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Aug 21, 2006

Gros' versatility endears him to D.C. United

When MLS holds its end-of-season gala in Dallas this November, chances are "The Duct Tape Award" will not be among the honors bestowed. But if Don Garber and Co. were to perform an exhaustive search for a player with "1,001 uses," D.C. United midfielder Josh Gros would have to be near the top of the list.

Need someone to shut down the opposing team's most dangerous flank player? Gros is your man. How about a guy who turns the wing into his own personal track meet? Gros is the guy. What if you need a player to get forward and whip in some crosses? He can do that, and from either wing yet.

It's this kind of versatility that earned Gros his first All-Star appearance back on Aug. 5 against English Premier League champions Chelsea, and it helps explain how the unheralded fourth-round draft pick out of Rutgers has thrived in a league that has seen more highly touted players fall by the wayside. And although some players might bristle at being asked to do some of the grunt work Gros carries out, he takes it in stride.

"Whatever the team needs, whatever Peter [Nowak] wants me to do, I'm willing to try it," Gros says. "So if he puts me at left back, left mid, right back, right mid; wherever he needs me, I'll go."

Back in 2004, the thought of Gros taking up any of those positions for the Black-and-Red seemed about as likely as his appearing on "American Idol." In fact, Gros thought so little of his budding professional soccer career that he had a commission in the U.S. Marine Corps all lined up. But at the 2004 MLS College Combine, Gros caught the eye of Nowak and his assistant, Tommy Soehn, causing the player's life to take a considerable detour.

"It was the third day at the combine, where they play like three games in 36 hours," Nowak recalls. "We're watching [Gros] play, and he is just going up and down the wing like crazy. Everyone else looks tired, and he just keeps going. We're like, 'Who is this guy?' [Soehn] checked it out, and we were happy that we could draft Josh. Even though it was late in the draft, we were very fortunate to get him."

That Gros was drafted had little impact on his expectations, which consisted of "try out, get cut, go home and join the Marine Corps." But instead of following that script, Gros impressed his coaches, not only with his versatility and work rate but also with his discipline, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

Ever since his rookie season, Gros has been able to parlay that defensive excellence into a starting spot on what has been arguably the league's best side during that time. The likes of Jaime Moreno and Christian Gomez get most of the glory, but it can be argued that Gros plays just as big a part in the team's success.

In United's 3-5-2 scheme, Gros often is asked to take on some of the league's speedier players, with little expectation of help from behind him. And if said player switches wings, Gros often will act as his shadow, trading places with Freddy Adu. For many, it's this kind of tactical flexibility that indicates Gros' true worth.

"[Gros] is just such a huge part of that team," one MLS coach says. "He's unselfish, he's tireless, and he's productive. And the guy who goes up against him is in for a long night."

According to Gros, his defensive prowess is something that dates back to his youth soccer days in Mechanicsburg, Pa.

"It was out of necessity," says Gros of his development in defense. "Guys were bigger, stronger and better than me, so they would be playing in the offensive positions, and I was just a little guy growing up, so I was used to scrapping and playing some defense. Then when I got to college, the only position that was open was a defensive position, so that helped me along."

The comment is revealing if only because it shows Gros' modesty. Although Gros' early years at Rutgers indeed saw him take on mostly defensive duties, his later campaigns saw him contribute mightily on the offensive end, culminating in his being named the Big East Conference's Offensive Player of the Year during his senior season. And according to Rutgers coach Bob Reasso, Gros' humility is the real deal.

"He's genuine," Reasso says of his former charge. "What you see is what you get. There is no [bull] about Josh. He doesn't have an agenda. His only agenda is 'What do you need me to do, Coach? I'm ready to do it.'"

But during that magical senior year, Reasso noted that a more ruthless side of Gros emerged, one honed during the previous summer when Gros attended the Marines' Officer Candidates School in Quantico, Va.

"[The boot camp] just gave him a little bit of a meaner streak because he's such a nice kid," Reasso says. "I think it just gave him a little bit more of a competitive edge."

Gros credits that extra edge with allowing him to excel with United, although he admits the offensive side of his game still needs some fine-tuning. His current coach, Nowak, goes a step further, stating that there are times Gros needs to rein in his prodigious work rate.

"Sometimes, [Gros] is doing too many things at once," Nowak says. "He wants to beat the defender like 20,000 times. If it's not going to go, take a rest. Play the ball back, and now we are going again. You cannot just go 90 minutes back and forth because you are going to die sooner or later. But the future is up to him, and I think the future looks good."

If Gros' future is anything like his recent past, he'll take it, not that he's putting any additional pressure on himself now that his All-Star appearance has pushed him into the upper echelons of MLS.

"I've always set those kinds of goals, but I never really expected them to happen," says Gros of his All-Star nod. "Every step along the way, it's been a surprise. I'm just taking it like everything is a plus from here. I had other plans; I was going to do something else. It's just been a dream come true for me."

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com .