With their team’s once-routine participation in the postseason now stalled for three years running, many D.C. United fans have watched with interest as a number of their club’s former players occupy center stage in the 2010 MLS Cup playoffs.
Nearly all of this year’s qualifiers have United alums on their rosters but few have made a bigger impression than San Jose Earthquakes winger Bobby Convey. One of the league’s original teenage prodigies, Convey was the youngest player in MLS history when he joined DC a decade ago.
While United never saw him fulfill his potential in the thrilling fashion that pushed the Earthquakes to within a game of Sunday's MLS Cup final, there’s hope that the current generation of DC youngsters can stick around long enough to bring similar success back to the nation’s capital.
Speaking to the media after Andy Najar won the MLS Rookie of the Year award, United president Kevin Payne proudly referred to the bevy of kids who are gunning for major roles in next year’s squad.
“[Goalkeeper] Bill Hamid, who is one of the really bright young players in the league – he’s only 20," Payne said. "And Andy. We also signed Conor Shanosky, 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 in time will become important players for D.C. United and our league.
“We think it’s a pretty good endorsement of our youth program – and I think it’s a good endorsement of the approach that the league has taken generally. We need every team in the league to be focused on developing a real youth program and providing the right kind of environment for their 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.)
[inline_node:323007]But Convey’s case provides a reminder of the complications that can sidetrack a surefire talent on the way to stardom. The Pennsylvania-born phenom seemed to grow disillusioned after a high-profile transfer to English side Tottenham Hotspur fell through in 2003, and he rubbed many in DC the wrong way before he left for Reading FC a year later. Freddy Adu’s topsy-turvy stint with United offered similar lessons soon after.
Najar is presently the toast of the league, and deservedly so. But his rise has led to a swirl of media speculation about his international career and other aspects of his future, underlining United’s desire to maintain a supportive, protective environment for him and his junior cohorts.
“Andy, he’s been great and obviously one of our best players this season," veteran United midfielder Clyde Simms said. "But he’s young and it’s tough – I kind of look back to the way Peter [Nowak, former DC coach] went about things with young players.
“Sometimes, even though to everyone else it might seem like they’re ready, sometimes they’re not. I’m not saying that about Andy – I think he is – it’s just one of those things that’s tricky. We have to be careful with him. You don’t want to run him into the ground.
“It’s a grueling season, and I think it’s important for him to take some time for himself and relax a bit," Simms added. "That’s something that they have to manage with him.”
So perhaps United’s technical staff has other playoff-participating exes in mind as the rebuilding process cranks up this winter – savvy veteran presences like Nick Rimando, Brian Carroll and Dema Kovalenko, who once undergirded successful DC teams but now do so for the league’s elite. That type of player ranks high on the club’s offseason wish list.
“I don’t think we ever really had the right balance of veteran players and young players on the field [this season], for various reasons,” general manager Dave Kasper said recently. “We have a lot of exciting, 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 the team and help the younger players grow.”