By AVI CREDITOR
WASHINGTON — At this time last season, D.C. United was coping with the long-term injury to Chris Pontius, a key attacking player whose injury ultimately provided too much to overcome en route to missing out on the playoffs. Almost exactly a year to the day later, it is deja vu for D.C., only this time the injury is to reigning league MVP Dwayne De Rosario, one of the more indispensable players in MLS.
De Rosario suffered a Grade III MCL sprain in the opening minutes of Canada's World Cup qualifier against Panama on Tuesday and will miss the remainder of the 2012 season, with the recovery period expected to take 10-to-12 weeks.
D.C. front office brass harped on how debilitating the loss of Pontius was last season, when the club was threatening to snap its postseason drought that extends back to 2007. D.C. went 1-6-2 after Pontius broke his leg in the same game in which he set up all three goals of Charlie Davies' hat trick against Chivas USA and eventually missed out on the playoffs for the fourth straight season. The new task is making sure history does not repeat itself over the final seven games of 2012.
"You don't replace a guy like this," D.C. coach Ben Olsen said. "We're in a business of moving on. I think we have a group now that is hopefully ready to do that. We're stronger mentally and we have better personnel than we did last year at this point when we hit some injuries that cost us a playoff berth."
With the club looking up at the likes of Columbus, Houston, New York, Chicago and Sporting Kansas City in the Eastern Conference table, the team's bevy of complementary pieces will be called upon to step in and fill De Rosario's void as best as they can.
Whether that means Branko Boskovic stepping into a more permanent playmaking role, underperforming Designated Player Hamdi Salihi getting more minutes to prove his worth or productive attackers like Pontius, rookie Nick DeLeon and the cooled-off Maicon Santos taking on the scoring load, Olsen has options to turn to in this time of need.
"What changes is you don't have a guy out there that can do really special things at any given moment, but I'm looking for some other guys to raise their game a little bit," Olsen said. "There's no one guy or two guys to replace Dwayne, and we're not going to get him in the league (through a trade). This is who we are, and everybody has to give a little bit more. It's doable. This is not an excuse. We are not looking for any pity parties. It's about going forward and getting the job done."
On the plus side for D.C., the injury could not have come at a more manageable time considering the club's upcoming opponents. The next five matches are against teams not currently in playoff contention (New England, Philadelphia, Chivas USA, Portland and Toronto, respectively), which provides the club a chance to build a bit of a buffer without De Rosario before crucial closing games against Chicago and Columbus.
"We're a different team than last year. A more mature team, obviously added some pieces. We're more equipped to handle the situation," Pontius said. "We can't sit and dwell on it. It's a chance for other people to step up, and that's what we need to do. I'm a firm believer that the depth of the team is going to take our team deep into the playoffs. Hopefully we can show that."
In terms of adding another attacking option prior to Saturday's roster freeze, D.C. will keep its eyes and ears open, but with salary cap flexibility pretty tight and the injury coming so close to the deadline, options are limited.
"The timing of this is tough," Olsen said. "You have 48 hours to try and get one piece when maybe you have to move another one into that spot. It's not that easy at this stage in the game. We'll look. I think there's a lot of teams right now calling and accepting phone calls trying to get something done, but at the end a lot of this is talk. There's a lot of fantasy soccer going on this time of this year and not a lot of people want to pull the trigger."
De Rosario's value to D.C. is more than just his seven goals and team-high 12 assists. The attack funnels through the Canadian star, and his leadership qualities and wealth of experience will be missed every bit as much as his production with the significance of each match crescendoing as days go by.
If D.C. needs inspiration, though, they can look to last year's Houston Dynamo, a team that lost captain and MVP candidate Brad Davis during the postseason only to go on and win the Eastern Conference title and advance to MLS Cup. Even though the Dynamo had a shorter time to cope without their leader, the precedent is set for success in the face of adversity.
"(That was a) deep team and players did their job, and that's exactly what we need," Pontius said. "When you take a leader of DeRo's quality, that's the main effect. We're all here because we want to win, and now that mentality really has to come out."