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D.C. United goalkeepers jockey for playing time

WASHINGTON -- It's unconventional, it's unusual and from the outside, it looks baffling at times. But for the players and coaches involved, D.C. United's ongoing rotation at the goalkeeper spot has become an accepted part of the weekly routine around RFK Stadium as Tom Soehn and his staff continue their hunt for a clear No. 1 between the posts.Squad rotation and longer rosters have become an accepted reality in the modern era as the length and intensity of the professional game has grown. But when it comes to goalkeeping, a traditional tendency toward stability persists at most clubs. D.C. has unrepentantly bucked that paradigm this season, using three goalkeepers in 10 league matches."For me, it's new," said Louis Crayton, the veteran of the group at 31 years of age. "Week in, week out, I have not had this experience in my entire career. It is up to the coaches. That is their decision and everyone is fighting for what is in the best interests of this organization."After a number of impressive performances following his midseason arrival last year, Crayton seemed to have a lock on the starting job at the outset of preseason, but injury troubles sidelined him for several weeks, handing an opportunity to newcomer Josh Wicks. Soon Wicks himself was sidelined by a hip problem, and when hard-charging rookie Milos Kocic slowly worked his way into contention, Soehn and goalkeepers coach Mark Simpson found themselves watching a lively battle for playing time.Thus far they've elected to spread the minutes around, basing their weekly decisions on their goalkeepers' displays in practice as well as the opposing team's characteristics. Each 'keeper has produced moments of real quality, but none have been consistent enough to lock down the role for good -- and Soehn and Simpson say they're happy to wait for that sign to reveal itself."I think it's a luxury for us to have three guys that can play at any given moment and you're just looking for one guy to separate himself -- and the other two to push him, to push each other to get better," said Simpson on Monday. "That's all it's about. It's not a controversy, it's just [that] we feel comfortable playing three guys. We're just looking for someone to step up."Rare though it might be, there are precedents for such an approach and Simpson got well-acquainted with one very successful example during his own United playing career. Former D.C. coach Bruce Arena was unafraid to chop and change between the pipes as he built the most successful dynasty in Major League Soccer history and even after backstopping the Black-and-Red to the inaugural MLS Cup title in 1996, Simpson had to fight for playing time alongside the likes of Scott Garlick, Jeff Causey and Tom Presthus."Back in '97, '98, when I got hurt, we had three goalkeepers that could play at any time, and really, it doesn't matter if there's two or three or four or five. You just push each other, you have a friendly competition during the week," he said. "I think that has to be. It's a lonely spot back there and during the week, you push guys, and you support them on the weekend. So it's no different than what I dealt with."Bold and boisterous, Crayton possesses skilled feet that enable him to range remarkable distances off his line with a "keeper-sweeper" mentality. Wicks is an MLS veteran, strong and imposing. Kocic is young and raw but blessed with a strong work ethic and determined to jump to the front of the line. The latter have started two matches apiece and are likely to see further action soon, beginning with United's U.S. Open Cup play-in match against the New York Red Bulls on Wednesday.United have lost just once this year and sit near the top of the Eastern Conference standings, but that has also served to raise expectations for whoever wins the starting job. The rest of the team might be accustomed to a revolving door in the nets, but there's a general acknowledgement that the No. 1 role needs to be seized by someone eventually."It's an opportunity that's waiting to be taken, and needs to be taken. With the level that we're playing at, not only offensively but defensively, limiting the number of chances that opponents are having on us, we need that component," said veteran defender Bryan Namoff. "We need someone in there that's going to actually save goals for us. So it's a big opportunity, but then it's also big shoes to fill right now."