Philadelphia, PA – Dwayne De Rosario joined D.C. United last season and quickly emerged as the difference-maker for a franchise longing to regain its identity. Now it will have to accomplish that without him.
De Rosario was lost for the remainder of the regular season to a knee injury, stripping United of a player who has 20 goals and 19 assists in just 44 games for the club.
The Canadian international was injured Tuesday in World Cup qualifying, and a statement released by D.C. on Thursday confirmed its worst fears: De Rosario, its captain, will be sidelined 10 to 12 weeks.
With the end of the regular season just over six weeks away, it's clear D.C., which won four of the first nine MLS Cups titles, will have to snap its four- year playoff drought without its most influential player.
Now a team that Chris Pontius called the "most talented team I've been on" in four seasons with the club will have to produce a late-season postseason run without the one player it could not afford to lose.
"DeRo is our captain, a great player and impossible to replace," United coach Ben Olsen said Thursday.
And this was not just a knee-jerk reaction to the loss of De Rosario.
Two months ago, when United attacker Pontius enjoyed the spotlight at the MLS All-Star Game along with De Rosario, he knew his success was tied to, in part, the presence of his veteran teammate.
"There are a lot of winners on our team, starting with De Rosario," he said in July after MLS All-Star practice. "He's contagious as a player. He's someone you always want to step on field with."
De Rosario is equally dangerous in a more advanced role as an attacker, or as a deeper-sitting playmaker who could set up Pontius or another teammate.
Pontius enjoyed his arrival last season and was on pace for a breakout when a season-ending injury ended his year in early September.
Just one year and one day after Pontius broke his leg, De Rosario suffered his knee injury. And the sprained medial collateral ligament will sideline the 34- year-old through the regular season and a significant chunk of the playoffs.
For a team that just two months ago enjoyed spells at the top of the standings and one Pontius finally felt could compete with everybody in the league, it is now faced with the prospect another forgetful season.
And, more importantly, another year without playoffs.
Following a great first half of the season, United has failed to carry some of that momentum into the second half. D.C. dropped its last two games before the All-Star break, and is just 2-5-2 in its last nine matches.
After starting the season 10-5-3, D.C. seemed to find its identity with former player Olsen now in his second full season as coach.
Pontius acknowledged that in July, when he admitted, "Benny's had the team for two years now, so we have an identity. ... The core group of players have been together longer and everyone's bought into Benny's system."
The cornerstone of that system was De Rosario.
Olsen had no choice Thursday, but to say the loss of De Rosario "will not be an excuse to fall short of the goals we set for ourselves as a team."
But for a second half that has already proved to be tough for United, its job just got even harder. D.C. still has many talented players, as no team can win because of just a single player.
Just one point out of a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, and just nine point out of first, United is still capable of ending its playoff drought.
Pontius said it was critical to be "right in the thick of things for playoffs, that's where we want to be, we want to be that hot team going into playoffs."
But a team that just months ago was one other teams did not want to see on the schedule, as Pontius admitted when he said, "I don't think any team says, D.C. is coming to town, we enjoy playing these guys this year," is not the same.
The schedule is incredibly kind, as United's next five matches are against the five worst teams in the league in the New England Revolution, the Philadelphia Union, Chivas USA, the Portland Timbers and Toronto FC.
That may give Olsen the window United will need to adjust to the absence of De Rosario, and position the team to grab a playoff berth when it ends the season with matches against playoff rivals the Columbus Crew and the Chicago Fire.
If United can show it is more than De Rosario during its final seven games, it could be scary later in the postseason if it survives long enough for its best player to return from injury.
Not many teams are lucky enough to add an MVP-caliber player in the postseason - a player good enough to return United to its past glory - but attaining that goal of reaching the playoffs will be a tough task without De Rosario.