- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2012

One doesn’t have to spend much time watching Danny Cruz fly around a soccer field to figure out why the midfielder has earned the nickname “Crash” inside the D.C. United locker room.

Roaming the right flank in a 4-1 win over FC Dallas last week, Cruz scored one goal and helped facilitate another. All the while, he tracked back vigorously on defense, proving to be an omnipresent thorn in Dallas’ side. For all the impressive individual performances United delivered in the romp, coach Ben Olsen saved his highest praise for his 22-year-old winger.

Danny’s just a pain in the [neck],” Olsen said. “I’d hate to play against him.”

It was the type of two-way outing, in fact, that hasn’t been commonplace in the nation’s capital since Olsen retired as a player in 2009. Cruz is flattered, to say the least, by any comparison to his coach, who played for the U.S. at the 2006 World Cup.

“I wish I could be the type of player Ben Olsen was,” Cruz said. “People all over are going to make comparisons to many different players. Obviously, I appreciate the opinions of other people. I have a whole lot to live up to for me to be like him.”

The work ethic and toughness seem to come naturally for Cruz. Growing up, he first and foremost was a hockey player. In high school in Glendale, Ariz., he starred as a running back for the football team. It wasn’t until his freshman year that he picked up soccer, initially joining the team as an offseason conditioning regimen for football.

It didn’t take long, though, for Cruz to latch onto the sport. With only a few years playing the game under his belt, he represented the U.S. at the 2007 Under-17 World Cup in South Korea. He had just turned 19 when the Houston Dynamo selected him in the third round of the 2009 MLS SuperDraft after he played two seasons at UNLV. And this past November, he started for Houston in the club’s MLS Cup final loss to Los Angeles.

Despite such accolades, Cruz still was seen as a depth player when he was brought to United in a January trade, as dynamic Honduran international Andy Najar occupied his preferred slot on the right side.

“Whether he’s starting or depth, he’s going to make people better,” Olsen explained during preseason. “At training, he’s going to make guys like Andy and [Chris] Pontius and [Nick] DeLeon work very hard to succeed.”

But with Najar on Honduras U-23 national team duty in recent weeks, Cruz has started the past two matches for United. Joining him in the lineup on the opposite flank has been DeLeon, his former teammate with UNLV and, before that, Arizona’s Olympic Development Program squad.

Although Cruz is only a few months older than DeLeon, he has embraced his status as a fourth-year MLS veteran while taking the rookie under his wing.

“He’s been a big mentor for me,” DeLeon said. “He’s talked to me about highs and not to stay too high, and also about the lows and how to dig yourself out.”

When Cruz netted his first goal in a United uniform against Dallas, it was DeLeon who provided the pinpoint service across the goalmouth to set up the tally. As Cruz pointed to his longtime friend in celebration and the pair embraced, he said his thoughts raced to the youth fields of Arizona they once shared.

“I got chills after my goal,” Cruz recalled. “It was very kind of surreal. It definitely was a moment we got to share together I don’t think I’ll ever forget.”

While Najar has returned to D.C. after helping the Honduran U-23s qualify for this summer’s London Olympics, Cruz’s fine form could relegate the 2010 Rookie of the Year to the bench for Saturday’s match when United (1-2-1) host the Seattle Sounders (2-1-0) at RFK Stadium.

As a starter or reserve, Cruz knows he now has to fight even harder for his minutes. And that’s exactly how the feisty midfielder likes it.

“We all help each other,” Cruz said. “We’re all very positive people. We look to each other to compete. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I think it’s good, it’s healthy competition, and every one of us enjoys it.”