D.C. United’s depth was on full display on Wednesday night,as a band of irregular starters combined for a dominant 2-0 win over thevisiting Colorado Rapids. It wasperhaps the Black-and-Red’s best performance of the season, and offered furtherproof that - instead of brewing controversy - the fierce competition forplaying time among Ben Olsen’s players is actually making his team stronger.
“We preached early that this was going to be a competitiveyear and you had to earn your spot,” Olsen said from D.C.’s jubilant lockerroom after the Black-and-Red pulled within a point of the Eastern Conference’stop spot. “Every season, everybodyhas to pull their weight. At somepoint you are going to have to do it and buy in. It helps when you have good professionals.”
Though professionals, many of the players who saw theirminutes reduced by the club’s improved depth hadn’t experienced suchdisappointment before. But any externalconcerns about how decorated young players might respond to losing theirstarting positions have been answered – one by one – in spades.On Wednesday night, there were plenty of examples. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid pitched hissecond shutout in three appearances, all after sitting behind Joe Willis as theunheralded backup turned in solid performance on top of solid performance. Attimes D.C.’s forgotten man, Branko Boskovic produced arguably his best effortin Black-and-Red with a thorough 71 minutes in the heart of midfield. AndyNajar lost his place in the eleven while qualifying for the Olympics withHonduras, but made his third straight start on Wednesday and – in playing bothmidfield and defense – showed amazing versatility. Perhaps most impressive however, was Hamdi Salihi. In his first start since April 14, theAlbanian netted his third goal in less than 180 minutes of playing time.
“It was not an easy time,” Salihi admitted while discussinghis reintroduction into the starting lineup. “But every day I worked the same and never lost myconfidence and I always believed in myself. You keep working, it doesn’t matter if it is going good [ornot].”
“A lot of guys that were biding their time got theiropportunity [tonight],” added captain Dwayne De Rosario. “You can’t ask for any more from thoseguys. They made the most of theirchance.”
Ironically, the man who set the bar for how to claw backinto Olsen’s eleven was actually on the bench against the Rapids. Chris Pontius saw his starting jobdisappear when Nick DeLeon exploded onto the MLS scene in late March, but bymid-April, the Californian was playing so well it became impossible to deny himminutes. Whether conscious or not,it’s an example his teammates have followed.
“I don’t want to take credit,” Pontius said humbly. “We have a great locker room. We don’t have cliques in here, everyoneis friends. I think the coacheshave done a great job of letting guys know that the only way back on the fieldis to work your butt off.”
That last line isn't an exaggeration. Despite being included in the gamedayroster on Wednesday, Pontius was listed as questionable with a strain in – fittingly enough - his gluteus minimus.