With nine matches crammed into 24 days leading up to Labor Day, D.C. United's hopes of continuing their promising run towards the top of the Eastern Conference standings will hinge on the depth and dependability of their bench.
Injuries, suspensions and national team call-ups have already affected the fortunes of several clubs like the Landon Donovan-less Los Angeles Galaxy and the recently-depleted New England Revolution. But even as the rigors of a long season take their toll in the August heat, United are determined to move from strength to strength as reserve players are called upon to contribute.
"You have to think that we have 18 guys to 28 guys (on the roster), but 18 (in uniform for matches) -- who can do the job," said D.C. coach Peter Nowak, "and I think to see what other people can bring to the table is very important."
Major League Soccer's move to expand team rosters and create a reserve league has already earned widespread praise this year, but the real payoff for coaches like Nowak may reveal itself over the next two months as the season ticks down towards the playoffs.
Youngsters like Shawn Kuykendall, Matt Nickell and Nana Kuffour have honed their skills during reserve matches, and in the process staked their claims to playing time at the senior level.
"In every position we have guys who are coming off the bench, coming in and playing well," said midfielder Dema Kovalenko. "It's important this time of the year. It's a long season, and we've had some injuries. It's good for competition, guys always fighting for spots."
This was borne out last Saturday in Chicago, as Freddy Adu limped off in the first half with what proved to be a second-degree MCL sprain that will sideline the flashy teenager for two to four weeks. But with his team's depth and versatility, Nowak was able to make a seamless adjustment to the setback, moving Santino Quaranta forward and sending Josh Gros from the back line to the left wing, making room for John Wilson to enter the match.
And for all the promise of youth, United will have to depend heavily on their veterans as the Eastern Conference dogfight plays out -- making the recent return of Quaranta and Ben Olsen from U.S. national team duty even more timely. The duo saw significant playing time during the Gold Cup and that renewed poise and self-belief should bolster their club's fortunes as well.
"It was great for me because it gave me the sense that I can play at that level again," said Olsen. "When you're away from that (international) level for a while, you always doubt -- it's in your brain that maybe that level is past me. But I think that I proved to myself, and hopefully the coaching staff, that I can still do it at that level in the international scene."
"It was just an all-around great experience," said Quaranta of his first stint with Bruce Arena's side. "I came back and I felt like I was definitely more confident, just in terms of running at players and being more dangerous. I felt much sharper, and I feel more confident for sure."
D.C.'s ranks will be bolstered further by at least one addition when the transfer window opens on Aug. 15. The team announced Wednesday the newest signing -- defender Facundo Erpen from Argentinean second division side Talleres de Cordoba. He was introduced just prior to Wednesday's Atlantic Cup clash with the MetroStars at RFK Stadium.
The South American's arrival can only intensify the daily battle for playing time that Nowak cherishes.
"If something opens up, guys can grab it," said Kovalenko. "If they come in, they do the same as the other guy. It's great to see. It's not 11 guys on the field, it's 28 guys on the team, so every guy is important."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.