Major League Soccer's increasingly deep pool of talent has led to expanded 28-man rosters and the league's inaugural reserve league competition, and the new system has already helped D.C. United maintain a modicum of stability this summer despite losing key players to international competition.
Freddy Adu missed four matches while away at the World Youth Championships, while veterans Santino Quaranta and Ben Olsen are in the midst of an extended absence due to U.S. national team duty for the CONCACAF Gold Cup. But this presents more of an opportunity than a challenge for many of United's younger players, who are pressing harder and harder for playing time with the senior squad.
"In practice, we obviously miss Ben's character, and Santino, he's a great player, but we've got a lot of guys who see an open spot now," said midfielder Josh Gros, last year's breakout rookie. "So maybe they've picked it up a little bit. It's actually very competitive right now."
Striker Nana Kuffour was the ultimate discovery player last year, a young immigrant from Ghana who practically fell into United's lap after initially being spotted in a local amateur league. Brimming with raw talent but lacking polish, Kuffour has worked very hard in training, but it was the reserve league that provided his big break.
Kuffour had already earned notoriety throughout the D.C. locker room for outlandish fashion choices such as leather disco pants and banana-yellow shirts. But his three goals and two assists in six reserve matches are what caught the attention of the coaching staff, putting him at the head of the line when Quaranta was called up and Alecko Eskandarian was sidelined by a concussion.
Coach Peter Nowak has started the 20-year-old alongside Jaime Moreno in United's last two games, and Kuffour proved his abilities with a well-taken goal against the Chicago Fire on June 29.
"I think we expect Nana is going to put his heart on the line," said Nowak. "He's very emotional and he wants to play. It's still a learning process -- you cannot expect miracles. But we're very happy with what he did in the last two games."
A year ago, Kuffour was still getting his head around a strange new country, so it's no surprise that he's elated to have reached this point.
"It feels so great. I'm so excited," he said. "I've been waiting for this opportunity for a long time, but I couldn't get it. Right now, I've got this chance. Anytime I'm playing with the seniors -- Jaime, Christian (Gomez) -- they give you more confidence to play. I learned a lot from them."
Many months of training have helped Kuffour grasp Nowak's tactics and the professional approach to the game, but he is the first to point out that his first team chances would still be slim without a competitive proving ground.
"If we play good in the reserves, that's how you're going to get a chance to play with the senior team," he said. "So I feel like I played good with the reserves, and now they've got to pick me again. It's good for everybody. Without the reserve league, you'd be sitting on the bench every day without playing."
He still misses aspects of his homeland -- Kuffour will take fufu, a starchy African staple, over pizza any day -- but he's adapted well to life in the United States, thanks in no small part to teammate Freddy Adu, who speaks the same Ghanaian dialect.
"It feels nice. When I came to America, I didn't understand a lot of things," said Kuffour. "And now Freddy has shown me a lot. Anytime I was working, I felt more comfortable, and I got used to it. There's a lot of change, but a lot of opportunity."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.