The loss of captaincy was the clue.
When D.C. United midfielder Dax McCarty was traded to the New York Red Bulls last week, the move took nearly everyone affiliated with the league by surprise. McCarty and Dwayne De Rosarsio, the players involved, were surprised. Players on both teams were surprised. And accordingly, almost every single media member and fan didn't have a sniff.
Looking back, perhaps the subtle shift that provided a hint came when McCarty — the team's captain since preseason whenever he was in the starting lineup — walked out onto the RFK Stadium field two weeks ago against Houston without the captains armband.
Enter Josh Wolff.
Wolff, the striker who's in his first season with United, was the player to come out of the tunnel with the armband that night. And so it continues heading into Saturday night's showdown with the team on the other end of the trade, the Red Bulls.
"He's a leader, hes a coach on the field for us, hes a smart player," said midfielder Chris Pontius. "He's been through a lot in his career."
That he has. Wolff is a 13-year veteran of the league (which is only 16 years old) who has bounced around many a team and thus, he says, not much has changed since he attained the armband.
Unofficially, hes been captaining since the get-go.
"I wouldnt say anythings different than what I was doing before," Wolff said. "[I'm] certainly trying to be vocal and speak to guys and rally the guys when we need that but at the end of the day ... as players we need to step up."
Indeed, stepping up may well be what the shift in captaincy was all about. United, a considerable cornerstone of the league and its history, are attempting to get back into the postseason for the first time in three years, or what feels like eternity for a club with lofty expectations.
McCarty struggled with his placement in midfield and suffered a groin strain that caused him to miss a handful of matches in what turned out to be a short spell with United. Wolff, on the other hand, has played in every match, has played the most minutes of any striker and is fifth in minutes played overall. He also has four goals and four assists.
In short, the Georgia native is getting the job done.
"Wolffy has been the same hes been all year," Pontius said. "He knows what it takes to win games."
United are winless in their past five games. But, now at the midpoint of the season, the team sits only five points out of the third and final automatic playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. So if Wolff can help lead the team to winning games, and thereby getting back into the playoffs, he may well hold onto the captain's armband for a while.
"It marks the halfway point [of the season]," assistant Chad Ashton said of Saturday's game against New York. "And we feel like we're in striking distance."
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