WASHINGTON - Last summer, as their talented young squad struggled to find its rhythm, D.C. United's braintrust was convinced that something was missing. Club president Kevin Payne and technical director Dave Kasper scoured the professional leagues of Europe and Latin America, searching for a "difference maker," in the words of coach Peter Nowak.
But when United finally introduced their long-awaited new signing after a 2-2 draw with New England on August 14, fan and media reaction was lukewarm. It was an unassuming 29-year-old midfielder with an unfamiliar name, coming from an unheard-of club in Argentina. What could this guy possibly have to offer the most storied club in MLS?
Twelve goals, two assists and one MLS Cup championship later, nearly everyone knows about Christian Gomez.
His rapid rise to prominence has led to his being named to the MLS All-Star team, exactly 11 months after his United unveiling. When he steps onto the Columbus Crew Stadium turf on July 30, Gomez will become only the second All-Star ever from Argentina, the first being Diego Sonora in 1998. While the concept is unfamiliar, Gomez is fully aware of just how much the selection means, not just for himself but his club as well.
"I'm very happy to be chosen for the game," he said, speaking through a translator. "I'm going to try to do my best to represent D.C. well. ... In Argentina we don't have these type of games. But talking to my teammates and people around the club, I realize that it's a very important match, so I'm going to try to play well in it."
Even though he lacked full match fitness when he joined the team, United was inspired by his cultured technique and astute feel for the game as they made a late-season run to the title. The Black-and-Red have won 17 and drawn seven in 31 games since his arrival, and his strong performances in 2005 - his eight goals are tied for second in the league - suggest there's much more to come.
"First I had to learn the way my teammates played, and the style, the system that Peter wants the team to play," said Gomez. "Every day, I think I keep improving, and as time has progressed, I've been able to adjust better to what Peter wants. I keep learning every day."
Just as Payne and Kasper hoped, Gomez has provided the final link in D.C.'s potent offense, orchestrating play from his attacking midfield spot in the "hole" just behind the strikers.
He struck up an immediate understanding with veteran Jaime Moreno, and the two South Americans have been the team's creative spark ever since, recalling the partnership Moreno once formed with United legend Marco Etcheverry. In fact, this year Gomez was awarded the No. 10 jersey once worn by "El Diablo," a telling sign of his crucial role for D.C.
"Christian is very dangerous all around the goal and he connects the timing," said Nowak after last Friday's 3-0 dismantling of San Jose. "He's a very special player on our team and everyone trusts him with the ball. He makes the right decisions and always plays with the sense to do something special."
Unlike many foreign imports, Gomez and his family have made a smooth adjustment to life in the United States. He appears regularly at United's community outreach events, and he's also made great strides in relating to his teammates on the field, despite the fact that Moreno is one of the few squad members fluent in Spanish.
"Obviously the communication is much better this year compared to when I first arrived," he said. "Now I understand basic soccer terminology (in English), and vice versa too - my teammates understand some Spanish terminology. That has really helped me."
In Columbus, Gomez will look to represent those teammates with pride against English Premiership side Fulham FC, who promise to offer the All-Stars a stern test.
"English soccer is one of the best leagues in the world," he said. "They have very physical, imposing players. I think for us as an all-star team, we have our talent as well, and it's going to be very important for the league for us to showcase that we can play at that level."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.