Without question, Crew winger Dilly Duka had high hopes heading into 2012. The 22-year-old was poised to contribute in the United States Under-23 Men's National Team's Olympic qualifying bid. However, a hamstring injury 12 minutes into the season opener at Colorado sidelined Duka until mid-April when he returned against the New York Red Bulls, only to re-injure his hamstring shorty after.
Duka finally returned May 19 as a substitute in San Jose and has helped in the club's recent run of success, including a well-placed cross to Justin Meram in the box that put the Crew ahead 1-0 in Seattle.
Duka is feeling more and more confident in himself as a professional this season, thanks in-part to the time he spent with the US U-23's from November to February traveling to Germany, Florida, California, Costa Rica, and Texas.
"I was playing different positions with the U-23s," Duka said of his time playing for U-23's coach Caleb Porter. "At this age and at this level, because we have good competition, you learn so much and you're more focused and you're more in tune. When I came back and I stepped on the pitch with the Columbus Crew, right away I was more focused, I was more in tune. I knew the role I needed to play to try to help the team as best as I could."
Though he was unable to help the United States in Olympic qualification due to injury, the confidence gained from the experience has carried over into MLS. When Duka has been healthy this season, he's been a force in the Black & Gold's attack with his skill on the ball and willingness to dribble at defenders.
"I feel more confident than past years. I feel a little more calm when I enter the pitch," he explained. "I definitely feel more calm with the ball. I'm more confident with running back and helping my defense and being a good defender in the midfield. Confidence comes with experience. I have a lot of games under my belt with Columbus last year and the U-23s playing games in Europe and wherever. I'm definitely more confident this year."
Even Duka's teammates have taken notice of his newfound swagger.
"He's playing with a lot more confidence right now," fellow midfielder Eddie Gaven said. "We all know Dilly has great feet. He's a great player, but I really think in terms of his confidence and going at guys, in terms of taking on a bigger role, I think this past offseason with the U-23s only helped that with him."
Though Duka suffered a minor setback Wendesday in training, he hopes to recover during the off-week in order to be ready for the Crew's next match on June 16 at New England.
"Everyday I can practice, I'm happy. Everyday I walk away from practice healthy, I'm excited," he said Wednesday. "We don't have another game for two weeks, so it's a good time to get my fitness in and hopefully play again with the First Team and last a little longer than I have."