- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 14, 2004

CARSON, Calif. — Scarcity intensifies value. Experts in art and antiquities know that maxim. D.C. United experienced it this year, and might have to live it full time next year.

Though defender Ryan Nelsen has no connection with brush strokes or Roman phrases, he unintentionally demonstrated his value during the past four months.

After having hernia surgery in July, Nelsen missed eight league, U.S. Open Cup and friendly matches. During that stretch, United went 2-3-3. But with Nelsen in the starting lineup for five of the final six games, United went 5-1 with three shutouts to qualify for Major League Soccer’s playoffs.

With Nelsen playing all 90 minutes in both playoff games against the MetroStars, United registered two more shutouts. With Nelsen suspended for the Eastern Conference final against New England, United needed penalty kicks to reach MLS Cup 2004.

“Ryan is the backbone of this team,” defender Mike Petke said. “It’s a totally different team when he’s in there, and it’s great to have him back. It’s tough to fill his shoes.

“He’s never out of position, even once, and he puts himself in great position because he reads the game so well. I’m extremely surprised he wasn’t up for MLS defender of the year, even though he missed a handful of games.”

But Nelsen, a nominee for that award and a member of the MLS Best 11 last year, might be making his final appearance in black and red in today’s final.

Nelsen’s contract ends Dec.31. Perennial Scottish power Glasgow Rangers showed interest last season. His European agent, Lyle Yorks, has been trying to arrange a free transfer. As a citizen of New Zealand, a member of the British Commonwealth, Nelsen would have no problem signing with any club in Great Britain that wanted him.

United has offered Nelsen a three-year contract that would make him the league’s highest-paid defender. Club officials told Nelsen to decide before United submits its roster of protected players for Friday’s expansion draft.

“I’ve left the decision on the table,” Nelsen said about continuing his career in Europe. “I haven’t even done any talking to anybody. Once this final is over, then I have a couple of weeks break and I’ll assess my options then.

“I told them that I want to get the season done first. All I want to do is win the Cup for D.C. United.”

Two factors intensify that desire to win. One is New Zealand’s unexpected elimination from World Cup qualifying.

“New Zealand was extremely disappointing,” said Nelsen, New Zealand’s captain. “That was a downer.”

The second factor is the struggle Nelsen endured while playing most of the season with what was originally diagnosed as a groin problem.

“I actually started suffering it in preseason,” he said. “It was a slow thing that just started wearing at me. I just wasn’t 100 percent for the first five months. I just forgot what it was like to play with no pain.”

Once Nelsen had hernia surgery, “I felt like a different person,” he said. “I feel like I’m getting to where I’d like to be.”

As he prepared for MLS Cup, Nelsen said he expected United to dominate possession against Kansas City’s defense, which allowed a league-low 30 goals during the season.

“We’re probably going to have the majority of the ball; we’re probably going to be moving it around a lot more,” Nelsen said. “But does that mean we’re going to be more dangerous? No, not at all.”

“They counter extremely well. They look for the spacing behind. They have quick people up front to chase the ball down, and they have good, efficient passers in the midfield who can supply great balls.

“The key for both teams is the first goal. I know that if they score one, they’re a very tough team to break down. It’s going to be a chess game.”

If United wins that chess game, Nelsen likely will have played a major role.

“If he doesn’t go off to Europe, which he easily can, he probably will be and should be the highest paid defender in this league,” Petke said. “He deserves it.”

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