06/06/2013 01:45 EDT | Updated 08/06/2013 05:12 EDT

Vancouver Whitecaps trade defender Alain Rochat to D.C. United for draft picks

VANCOUVER - He was one of those players who was just always there — and now, suddenly, he's gone.

Alain Rochat rarely missed a game or a practice during two-plus seasons with the Vancouver Whitecaps. But in a move that caught both players and observers by surprise, he was traded Thursday to D.C. United for a second-round pick in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft and a conditional pick in 2016.

"It's a bit of a head-scratcher," Whitecaps goalkeeper Brad Knighton said after practice. "Obviously, we came in (Thursday) morning ready to train and he was in (the locker-room). It's just one of those things where it happens in this league. I think it caught a lot of people off guard."

Born in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., but raised in Switzerland, Rochat signed with the Whitecaps in August 2010 before spending the remainder of the year on loan with FC Zurich.

In two-plus seasons with Vancouver, the 30-year-old scored five goals and added three assists in 67 regular-season MLS games. He made one MLS Cup playoff appearance and recorded two assists in nine Canadian Championship matches.

In addition to left fullback, he played as a holding midfielder at times, while also providing strong leadership. Calm under pressure, he could move the ball with skill, speed and finesse not often associated with players whose priority is to prevent goals.

The timing of the deal — for nothing immediate in return — was curious because the Whitecaps, coming off a rare road win over the New York Red Bulls, have battled injuries on the back line all season while also being unsettled at times in midfield. Vancouver coach Martin Rennie declined to comment on the timing or specific reasons for the deal, but noted the club has plenty of options to fill the void created by Rochat's departure.

"We've got quite a number of players that can play left back and quite a number of players who can play a similar role in midfield," said Rennie. "So when we got the opportunity to make the move, that was why we did it."

The coach said the move resulted from many factors, including salary-cap numbers. According to figures released in May by the MLS Players Union, Rochat is earning a $190,000 guaranteed base salary this season.

The deal, Rennie added, gives the Whitecaps some flexibility should another potential trade come their way.

"The way it works in MLS is: There is a salary cap," said Rennie. "There's lots of juggling of numbers and salaries and so on. When you do make a move, it does open up opportunities to make others, if you want to."

In term's of pressing lineup moves, defender Jordan Harvey is expected to receive more regular duty. Rennie indicated he could play on the right side as he did when Rochat moved up to midfield, and Young-Pyo Lee, a mainstay at right fullback, could be shifted to the left side, where he has played in the past.

Harvey, who scored in New York, will be tasked to help the seventh-place Whitecaps, 4-4-4 heading into Saturday's game in Seattle, grab one of the five playoff berths available in the Western Conference.

Knighton said the trade gives Rochat a chance to play a key role with a struggling D.C. squad that sits last in the East with a 1-10-2 record. United is minus-18 in goal differential, having allowed 24 while scoring just six.

"Alain will provide us immediate help with his experience and leadership," said United general manager Dave Kasper said in a statement. "He is a highly technical and intelligent player who can play on the back line or in the midfield."

The trade adds to many travels that Rochat has made during his career. He started in the pro ranks with Switzerland's Yverdon Sport FC in 1999 before moving to Swiss club BSC Young Boys in 2002. He later excelled with Stade Rennais FC of France from 2005-06 prior to joining Zurich.

He helped Zurich win a pair of Swiss Super League titles in 2006-07 and 2008-09.

But the latest move comes at a challenging time personally for Rochat. His wife is expecting the couple's fourth child.

"That's the tough part for us — when somebody tells you to just leave at the drop of a hat," said Whitecaps goalkeeper Joe Cannon, who also started with the team in 2011.

"(Rochat) was one of the original guys here — and there's not many of us left."