D.C. United's 2009 campaign ended in disappointment when the team missed out on a berth in the MLS Cup Playoffs on the final day of the season, but the yearlong influx of youthful talent represented a silver lining for fans and club officials.
First-round SuperDraft picks Chris Pontius and Rodney Wallace headlined the promising crop that earned league-wide acclaim, but it was telling when former head coach Tom Soehn, in one of his final interviews as United boss, specifically lamented the midsummer loss of another rookie as he looked back on what would be his final season in charge of the Black-and-Red.
"We're really happy with all of our young guys," said Soehn at the United Awards Reception in late October. "Even Brandon Barklage, who really made a lot of progress -- you know, we missed him because he actually came on really strong. So we feel there's a lot of young product there that we can build around."
Barklage was the most surprising contender for playing time in United's crowded midfield landscape last spring. His tigerish work rate and eagerness to get forward earned him minutes on the wings -- as expected -- but also in the attacking midfield slot usually reserved for older, more established players.
He seemed poised for a run at a first XI berth when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in a U.S. Open Cup match on July 7, halting his progress and sentencing him to season-ending knee surgery, followed by a long and difficult rehabilitation that was unfamiliar territory for the Saint Louis University graduate.
"I've actually never been injured before," said Barklage from Bradenton, Fla. last week. "I mean, a few minor little strains and pulls here and there, but I've never been out for, you know, six months at a time. It's been brutal."
Yet he returned to normal activities ahead of schedule and now finds himself negotiating the final stages of his recovery largely amid team training sessions, interspersed with some individual exercises and the occasional day off. Now, amid the constant exertion of preseason camp, Barklage is working to overcome a problem common to those recovering from major surgeries.
"My legs aren't very used to it, because I haven't been on the pitch for a good 6 1/2 months," he said. "The knee is not the problem, it's the other areas of my legs. It's my left groin and my right quad, just because of the little weakness that I've built from the past injury. So it's just a matter of strengthening those muscles and I'll get back to it."
Thus far he's received positive feedback from Curt Onalfo and the rest of the D.C. coaching staff, but Barklage knows there is limited margin for error as he hauls himself back to top speed. With United leaning toward a 4-4-2 shape, he faces just as much competition in this year's midfield lineup as last, and he could be compelled to take a developmental roster spot once again. But given his long road back from one of soccer's nightmare injuries, he's content to keep moving forward, one practice at a time.
"It is definitely one of the biggest challenges -- it is the biggest challenge -- I've ever come up with in my career," said Barklage of his damaged knee. "But it's something that I've really learned from, and I'm going to take my experiences and just learn to keep care of my body off the field and make sure I'm in tip-top shape for the future."