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Wicks earning his keep in DC

WASHINGTON -- D.C. United goalkeeper Josh Wicks didn't commence his soccer career in the conventional fashion. In fact, his very first exposure to the sport came at the relatively advanced age of 10, a fortuitous result of the sort of episode that probably gave his mother nightmares.Born in Landstuhl, Germany to military parents at a U.S. Army medical facility, Wicks and his family moved around routinely during his childhood, even after settling permanently east of Los Angeles, in San Bernardino, Calif. So the youngster probably learned how to introduce himself to new surroundings in a hurry, as he did on one occasion after hopping on his bicycle to chase down a fleeing sibling."I was just fighting my brother one day and he got away," said Wicks, suppressing a grin as he retold the story this week. "He came back with some candy and I wanted some. So he showed me where he got it -- it was a team playing soccer on a field. So I walked up on them [and said,] 'I want some candy, too.'"Wicks had played football and basketball, but never the beautiful game, so it was no surprise when he was directed to stand in front of goal and told not to let the ball touch the net. He proved a natural."After that, the coach put my bike in the van and drove me to my mom's house. My mom was freaking out because some strange guy was driving me home," said Wicks. "But he sat down and started talking to my mom, and I started playing soccer. They sent me to goalkeeping camp, and that was it."Indeed - he's stuck to the position ever since, moving on to achieve sustained success in college and the United Soccer Leagues First Division before making the leap to MLS. Now, a decade and a half later, he hopes to make United's starting job his own in the wake of an eye-opening performance against Real Salt Lake last week."He had a good day," said head coach Tom Soehn on Tuesday. "He made some key saves at key moments and he managed the box well, he communicated well. It was the first time that someone separated themselves a little bit and said, 'I want this job.'"As a young pro, Wicks made 59 saves in 16 matches and won a USL-1 championship in his two campaigns with the Vancouver Whitecaps before earning Goalkeeper of the Year honors in one season as an everyday starter for the Portland Timbers. Last year he showed flashes of quality in limited action with the L.A. Galaxy, but saw his goals-against average - and his reputation - dinged by the club's prolonged struggles.When a March 10 trade sent him to D.C. as cover for the injured Louis Crayton, many observers believed it a stopgap measure. United had signed promising rookie Milos Kocic as their 'keeper of the future, and besides, Crayton was expected to resume starting duty when his shoulder and thigh injuries were fully healed.But as he and Soehn pointed out this week, Wicks, too, was well short of full fitness upon his arrival in the nation's capital yet had no choice but to adapt quickly, both on and off the field.Having just helped his fiancé Samantha move down to L.A. from Vancouver, B.C., he had to sheepishly inform her that another relocation was required immediately. Then he joined United during a punishing stretch of preseason and, carrying too much weight, quickly found himself stretched to his limits and eventually, injured (hip flexor strain) as a result."When I got traded I came out to the East Coast and I wasn't in as good a shape as I thought I was in," he said. "The work rate here is better. It takes a toll on you, it's more demanding than in L.A. So to adjust to that -- it was hard, at first. I had to change my whole entire routine."But with guidance and daily admonition from D.C. trainers Brian Goodstein and Pete Calabrese, Wicks sharpened his fitness and trimmed his physique. He estimates that he's lost 12 pounds and more importantly, substantially lowered his body fat percentage, improving his agility and reducing recovery time between practices and matches. That's has also allowed his strengths -- communication, physical presence, control of his penalty area -- to rise to the fore."Josh won a championship in the minor league and when you see him in the spot, he's actually pretty composed as far as how he directs traffic. He's probably one of our best communicators in that respect," said Soehn. "Josh wasn't fit when he came in. He's done a great job to get himself down where he needs to be."Wicks' eight-save display against RSL stands as the strongest statement made to date by any of the three netminders vying for the top spot on the D.C. depth chart. It's probably earned him a second consecutive league start when the Black-and-Red visit New England this weekend. Now it's up to him to stay ahead of the pack."I'm on a good team, our team's doing well and I don't want to be on the outside looking in the whole time," he said. "I had to just bite the bullet and do what I hate to do, and just work out 'til I can't move. I got the start and I don't plan on looking back now."