With Marcelo Sarvas out suspended and Jared Jeffrey unable to recover from a hamstring injury, there was a slight surprise last week when the lineups rolled out for D.C. United’s game against the Philadelphia Union. With Ben Olsen’s first two options for a defensive midfielder unavailable, Nick DeLeon - newly minted this season as a central midfielder - might have been the next logical choice at a position without much depth.
Instead, it was Rob Vincent who filled in at the number six position, putting in an active shift in only his third 90 minute appearance on the season. That might have been unexpected for United supporters, who had seen Vincent deployed on the flank in all but one of his other appearances in the Black-and-Red.
But for Vincent, it was actually a move to an old position, one that he played for the University of Charleston in college, and for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds when he made the move to the United Soccer League.
"It’s a position I’m used to. I played there a lot in Pittsburgh, I played there all through college. When I joined [D.C. United], Benny has seen me predominately as a wide player, from my time at Pittsburgh," Vincent told B&RU earlier this week.
In Vincent’s first 10 appearances with the club, spread across two competitions, all of his minutes came as a wide midfielder. But a year on after scoring 18 goals in the USL for the Riverhounds, Vincent had yet to notch a goal or an assist.
"For one reason or another, it hasn’t quite clicked out there, I haven’t been as productive as I would have wanted," said Vincent. "I don’t think I have been as productive as Benny would have wanted."
So a discussion with Olsen led the move further back in the midfield, the first time in his substitute appearance in the 1-1 draw with the Montreal Impact. Coming on for Jeffrey, Vincent spent 34 minutes helping Marcelo in the midfield against one of the better sides in the Eastern Conference.
"We had a little chat, I told him I maybe would feel more confident in the middle," Vincent said on Tuesday. "Fortunately he gave me a chance in there, and I think I did alright. It’s something to build on."
And that then gave way to his start at the number six position against the Union. It wasn’t quite like Marcelo was on the field, as it had been some time since Vincent had played that role even in Pittsburgh. But Vincent was thoroughly active throughout the game, making his presence known. And that did not go unnoticed by his coach.
"It was a good performance. The more we looked at it, Rob held down the fort very well. It’s a little bit of a new position, at least recently. He played that at Pittsburgh, so he’s familiar in that role," said Olsen.
"We spent a lot of time with him during the week to try to get him to understand what we needed out of him, and he did exactly that."
The departure of Markus Halsti and Paul Clowes, neither of whom made a league appearance for United this season, left the Black-and-Red short at the defensive midfielder position. Marcelo has performed well there throughout, and Jeffrey has filled in well enough when Marcelo has missed out due to suspensions through the season.
With both expected to return this weekend against the Portland Timbers, it would seem that Vincent is likely to head back to the bench, where he could be used as a substitute in several positions. Knowing now though that he can trust him in multiple spots, Olsen will have less worries as the team nears a stretch of four games in 12 days to end the season.
"I view him now as a central player for this team," said Olsen. "Whether its the six, or the eight spot. He can do some spot service in the 10, the 7, 11, wherever. He’s a selfless guy, and tactically pretty smart, and knows how to do certain jobs."
For Vincent, it’s all just about getting on the field, regardless of where he might fit in.
"I just want to get as many minutes as I can. That’s what it’s all about," said the Englishman. "First year in MLS, so even though I got a few years of experience behind me, there’s still a lot of guys ahead of me, with a lot more experience. I’m trying to learn each day, every chance I get, trying to make the most of it."