East notes: Rookie finds role for D.C.

By Kyle McCarthy / MLSnet.comFour players have played every minute of D.C. United's five matches this season.Three of those players are fairly obvious. Luciano Emilio has scored three goals in those 450 minutes. Key defensive cogs Bryan Namoff and Dejan Jakovic also haven't missed a minute of game time.One of those players isn't obvious. Chris Pontius wasn't even a good bet to be in the starting XI for the season opener, never mind games two through five. Injuries (Fred, Santino Quaranta) and fitness concerns (Jaime Moreno) opened the door for Pontius to make his MLS debut.Pontius has turned that sliver of a chance into a starting role. Pontius scored a cracker of a goal in the season opener in Los Angeles and proved the goal wasn't a fluke by turning in consistently effective performances thereafter."I'm becoming more and more comfortable every day with these guys," Pontius said. "Coming as a rookie, I'm trying to keep it simple. You're nervous at first. Then you become more comfortable with the guys and you start to read them better and understand what they like to do when they get the ball. That helps me on the field."Even with the experienced trio of attacking players fit, Pontius kept his place in the lineup for last Friday's 1-1 draw against New England. In that contest, Pontius played out on the right wing after playing striker the previous week. The California-Santa Barbara alum has split time between the two spots in the opening five games depending on the form and availability of others."Versatility can never hurt," Pontius said. "The only thing is that I need to excel in each of those spots. I can't be mediocre. I need to keep working on my game and doing whatever I can."Pontius experienced his first setback when he blazed a couple of second-half chances over the bar against the Revolution -- he said he was "disappointed" with missing those opportunities -- but the future still looks bright for United's versatile rookie.Wide play sparks New York's first win: New York head coach Juan Carlos Osorio preached patience as he tried to get his team together. It looks like he might have had a point.With Alfredo Pacheco, Mac Kandji and Seth Stammler all back in the lineup, the Red Bulls were a different team from the one that stumbled so badly out of the gates in Saturday night's 2-0 win against Real Salt Lake. Stammler provides cautious and effective holding play in the center of the park. Kandji combines well with Juan Pablo Angel and stretches defenses with his pace.But the real story is in the wide areas. The wide play of fullbacks Pacheco -- and Jeremy Hall, who deputized for the suspended Carlos Johnson -- gives New York additional impetus in the attacking third. When midfielders Dane Richards and Khano Smith struggle to provide service, Pacheco and Hall can pick them up and provide another option for dangerous crosses into the right areas.Good wide play opened up Real Salt Lake's narrow midfield diamond and created opportunities to exploit the resulting space. New York will need to produce a similar effort against Kansas City on Thursday night to continue the momentum from its first win of the campaign.Hesmer's absence hamstrings Crew: Just when Columbus head coach Robert Warzycha thought his side turned the corner towards full health, goalkeeper Will Hesmer dealt the Crew yet another injury blow to one of its key players. The Crew No. 1 wrenched his knee in the 1-1 draw against Colorado on April 11. Warzycha told the Columbus Dispatch on Tuesday that Hesmer's participation in Saturday's crunch clash against Chicago is "very, very questionable."If Hesmer can't go, Warzycha will turn to backup Andy Gruenebaum. While Gruenebaum can't match Hesmer's shot-stopping abilities, he could bridge the gap for a game or two until Hesmer gets healthy. Gruenebaum started 10 matches for the Crew in 2007 and shutout Real Salt Lake last April.Hesmer's departure from the lineup coincides with the return of a couple of key cogs. Chad Marshall (facial contusion) and Robbie Rogers (hamstring) could slot back into the lineup against the Fire if they come through the week without any setbacks. Frankie Hejduk (hamstring) hasn't joined full training yet, so his return might be farther off than this weekend.Barrett relieves pressure -- for now: Misfiring Toronto FC striker Chad Barrett needed a goal at Pizza Hut Park to silence the skeptics. Canadian media types were wondering if the goalless Barrett should even remain in the TFC starting lineup in Sunday's 3-2 loss against FC Dallas.Barrett finally picked up his first goal of the 2009 campaign in the second half with a coolly finished breakaway aided by some decent buildup play and some slipshod FCD defense."I've got faith in the guy and I think he restored that today," Toronto FC head coach Carver said after Barrett scored. "If I've got to rely on the fans and the press on what team I'm going to pick, then I'm wasting my time. I'm going to pick the team that I want to pick and I'll live and die by that."Carver didn't mention that his belief in Barrett might stem from need at this point. With Dwayne De Rosario expected to miss the next two games with a hamstring injury and Pablo Vitti and Danny Dichio yet to get off the mark, the Reds will have to rely on Barrett to find a rich vein of form.But ... TFC defense is still feeling the heat: Nine goals allowed in five games isn't what Carver had in mind from a reconstructed defense expected to improve in 2009.The problem stems from a lack of choices in central defense. Adrian Serioux remains more of a complementary center back than a primary defensive rock. Kevin Harmse has earned the shirt next to him, but he's a defensive midfielder by trade and hasn't settled well in his new role. Marco Velez didn't impress when given the chance either. With a pair of adventurous fullbacks in Jim Brennan and Marvell Wynne, TFC needs stingy play from its centerbacks and that just isn't the case right now.Carver and TFC director of soccer Mo Johnston are trying to address the problem. TFC took Ecuadorian center back Jose Luis Perlaza on trial last week, but Perlaza signed with Barcelona (of Ecuador, not of Spain) shortly afterwards. Given the noticeable problems in that department, don't be surprised if Johnston continues to shop around for more central defensive cover.