WASHINGTON - Since the offseason departure of Ryan Nelsen to England's Blackburn Rovers, the acquisition of a top-quality central defender to replace the talismanic captain has been one of D.C. United's top priorities.
But as the club finally made that long-awaited move, signing 22-year-old Argentinean Facundo Erpen, United's defense has looked as stout as it has all year, having allowed only three goals in their last eight matches.
Undrafted rookie Bobby Boswell has grown into a dependable anchor for D.C.'s three-man back line while also developing into a weapon at the offensive end, last week notching a goal and an assist against the MetroStars and Chivas USA, respectively.
Add that to the fact that United's four-game winning streak makes them the hottest team in MLS, and it's little surprise that Erpen is now being greeted not as a savior, but as just another challenger for playing time.
"We always look to get this roster competitive, so people have to look over their shoulder," said coach Peter Nowak. "We're not going to hand the job to Facundo. He has to earn it, and he has to earn the respect of these guys."
Boswell, for his part, is handling the new arrival with the evenhandedness that has become his calling card.
"Really, I just feel like anything that's going to make the team better is going to make me better," he said. "Every week we have to work pretty hard just to earn our spot on the field, and this is going to mean we have to work that much harder as a team, and me as an individual."
Erpen joins Christian Gomez as United's second consecutive midseason import from Argentina, where a deeply ingrained soccer culture and a weak currency make for a rich vein of affordable talent.
But whereas Gomez could lean on bilingual veteran Jaime Moreno as he worked his way into United's attack last year, Erpen faces an altogether different challenge in adapting to a defense full of English speakers where communication is critical - especially for the center back.
"We'll have to see in practice how well he communicates," said Boswell. "I'm sure he does it pretty well, being a defender. ... I wouldn't be surprised if it's not as big a deal as people are making it."
Erpen's mother is an English teacher, so United officials are hopeful that he will pick up the language quickly. But marshaling a back line in the intensity of a game situation could be a different story.
At the very least, Erpen's presence will light a fire under what has been an understrength defense all year, thanks to injuries to Bryan Namoff and David Stokes. Boswell played every minute of the season before missing the Aug. 6 victory against Chicago due to caution points accumulation, and at times even winger Josh Gros has been forced to drop into a fullback role.
After rolling up the maximum nine points in last week's three matches, Nowak praised his defense, and pointed out the importance of depth with the rigors that lie ahead. United has been invited to take part in the prestigious Copa Sudamericana, is still alive in the U.S. Open Cup and must balance those competitions with their continued pursuit of Eastern Conference leaders New England.
"Everyone has to be ready," said the second-year head coach. "Bobby did a very good job in the last couple of months. Brandon (Prideaux) is playing very solid, Namoff just came back. We still have John Wilson, who did very well in the last couple of months.
"There are still a lot of games. We're going to play in the Sudamericana cup, and it's going to be very, very difficult. MLS games are OK, but we also want to be on the international stage, showing that D.C. United can play soccer."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.