WASHINGTON – An old coaching maxim claims that the only elements a team really needs are 11 players and a ball.
While that may technically be accurate, match preparations at the professional level are in fact a bit more intricate, and D.C. United’s ongoing injury woes have complicated the lead-up to Saturday’s road match against Toronto FC.
Marc Burch and Adam Cristman underwent surgery this week and will be out for the duration of the season.
Chris Pontius is waiting for a final decision on the right hamstring which has hampered him since US National Team camp in January, with surgery a very likely possibility.
Juan Manuel Pena just experienced a setback in his long-running quadriceps problem. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid re-aggravated his troublesome right shoulder in Tuesday’s training session and was restricted to light jogging on Wednesday.
There are other enforced absences, too. Trinidadian defender Julius James missed Wednesday’s session to wrangle with visa issues brought on by the weekend’s trip to Canada.
Spanish trialist Carlos Varela has flown back across the Atlantic to attend to “personal issues” – which may or may not presage his signing a deal with United. Either way, he’s one more body missing from drills and scrimmages.
“It’s tough to do some of the things you want to do in training to make your team better when you don’t have enough numbers sometimes,” interim head coach Ben Olsen said. “But that’s really the only challenge. It may be a challenge this weekend as far as picking the squad, but we’ll let the guys fight that out.
“They’ve been doing a good job this week, making the best of our situation. We’ll look at our numbers towards the end of the week and see what we have.”
United expect Dejan Jakovic to return from the Canadian National Team in time for Thursday’s training and playmaker Branko Boskevic should return from duty with Montenegro with ample time to be available for Saturday afternoon’s tilt at BMO Field.
But in their absence, Olsen could not even fill his 18-man game-day roster last Saturday – and until they return, it would be understandable if others on the last-place squad felt like dwindling survivors.
“It’s weird, we mention every day how it looks like we have fewer and fewer numbers every time we’re warming up at practice,” midfielder Steven King said Wednesday. “A couple guys are now getting surgery and may be out for the rest of the year.
“It’s part of the game. We’re going to use the guys that we have and still fight and try to finish out the season as strong as we can.”
Hamid’s condition remains shrouded in mystery. Club officials refuse to even go on the record with a specific diagnosis or description of the injury, but there seems to be little doubt about its severity.
“Look, Bill’s got something in his shoulder that needs to be fixed,” Olsen said. “He’s had it for a little bit and he’s got through it, to his credit, and managed it, and had a good season. What we do from here is things we’re sorting out with doctors.
"Does it make sense for a kid his age to go get this thing fixed so he doesn’t have issues with it? Probably. But again, that’s stuff we’re dealing with. Pontius is in the same boat. We’re dealing with his situation and all that will be shored up this week.”
United have little left to play for besides pride and places on next year’s roster, and both Hamid and Pontius are major building blocks for the future, so they can at least approach these chronic issues with circumspection.
Troy Perkins will likely start in goal against Toronto, and United have already broached the option of keeping Hamid out of action for the rest of the season. But the club still wants to gather more medical perspectives before committing to that course.
“You want to get as much information as possible before you make a decision, and that’s what’s going on right now,” Olsen said. “We want to talk to the best. We have a lot of faith in our great staff but there’s guys out there that even our docs want to talk to, because they do this stuff every day, whether it’s a shoulder or it’s a hamstring.
“There’s experts out there and we want to talk to them and make sure we’re making the right decision.”