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Rookie Graye making most of opportunity at DC

Injuries hand local defender starting role at right back

On a wildWednesday night when no less than 40 players took the field at RFK Stadium, thebrief list of those who lasted the full 90 minutes of D.C. United’s exhibitionmatch against AC Milan is noteworthy. Its members: Clarence Seedorf, AlessandroNesta, Alexandre Pato, Christian Abbiati and the home team’s solerepresentative, Jordan Graye.

Not badcompany for a rookie MLS defender widely assumed to be training fodder a fewmonths ago when United used their only pick of the 2010 SuperDraft to make himthe 55th overall selection.

His draftday in Philadelphia this winter was overshadowed by the news that D.C. hadre-acquired goalkeeper Troy Perkins via the allocation draft – using theirfirst-round pick as a makeweight in the deal – and his local roots suggestedconvenience rather than selectivity at work in Graye’s eventual acquisition byUnited.

Yet theUniversity of North Carolina product has proved to be one of the few highlightsof a disconsolate D.C. campaign, staking a claim to the right back position inthe injury-enforced absence of veteran Bryan Namoff with simplicity, composureand the essentially uncoachable trait of raw speed.

“JordanGraye, he’s an incredible athlete. His pace is great, his fitness is great –the kid can run forever,” United assistant coach Kris Kelderman said. “Becauseof injuries he had an opportunity, and he’s made the most of it. He’s stepped up.

For yearsNamoff has been an institution on the right side of the United defense, and theteam has missed his leadership and steady play since whiplash and otherconcussion-related problems forced him out of action late last season. ButGraye, the sixth player to occupy the D.C. right back spot this year, hashauled himself up the depth chart and brought stability to the position whilealso giving the lineup a much-needed dose of athleticism.

He’sgenerally shown limited ambition with the ball at his feet, and as with anyrookie learning on the job, Graye’s inexperience has led to mistakes. LastSaturday in Houston, for example, his failure to recognize Dominic Oduro’ssubtle movement into space allowed the Dynamo striker to lash home thegame-clinching goal.

With hisselection options constantly limited by injuries, United coach Curt Onalfo hastried to blend the experience of center backs Juan Manuel Pena and Carey Talleywith the youthful vigor of Graye and Rodney Wallace on the outside of his backfour. Discouraging results have understandably prompted doubts about the unit’scomposition as a whole, but a host of more experienced players have failed tosettle in on the right side, and Graye can now consider himself the incumbentin that role. Onalfo even tried him out at left back in the second half of theMilan friendly.

“He’swilling to listen and learn, and we’re excited about his potential,” Keldermansaid.

Graye isblessed with recovery speed that most MLS defenders would kill for, and hisconfidence has grown noticeably with each passing week.

“I’mgetting a little bit more comfortable. I don’t think I’ve had nearly as good aperformance as I think I can have, but I’m staying solid, staying simple,” Grayeexplained. “That’s what the coaches ask from me and for me, it’s all defensefirst.”

Graye’sprogress offers further vindication for the United youth academy which alsoprepared teammates Andy Najar and Bill Hamid for their progression into thesenior squad. He spent most of his high school years playing with D.C.’s U-14,U-15, U-16, and U-20 teams in addition to his responsibilities at Reston FC andDeMatha Catholic High School in the Washington suburbs, giving theBlack-and-Red ample opportunity to monitor his development.

Now thetables have turned as his parents and uncle eagerly make the short trip to RFKto snap up his allotment of tickets for home matches. Few other observers wouldhave predicted his rapid ascent but the soft-spoken 22-year-old reveals anunexpected streak of self-assurance when discussing his own progress.

“Well, Imean, to tell you the truth, I did,” he said when asked whether he expected toreach this point so early in his first pro campaign. “Honestly, I didn't expectto be a fourth-round pick. To me, this is not a surprise. I’m just taking it instride and working hard, that’s pretty much all I can do.”