A late-season playoff push isn't the most opportune time to install a new player into the lineup, let alone one as important as a goalkeeper.
But D.C. United's Steve Cronin, who was acquired Oct. 9, has slid in confidently during the club's attempt to clinch an MLS playoff spot. That drive culminates Saturday in United's regular-season finale against the Kansas City Wizards.
"Whether it's must-win or not, my job is always the same," Cronin said. "That's how I've always played, and that's how I always feel."
Entering the season's final weekend, United (9-8-12, 39 points) is one of six teams vying for two playoff spots. The Colorado Rapids (10-9-10, 40 points) sit one point ahead of a group of four teams. United must win and have other results go its way to reach the postseason.
Cronin joined United just when it appeared the team had crashed out of contention. But in the keeper's first start Oct. 17, he earned a six-save shutout victory against the league-leading Columbus Crew that kept United in contention.
On Tuesday, Cronin was in goal as United earned a 1-1 tie against Toluca FC in the CONCACAF Champions League. Though the result wasn't enough to keep United in the tournament, it was just the second tie ever earned by an MLS team on Mexican soil.
"He's shown a lot of maturity coming into a difficult situation where he's thrown into really important games," coach Tom Soehn said. "And he's adjusted well to the guys, understanding what their strengths and weakness are. He has managed the ball well, communicated well - he's really done a fabulous job for us."
Cronin, who started for the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2008, opened this season with the United Soccer League's Portland Timbers. The First Division club ran off a 24-match unbeaten streak to win the Commissioner's Cup; Cronin was named the league's goalkeeper of the year.
But the club was upset in the playoff semifinals by the Vancouver Whitecaps, a result that left Cronin fuming for a few days before United inquired about his services.
After starter Josh Wicks suffered season-ending injuries in a loss to San Jose on Sept. 27, United was left with just one MLS-eligible goalie, rookie Milos Kocic. Following a loss to Chivas USA on Oct. 3, United acquired Cronin on loan under the extreme hardship provision that allows a team to sign a player after the MLS roster deadline.
To prepare for the move, the 26-year-old watched United games on TV and did some online research to familiarize himself with his new teammates and the tendencies of the defenders who would be playing front of him. When he arrived in the District, United had the luxury of a whole week's worth of practice to get to know its new goalie.
"It wasn't like I had to come in and two days later we had a game," he said. "We had five days of training where we played a lot of 11 vs. 11 and had time to get used to each other."
Portland still owns his rights, but Cronin's contract can be purchased if the team allows it. Cronin said he sees this stint with United as a tryout-by-fire to get back to MLS.
"It's a good opportunity for myself, but most of all the team needs to get wins, and I'm just trying to play up to my standards and put the team in a good position to win games," he said. "As a professional, you're always trying to get to the next level and always trying to better yourself. ... Going forward, I'm open to all opportunities - especially here. With that said, we have a job at hand, and I haven't thought about it that much."
Note - Soehn said defender Devon McTavish suffered a slight muscle tear in his quad against Toluca. He will not be available Saturday.