Several reporters approached D.C. United striker Jaime Moreno for an interview following one of the team's preseason practices at RFK Stadium last week, looking for the longtime D.C. captain's thoughts on the 2010 squad from a skipper's perspective.
But Moreno, the club legend and all-time MLS leading scorer who has worn the Black-and-Red armband for some five years now -- and just recently put pen to a new contract -- quickly corrected the scribes.
"As the captain? I don't think Curt has announced who's the captain for this year yet," the Bolivian said, referring to D.C. head coach Curt Onalfo.
Clearly, even United's most celebrated performers are taking nothing for granted these days, as a new-look coaching staff runs the rule over the long list of players presently taking part in team workouts. Inheritors of a unit that has failed to make the postseason for two years running, Onalfo and his assistants are approaching the rebuilding process with few preconceived notions.
While this might be discomfiting for some veterans, it's welcome news for the likes of Devon McTavish, the versatile 25-year-old who became the forgotten man around RFK last year in the wake of his breakout 2008 campaign.
"You see that a lot, when rookies coming in are playing, scrapping harder than some of the older guys," he said last week. "But I don't know if that's been the case [this year]. Everyone's kind of going at it at the same level. ... Certainly some people have some credibility with Curt because of what they've done in the league so far, but for those coming into the team or for those who haven't completely proven themselves, it's an even playing field and whoever is better on the day is going to get the playing time."
McTavish seems to place himself in the latter group. He made steady and significant progress over his first three professional seasons, consistently contributing at a variety of positions in domestic and international competitions while also admirably representing the club in a variety of charitable causes off the field, and was duly rewarded with a new contract in January 2009.
But he struggled to sustain that momentum over the ensuing 12 months, notching only 431 minutes of league action, less than a fifth of what he saw in '08. Keen competition for spots and a tendency towards inconsistency on the training ground saw him fall out of favor with former D.C. boss Tom Soehn, who often left McTavish a benched bystander in situations where the young utility man had previously expected to play an important role.
"Last year was tough, for me personally but also as a team. Everyone had ups and downs, that's kind of the way the year was," said McTavish. "I think last year as a team, that was kind of our downfall -- one weekend we're hot, one weekend we're really cold."
The experience prompted a bout of soul-searching for the Winchester, Va. native this winter.
"I took some time and figured out what I maybe did wrong or maybe didn't do enough of to make myself better, which is why I don't think I was on the field so much last year," admitted McTavish. "So I tried to change those this offseason and come in with a little different mentality."
In many ways, McTavish's top attribute -- his adaptability -- also represents the greatest obstacle to his advancement. He's been used in both wide and holding midfield roles for United, as well as at center back and right back, and still remains coy as to where he thinks he belongs.
"I've always struggled with finding one spot," he said. "I think I have a favorite position but it's maybe not necessarily my best position. And that favorite position probably changes quite a bit in my head as well. That's something maybe I have to determine, what position I really want to go after and play. That would help me and my focus a lot. But if being a good soccer player can get you on the field, then that's what I want to try to do."
For now, the concussion-enforced absence of incumbent right back Bryan Namoff could represent McTavish's best chance for a prominent role. Lawson Vaughn, who deputized in that spot last fall after Namoff was sidelined and is presently trying to earn a contract for 2010, is the only specialist right back in D.C. camp.
McTavish says he's eager to seize any opportunity Onalfo offers him as the Black-and-Red try to turn the page on two difficult years.
"Hopefully those struggles are behind us and we can move forward," said McTavish. "We have a fresh coaching staff and a fresh group in the locker room, so whatever has happened in the past is back there. All we can focus on is getting better as a team, and each individual getting better day by day."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com.