WASHINGTON — With their team’s once-routine participation in thepostseason now stalled for three years running, many D.C. United fans havewatched with interest as a number of their club’s former players occupy centerstage in the 2010 MLS Cup playoffs.
Nearly all of this year’s qualifiers have United alums ontheir rosters but few have made a bigger impression than San Jose Earthquakes winger BobbyConvey. One of the league’s original teenage prodigies, Convey was the youngestplayer in MLS history when he joined DC a decade ago.
While United never sawhim fulfill his potential in the thrilling fashion that pushed theEarthquakes to within a game of Sunday's MLS Cup final, there’s hope that the current generationof DC youngsters can stick around long enough to bring similar success back to thenation’s capital.
Speaking to the media after Andy Najar won the MLS Rookie ofthe Year award, United president Kevin Payne proudly referred to thebevy of kids who are gunning for major roles in next year’s squad.
“[Goalkeeper] Bill Hamid, who is one of the really brightyoung players in the league – he’s only 20," Payne said. "And Andy. We also signed ConorShanosky, who is also going to be a mainstay of the U-20 national team. And we’ve got a number of other very good young players who we think intime will become important players for D.C. United and our league.
“We think it’s a pretty good endorsement of our youthprogram – and I think it’s a good endorsement of the approach that the leaguehas taken generally. We need every team in the league to be focused ondeveloping a real youth program and providing the right kind of environment fortheir young players.”
(The league took some steps on Tuesday to help fulfill Payne's wishes, announcing the return of the reserve division and an expansion plan for youth development.)But Convey’s case provides a reminder of the complicationsthat can sidetrack a surefire talent on the way to stardom. ThePennsylvania-born phenom seemed to grow disillusioned after a high-profiletransfer to English side Tottenham Hotspur fell through in 2003, and he rubbedmany in DC the wrong way before he left for Reading FC a year later. FreddyAdu’s topsy-turvy stint with United offered similar lessons soon after.
Najar is presently the toast of the league, and deservedlyso. But his rise has led to a swirl of media speculation about hisinternational career and other aspects of his future, underlining United’sdesire to maintain a supportive, protective environment for him and his juniorcohorts.
“Andy, he’s been great and obviously one of our best playersthis season," veteran United midfielder Clyde Simms said. "But he’s young and it’s tough – I kind of look back to the wayPeter [Nowak, former DC coach] went about things with young players.
“Sometimes, even though to everyone else it might seem likethey’re ready, sometimes they’re not. I’m not saying that about Andy – I thinkhe is – it’s just one of those things that’s tricky. We have to be careful withhim. You don’t want to run him into the ground.
“It’s a grueling season, and I think it’simportant for him to take some time for himself and relax a bit," Simms added. "That’ssomething that they have to manage with him.”
So perhaps United’s technical staff has otherplayoff-participating exes in mind as the rebuilding process cranks up this winter – savvy veteranpresences like Nick Rimando, Brian Carroll and Dema Kovalenko, who onceundergirded successful DC teams but now do so for the league’s elite. That typeof player ranks high on the club’s offseason wish list.
“I don’t think we ever really had the right balance ofveteran players and young players on the field [this season], for variousreasons,” general manager Dave Kasper said recently. “We have a lot ofexciting, young, talented players but we never really found that balance.That’s something that we are focusing on in building our team for 2011: Finding some veteran players who can bring different kinds of leadership to theteam and help the younger players grow.”