In 2004, D.C. United's ever-evolving midfield has been blessed with remarkable stability on the left wing, where a promising Pennsylvanian has displayed end-to-end play, a high work rate, and dangerous crosses. He has appeared in every match this season, in addition to being an increasingly visible presence in United's public relations and community service campaigns.
Bobby Convey? Not quite.
It's Joshua Gros, whose breakout rookie season has dramatically softened the blow of Convey's transfer to Reading FC of England's Coca-Cola Championship (formerly the first division).
"It feels great," said the unassuming Gros. "To be honest, coming into the season, all I wanted to do was make the roster. It's going pretty well."
Convey was United's top draft pick in 2000, an exciting teen phenom who was expected to blossom into a superstar and anchor the midfield for years to come. But he was always an enigmatic presence who made more of an impression on the national team stage than in MLS, tallying eight goals and 13 assists in 79 career matches with United.
Due to injuries and international call-ups, Convey started only 10 matches this season before his move to England on July 22. While United certainly missed his abilities, it was an ideal opportunity for Gros to quietly learn on the job.
"He's a great player, obviously, with the national team and now overseas," says Gros of Convey. "Playing behind him didn't bother me; I played when I could, and when he was hurt or with the national team I would play. I learned a lot from waiting my turn."
After a dazzling college career at Rutgers, highlighted by his selection as 2003 Big East Offensive Player of the Year, Gros has adapted to the professional level remarkably quickly. He scored his first MLS goal at Colorado on May 22, and he has dished out four assists, third-most on the squad.
"It's a lot different, being professional," he says. "In college, guys didn't take it too seriously. Here, if you don't take it seriously, you lose your job. It's a big step, and of course everybody plays quicker."
Perhaps the more complicated adjustment has come off the field, where the hustle and bustle of Washington provides a contrast to Gros' quiet hometown of Mechanicsburg, Penn.
"Here everybody's at a hectic pace. It's definitely a lot different from what I'm used to," says Gros. "I grew up in a fairly rural area, so there weren't too many people around -- I was sort of a nature boy. It's slower, more relaxed. But around here there's a lot more stuff going on. They have us doing appearances all the time, which I enjoy doing -- they keep me busy."
Such appearances, combined with his success on the field, have given the humble Gros a measure of fame that he's still getting used to.
"It's kind of weird," he says. "I don't particularly think I'm anything special, but people come up to me and say, 'Oh, it's so nice to meet you.' But all I do is kick a ball."
Such modesty belies Gros' vital contribution to the Black-and-Red, whose rollercoaster season now enters a crucial phase with three consecutive road games and eight conference matchups before the MLS Cup Playoffs. United has won only one road game all year, a situation Gros knows the squad has to change.
"Some games we're up, we're ready, other games we're not ready to play," Gros said. "I don't know -- I can't explain it. But it's definitely trying for everybody.
"We've got to make sure we stay focused on the road. Almost every home game, we jump out (strong), and we're on. For some reason, on the road, we don't bring it all the time. If we start bringing it on the road, it will definitely help us."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.