Brian Carroll was so much of an afterthought for D.C. United last year that he didn't appear in a single league game.
But how things have changed for the midfielder. Under first-year coach Peter Nowak, Carroll and defender Brian Namoff are the only players who have played every minute of the team's seven games.
Ironically, Carroll and Namoff are two of the team's lowest-paid players, earning base salaries of less than $32,000.
Carroll, a 22-year-old Springfield native, is not bitter about last season.
"I suppose I didn't play because I was a rookie and [former United coach Ray Hudson] was loyal to his veterans," Carroll said.
One of those veterans, midfielder Earnie Stewart, certainly noticed Carroll's potential, giving him a needed boost of confidence.
"Earnie came over to me late in the season and said, 'I don't really understand why you haven't at least been given a chance. You've proved to me and a lot of people that you deserve that,'" Carroll said. "That really helped me last year."
Since then, Carroll has surfaced as one of United's key players. As a defensive midfielder, his job is to win the secondary balls, close the gap in the middle of the field and change the point of attack. Teammates say he's not extremely loud but does his share of communicating to keep the midfield compact and organized.
"The first time I saw Brian, he was very shy, but you could see his work ethic," Stewart said. "The way he thinks about soccer -- which is very unique for an American -- is that he just doesn't think about the game when we have the ball but he thinks about the game when we don't have the ball."
Carroll impressed Nowak while playing on the Olympic team in February. He did well in the preseason and became one of the surprise starters for United (2-3-3), which plays the Colorado Rapids (1-1-4) at Invesco Field in Denver tonight. The former Wake Forest star is not flashy, and his hard work sometimes goes unnoticed.
"Brian has been consistently the best player on our team," United captain Ryan Nelsen said. "He does all the work that the average person in the crowd probably doesn't see. He plays very simple soccer -- probably too simple for the crowd -- and because of that he doesn't get the recognition he deserves."
Carroll, who still lives at home with his family, grew up watching United play. He's a big sports fan and says a couple of uncles once played professional baseball. He dropped out of college with one year left to join United and hopes to finish work on a degree in politics one day. For now, the 5-foot-10, 152-pounder is making the most of his opportunity.
"Sometimes it's hard to believe the amount of minutes I have accumulated so far this season," he said. "I've been given the chance to play, and I'm trying to prove I belong."
Game notes -- Three key United players recovering from injury -- defender Ryan Nelsen (groin) and midfielders Ben Olsen (quad) and Bobby Convey (hamstring) -- made the trip to Colorado. Convey is listed as questionable, while Nelsen and Olsen are probable.
The Rapids are undefeated at home in 15 games, tying a Major League Soccer record.
FA Cup -- Dennis Wise, player-coach of First Division Millwall, is battling to overcome a calf injury in order to face Premier League club Manchester United in the 123rd FA Cup final today at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales. The 37-year-old hopes to become the first player to win the world's oldest soccer trophy with three different teams. If he does play, he will join an elite group of 17 players to have competed in five FA Cup finals.
Wise won a medal with Wimbledon in 1988 and with Chelsea in 1997 and 2000. Manchester United, which has won the Cup 10 times, is playing in its 15th final, while Millwall is in its first. Millwall is only the 24th team outside the top flight to reach the final and the first since Sunderland in 1992. The Lions reached the final without playing a Premier League team.