For the past two seasons, D.C. United defender Marc Burch's career has been stuck in neutral.
An automatic selection for the better part of three years after joining United in 2007, Burch has seen his progress derailed by a series of injuries. Earlier this season, he sat out more than three months while recovering from a hamstring strain and watched journeyman Daniel Woolard secure a firm grasp on his left back position.
Since returning to competitive action Aug. 13, Burch has been limited to four appearances as a substitute. But with United fighting for a playoff berth and tasked with more matches in the campaign's final month than any other team, Burch could be a key asset for coach Ben Olsen down the stretch.
"It's never an easy situation going from a starter to a guy who has to change his mentality and role for the group," Olsen said of Burch. "I think he's learning to deal with that. I appreciate the efforts he's been giving us off the bench. We're going to need it."
The upcoming schedule surely will test D.C.'s depth, and after Saturday's lackluster 3-0 loss to the Seattle Sounders, Olsen could be looking to use some fresh legs when United (8-8-10) host Chivas USA (7-12-10) on a quick turnaround Wednesday at RFK Stadium.
"I'd love to be a part of it, to be in there and help impact the game however I can," Burch said. "But if I'm not, I'm still a part of this team, and I'm going to support us in any way and just train as hard as I can. Hopefully, Ben gives me a shot at some point."
A second-round pick in the 2006 MLS SuperDraft out of the University of Maryland, Burch struggled through brief stints with the Los Angeles Galaxy and Columbus Crew before United traded for the striker in early 2007 and converted him to left back.
It was a wise choice. With a thunderous left foot capable of providing pinpoint service from the flank, Burch ended up starting 17 MLS matches that year, including two playoff games. He was a fixture in United's lineup the next two seasons, starting 46 of the 54 league contests he appeared in.
A twice-broken foot, however, sidelined Burch for all but four matches in 2010. After winning back his job in preseason and starting United's first seven games this year, the 27-year-old strained his right hamstring in late April.
In his stead, Woolard has provided a reliable if offensively tepid presence at left back that has given Olsen little reason to tinker. As a result, Burch has mostly played as a left-sided midfielder since returning from injury, and he could continue to see time there now that winger Chris Pontius likely is out for the season with a broken leg.
"It's hard to approach it the same way you would when you're going to be playing 90 minutes," Burch said of his reserve role. "Getting ready to be a sub and fill any role you can is a little different than looking at who you're going to be guarding, what you're going to be doing for 90 minutes and trying to complete that task."
For the final 12 minutes against Seattle, Burch took over his customary left back position while Woolard slid inside and rookie center back Ethan White exited. The move was perhaps a sign Olsen is willing to experiment with his back line while starter Dejan Jakovic continues to recover from a hamstring ailment.
"With Dejan being out," Olsen said, "[Burch] is one defender we know we can rely on."
In the short term, Burch is hoping to return to the postseason as one of the few holdovers from United's playoff excursion in 2007. Come the offseason, though, he knows that given his sporadic playing time, his future with the club could be up in the air.
"I'm just looking forward to the next challenge I have," Burch said. "If it's here, it's here. If not, I'll take that role, whatever I have to do - for D.C. United now, and we'll see where it goes in the offseason."
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