By KIPP HANLEY
Right now, D.C. United rookie defender David Stokes is the sideshow on a playoff-contending team. The halftime sideshow, that is.
During halftime of Wednesday’s United-Colorado Rapids match, Stokes was bouncing the ball back and forth with his fellow reserves in one corner of the field while two swashbuckling actors dressed in United Black and Red and Rapids Blue and Black were entertaining the crowd. Of course, the United swordsman was victorious, laying a Rapids banner over the top of his fallen opponent.
At 6-foot-3, 203 pounds and boasting outstanding skill for just a 21-year-old, Stokes could be the one putting the blanket on foes in the near future. The former Hylton and North Carolina star has already been compared to Eddie Pope, one of the country’s finest defenders.
However, for the moment, the only activity he usually sees is in warmups, on the practice field and or at halftime as he adjusts to life as a professional.
”David has that God-given physique,” said United coach Ray Hudson of the No. 5 overall pick in the 2003 MLS Superdraft. ”But he needs to work on his skill. And his communication is the biggest thing, he’s too quiet. He doesn’t have any vocal cords at all.”
”I think I can improve on everything,” Stokes said Wednesday following United’s 1-0 win over the Rapids. ”Reading the game and just adjusting to this level is something I haven’t been able to do since I haven’t gotten into too many games.”
Stokes started on the right path in the beginning of the season, making the trip to Kansas City for the opener on April 12. However, with a logjam of talented, experienced defenders in front of him, Stokes was relegated to just practicing with the team at home for most of the season.
Defenders Brandon Prideaux and Mike Petke are solidly entrenched in the starting lineup along with Bryan Namoff, who has started 10 of the United’s 18 games. Namoff is in his third year with the team while Prideaux and Petke combine for 11 years of service in the MLS.
Stokes was finally loaned out to Virginia Beach of the A League in May, playing sparingly until a start on June 28 against the Richmond Kickers. In a U.S. Open Cup contest between some of the younger United players and the Pittsburgh Riverhounds on July 17, Stokes also got a start. He then made another start for the Virginia Beach squad on Aug. 2 against the Atlanta Silverbacks before making the United travel team again when they took on New England on July 27.
He also got playing time last month when United hosted the Blackburn Rovers of the English Premier League.
”It would be tough to imagine starting this season but next season, I want to be starting for sure,” Stokes said. ”I want to start for a long time and play for several years.”
As a sophomore, Stokes was a key part of North Carolina’s championship run in 2001, winning the defensive MVP award for the NCAA College Cup. Stokes made the jump to the professional ranks a season early and has struggled at times to keep up with the pace of the game. That has been frustrating for Stokes.
”It’s tough because I haven’t gotten a chance to play against a MLS team,” said Stokes, who is also in the player pool for the U.S. under-23 national team that is attempting to qualify for the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens. ”I think patience is the biggest thing I have to work on, just trying to keep a positive attitude.”
Prideaux knows what Stokes is going through. A star at the University of Washington in the mid-1990s, Prideaux didn’t get much playing time in his first season but established himself as a full-time starter for the Kansas City Wizards in 2000.
”My first year, I kind of played in and out of the team,” Prideaux said. ”I played a few games here and there. It wasn’t until my second year that I really established myself as a starter. I just learned from the older players. I listened and I just really tried to soak up what they were telling me.”
The five-year MLS veteran said there’s no doubt that Stokes can do the same thing. He just has to adjust to the level that he’s playing at.
”I never saw him play in college but I’m sure that he relied on his athleticism a lot,” Prideaux said. ”He was a better athlete than everybody. Well, here, you got forwards that are definitely a lot faster than David, they’re faster than me, they’re real quick guys. You got to learn to read the game, you have to become familiar playing with those guys.”
Hudson also remains high on Stokes’ capabilities. He just needs to get a bit tougher, said Hudson.
”He’s the type of kid, that if you went up and punched him in the face, he wouldn’t say ‘ouch,”’ Hudson said. ”And he’s got to get that out. He needs to take a leaf out on the Petkes and the Ryans [Nelsen]. Because that’s what the guys in the back do. They pull, they push, they command, they hold players responsible. David’s too nice of a guy. He needs to be a little more tougher, nasty.”