WASHINGTON — The final stages of D.C. United’s season probably won’t include a late run to the playoffs. But individual players will certainly have opportunities to prove themselves and find a measure of redemption after so many months of struggle.
Last weekend, Julius James seized just such a chance, scoring a late winner in a 1-0 victory over Toronto FC. He later described the goal as vindication after several coaches and GMs showed meager faith in his abilities over the past two years.
Similarly, Jordan Graye is looking to finish his rookie campaign on a high note after enduring some of the professional game’s harshest lessons this summer.
United’s only 2010 SuperDraft pick was initially seen as a long-term prospect. But Graye was fast-tracked into a starting role by a rash of injuries along the back line and performed surprisingly well, showing courage and athleticism at both right and left back. However, he made a couple of critical errors that led to United defeats last month and was abruptly yanked from the first XI due to having hit “his wall,” in the words of interim coach Ben Olsen.
“I guess the coaches were trying to like, sugarcoat it for me, to make me feel better and to make it seem not as bad,” Graye said. “But I just made mistakes.”
In barely two months, the DC native had gone from peak to valley, the sort of experience that routinely leaves young players wracked with self-doubt. But he already seems to possess the even-keeled outlook that is such a vital element of a long pro career.
“You see in the games after that, a lot of people made mistakes," he added. "It almost puts things in perspective.
"I was really down on myself, just felt like I was losing games for the team. But you know what, things like that happen all the time – it just so happens that [the opposition] scored off of my mistakes. So those are the kind of things that happen and you’ve just got to limit them. Hopefully they’re rookie mistakes.”
Notably, the United coaching staff also took Graye out of the gameday roster, hoping to refresh his body and mind at the point when most college products feel the strain of the longer MLS season.
“It was tough, especially since I went from starting to not even being on the 18[-man] roster," Graye explained. "I think that they were trying to give me a break. They wanted me to spend some time with my family and friends and just relax, just observe and learn. So that’s pretty much what I did – I watched a lot of soccer and I think it really helped me.”
Marc Burch’s re-aggravation of a foot injury put Graye back into the reckoning, while recent acquisition Jed Zayner’s willingness to play left back has enabled him to return to a more comfortable position on the right.
“Defensively, it’s not too much of a difference, but it’s tough offensively when you get the ball into a position and you see the ball you want to play," Graye said. "It’s just a lot tougher on your weaker foot. You can still play those balls, but it’s just not as comfortable. You’ve got to concentrate more and you’ve got to do a lot of things differently."
But the rookie defender, after so many emotional highs and lows, just sounded relieved to be back on the field.
“So I think the right’s a good spot for me but hey, if they need me to play on the left, I’m ready for that too.”