D.C. United's ill-timed injury outbreak has hit the team particularly hard in its most vulnerable area -- the back line. The Black-and-Red have leaked 10 goals in their last three matches, and their task doesn't get any easier with this week's road match against the Kansas City Wizards.
Three starters came off hurt during last week's shootout with the New England Revolution, and while there are ready replacements for striker Alecko Eskandarian (knee/quadriceps) and winger Steve Guppy (hamstring), the loss of defender David Stokes presents United head coach Peter Nowak with a more serious quandary.
Stokes, playing right back in DC's 3-5-2 system, was lost to a concussion and neck strain in the first half, forcing winger Josh Gros to drop into his slot. Stokes was taken to the hospital afterwards, and he is out of commission for Saturday.
Stokes sustained his injury when Revs striker Taylor Twellman barreled into him from behind as he lunged for a cross in the United box, causing a spectacular collision between Stokes and goalkeeper Nick Rimando. Though the challenge was only one of several reckless challenges by Twellman on Stokes, United seem to harbor no hard feelings.
"He's a good player, he's scrappy," said Gros of Twellman. "I don't think they were playing dirty, I just think games like that get physical. Stuff like that happens."
Bryan Namoff, one of the team's steadiest performers last year, is still healing from a broken rib that should keep him sidelined for another two to three weeks. The painful injury, an avulsion fracture, is located on the back side of his rib cage and was originally diagnosed as a muscle strain.
"Broken bones take a while," he said. "There's nothing I really can do but rest. So it's frustrating -- it's not like I can just put some ice on it and have it heal in a couple days."
Watching his team struggle has only increased his eagerness to return to action.
"It's tough to sit back and watch the team obviously not do as well as expected," said Namoff. "I'm just hoping for a speedy recovery to get (back) on the field."
With Namoff's continued absence and Brandon Prideaux struggling to overcome a bad hamstring, Nowak and his coaching staff may have to improvise against the Wizards. With more depth at the wing position, Nowak may be tempted to keep the versatile Gros in defense.
"It's a little different for me, but last year in the (playoff) semifinal, the same thing happened," said Gros. "Namoff had to go out, and I slid back into defense, so I'm comfortable as I can be. I'll play wherever they put me."
United had already been challenged by the loss of two experienced defenders in the offseason, as captain Ryan Nelsen moved overseas to England's Blackburn Rovers and Ezra Hendrickson returned to Los Angeles after being drafted by Club Deportivo Chivas USA.
Now greater responsibility may fall on the shoulders of the youngsters who took their spots on the roster, such as former MetroStars center back Kenny Arena and rookie Tim Merritt, who so far have only seen reserve team action.
The club might have some veteran experience in the back this week, should it sign recently waived and former United member Carlos Llamosa. The Revolution castoff is on trial with D.C. this week.
D.C. has already blooded one new arrival, Bobby Boswell, who is coping fairly well with a tough task at center back. Will Nowak roll the dice with an even greener back line against the likes of Josh Wolff and Chris Klein?
"I think there are opportunities that always present themselves throughout the course of the season," said Namoff. "Hopefully some of these younger guys coming in are prepared and willing to take that next step. It's a great opportunity for them to shine."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.