Last year Craig Thompson was playing college soccer at a little known school where the mascot, "Marvin the Miner," would run on to the field waving a pickax.
Nestled outside Denver in a town of 17,000 that boasts of having "over 300 days of sunshine a year," the Colorado School of Mines has a student body of 3,900.
So Thompson's experience Saturday night was far different from the ones he had in Golden, Colo.: making his first start in front of 22,453 at RFK Stadium in D.C. United's 2-1 loss to Mexican giant CD Guadalajara (Chivas) in the opening game of the SuperLiga tournament.
"Kids who go to small colleges, I mean you just work hard and keep going, and if you get lucky you get a chance," said Thompson, who scored a record 18 goals with the Orediggers in 2007.
The 22-year-old was stunned when coach Tom Soehn gave him his break and started him against Chivas.
"I wasn't expecting it, so when he told me, I was definitely feeling, 'No way,' but then I had to get focused and worry about the game," Thompson said.
The Littleton, Colo., native likely will make his second start tonight when United takes on Mexican club Atlante FC in the second game of the SuperLiga at RFK. It's the first meeting between the teams, and United needs a win if it hopes to make the knockout round of the tournament, which pits the best American teams against Mexico's top clubs. Atlante lost its opening game 4-0 to the Houston Dynamo.
"They lost 4-0, but that doesn't mean we can take them lightly," Thompson said. "They are definitely going to come out hard."
Soehn compares Thompson to Josh Gros - a gritty, hard working, right-sided midfielder who will work his legs off and get in some good crosses. Gros was forced to retire this year because of recurring concussions.
"There's a competitive side to him," Soehn said. "He fights through everything."
Thompson played all 90 minutes against Chivas and nearly set up a goal when he made a pass from the right flank to Jaime Moreno.
Thompson made the 2008 MLS supplemental draft and was picked up by Houston, but he was released after only three weeks. United assistant coach Chad Ashton, who is from the Denver region, knew about Thompson. After a few phone calls, United acquired his rights June 30.
He came on as a substitute in United's U.S. Open Cup win over Chicago last week.
Some of his new teammates have joked about Thompson's former college and even began calling him "Mines."
"Maybe a nickname is starting," Thompson said.
United will have to face Atlante without playmaker Marcelo Gallardo, who missed the Chivas game with a groin injury.
Gallardo did not train with the team Monday, and Soehn refused to talk about the status of his injury.