Last year, one of the keys to D.C. United's late-season surge was the emergence of a stable defensive corps that head coach Peter Nowak could trust in pressure situations. But the current back line bears little resemblance to the lineup that paced the Black-and-Red to victory in MLS Cup 2005.
Ryan Nelsen has moved on to the English Premiership, Mike Petke now plies his trade in Colorado and Bryan Namoff has been hit hard by the injury bug in 2005, having overcome a fractured rib only to be sidelined by a strained hip flexor -- which has led to abdominal/groin problems that will require a transatlantic trip next week to visit a specialist in Germany.
With all that flux, John Wilson has proven to be one of the team's timeliest midseason acquisitions. The Clemson graduate was plucked from the United Soccer League's Rochester Raging Rhinos on May 27, and slotted into the starting lineup almost immediately. He has since made United's left back slot his own, defending tenaciously and getting forward with gusto.
"It's been fun so far," said the 27-year-old South Carolina native. "It's taken a lot of work, just getting fit and getting to know the guys. We've played some good football."
Wilson has adjusted remarkably well to the demands of MLS and the different style it requires.
"(In the USL) the game is a little more hectic," he said. "We play more direct sometimes, so that's one of the things I have to work on, having a little more patience and better decision making. But I think over time, that will come around."
Wilson is D.C.'s first natural left-sided defender in the Nowak era, and he's brought a new attacking dimension to the team's 3-5-2 formation, which typically requires fullbacks to stay at home and avoid many forays into the opposition half.
"I think here, we have guys that are more mobile, who can switch in and out," said Wilson, "which I like, because if I get forward, then somebody can cover for me."
His impact was obvious in Wednesday's 4-3 loss at Chicago. Though he conceded a Fire penalty kick for a foul on Chris Rolfe, Wilson made amends by setting up Christian Gomez and Nana Kuffour for crucial goals that almost gave United a share of the points.
Wilson has every reason to savor his success, as it's been a long journey to reach this point. He was a second-round draft pick by the Kansas City Wizards at the conclusion of his impressive college career in 1999, but he spent most of his time with the USL's Charleston Battery and made only three appearances for the Wizards, all during their successful 2000 MLS Cup campaign.
Despite earning numerous plaudits with Charleston and Rochester, Wilson remained under the MLS radar. He got the briefest of looks with New England in 2002 -- only 16 minutes -- but despite having to return to the second division of U.S. soccer, he never lost faith in his ability.
"I never thought my moment had passed," said Wilson. "My dad always kept saying, 'If you want to play in MLS, your chance will come again, you've just got to work hard and choose your time when to go.' A lot of times, I had opportunities to come back, but I didn't feel like it was the right situation. (But) now, with the opportunity I had (in D.C.), I felt like it was the right time, and I was ready."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.