which is only going to make the team better."