D.C. United midfielder Austin da Luz has grown accustomed to biding his time.
A first-round pick by the New York Red Bulls in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft, the Wake Forest product was hampered by injuries his rookie year and saw no league action. His struggle for playing time in the Big Apple continued this season, as he appeared in just seven matches before New York traded him to United in mid-July.
After easing his way into the D.C. lineup with five appearances off the bench, da Luz has started three of United's past five games in the heat of the playoff chase. For a player who didn't become a consistent starter in college until his senior season but still managed to leave Wake Forest as the program's all-time leader in assists, da Luz has come to understand "patience is huge."
"I learned that in college, so I kind of knew the drill," da Luz said. "It was a long year and a half in New York. I felt I was ready to play at times and just wasn't really getting an opportunity, so it feels great to get those opportunities here and get a chance to really find my feet in the league and get some quality minutes."
For United (9-10-11), da Luz has developed into a formidable midfield option who can provide a technically sound presence and the occasional invasive run from the wing, as well as dependable defensive play.
Da Luz also brings the threat of left-footed service that is otherwise absent from United's midfield contingent. In D.C.'s 3-2 loss to Philadelphia last week, playmaker Dwayne De Rosario scored United's opening goal when he nodded home an in-swinging corner kick from da Luz.
"Obviously, he gives us a natural left-sided guy who can stay wide and whip balls in," captain Josh Wolff said. "And he has a sense of responsibility to come inside and help out defensively."
Splitting time on the left flank with veteran Santino Quaranta, the 24-year-old has helped fill the void left by attack-minded winger Chris Pontius, who likely will be sidelined for the rest of the campaign with a broken leg suffered Sept. 10.
"He's definitely a different player" than Pontius, midfielder Clyde Simms said. "He has a little more balance to his game on the offensive and defensive part. He's done a really good job — that was a big pickup for us earlier in the season."
When the Red Bulls shipped da Luz down Interstate 95 for one of United's international roster slots, the move was widely seen as an opportunity for the second-year midfielder to earn playing time for a younger club with less lofty short-term ambition.
After all, New York's roster boasts two of the league's three highest-paid players in Thierry Henry and Rafael Marquez, along with a slew of decorated role players. Though much-improved in 2011, D.C. is still just a year removed from owning the league's worst record.
But when da Luz looks at the standings, he sees a familiar foe also fighting for its postseason life: New York, which has been plagued by inconsistency while compiling a 9-7-16 mark.
While the Red Bulls are tied with Houston for the final playoff slot, United are just five points behind with two games in hand, despite dropping back-to-back road matches in the past week against Philadelphia and Columbus.
"It's a strange thing," da Luz said. "You have a lot of good friends on the team, but still you don't want them to pull out those wins and keep picking up points because that means we're not going to be in the playoffs."
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