When Stephen King's low, left-footed shot skipped into the back of the net Saturday, the D.C. United midfielder celebrated his goal with a reserved fist pump — seemingly a gesture of relief more than anything else.
The 81st-minute tally capped off United's 4-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps at RFK Stadium. But it also gave King his first strike in 30 appearances for D.C. after a slew of painful near-misses.
"He's had some close calls," midfielder Clyde Simms said. "To see him get that first one was definitely exciting."
For King, the goal was a fair reward for an industrious player whose contributions have been particularly positive of late. After sitting out United's first seven matches of the season while buried on the depth chart, he has seen action in 10 of the club's 15 contests since, including five starts, serving as a dependable role player for coach Ben Olsen's squad.
The 25-year-old provides the kind of depth that could be valuable as United (7-6-9) embark on a quick two-game road swing to face the Chicago Fire (2-7-14) on Thursday and Sporting Kansas City (7-7-9) on Sunday.
"In this business, a lot of times, it's kind of a roller coaster emotionally," King said. "Sometimes you're in the lineup, sometimes you're not. I think the biggest thing is just to stay positive."
The 5-foot-8 University of Maryland product is a fairly unassuming piece of the United roster puzzle. He seems to like it that way. In the D.C. locker room, however, his actions speak loudly. Ask about King, who came to United via an April 2010 trade with the Seattle Sounders, and you'll repeatedly hear the same sentiment: No one works harder.
Early on this season, though, King found himself firmly planted on the bench, behind fellow central midfielders Simms, Branko Boskovic, Dax McCarty and Kurt Morsink in the pecking order.
"It's always hard because every one of the players on the team wants to be on the field when the lights are on Saturday night," King said. "At the same time, we're all very fortunate to be able to play soccer every day and to do what we do. So I just try to stay focused and keep plugging away, just knowing that it's a long season and things can change pretty quickly."
That they can. In April, Boskovic tore his ACL. Two months later, McCarty was traded for midfielder-forward Dwayne De Rosario. Morsink has fallen victim to various nagging injuries. Even Simms, the iron man that he is, has needed a breather from time to time.
When called on to step in, King has been ready.
"King's just an unbelievable kid," Olsen said. "He comes to work every day and does his part, whether he's starting or whether he's a reserve. ... He's just the type of guy you really like to have on your team."
When deployed in his preferred advanced midfield role, King prides himself in offering clean distribution, as well as a solid defensive work rate and some well-timed runs forward. He also has developed versatility for D.C., occasionally filling in at right back and wide midfield.
To open United's road trip, King will face the Chicago organization that selected him in the third round of the 2008 SuperDraft. He spent only one season with the Fire before Seattle plucked him in the expansion draft, but he still looks back fondly on the time he did spend in the Windy City, noting he has "a lot of great memories there."
Come Thursday night, he'll hope to add one more by helping his side pick up an important result away from home amid the crowded race for an Eastern Conference playoff slot.
"To be back in that city, where I spent a year of my life, it's going to be really cool," King said. "And it's going to be a nationally televised game and a crucial part of our season right now where we need the three points, so I think we're all pretty pumped for it."
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