Less than a minute into D.C. United’s game against Orlando City SC, rookie Chris Odoi-Atsem showed his speed. Getting the first start of his young MLS career Wednesday, the former Maryland Terrapin sprinted up the right sideline and crossed a decent chance into the box. With that, Odoi-Atsem made a promising start during an otherwise rough patch for United.
Though his play against Orlando may have been impressive for a rookie, it came as no surprise to those who have seen the speedy defender play at his alma mater, the University of Maryland.
In fact, last Septemeber, Maryland men’s soccer coach Sasho Cirovski called then-senior and Dematha-alum Odoi-Atsem the “most unsung, underrated, big-time player in college soccer.”
“He played very well and put himself in the conversation,” Odoi-Atsem’s new coach Ben Olsen said. “His speed is something we need, and his ability to add a plus one into the attack is what every team wants.”
However, in his first start for United, Odoi-Atsem couldn’t help his team collect points against Orlando.
“The Orlando game stings a little bit. It was a game we should get something out of,” Olsen said.
With three games on the schedule this week, United was forced to evaluate its different pieces, which is where rookie Odoi-Atsem came into play.
“The three games become a bit of puzzle,” Olsen said. “You try to balance out the bodies and share the workload … We are certainly evaluating as we mix the groups up to deal with the three games.”
United’s pool of players fluctuated throughout the early part of the season. The team played the first two games of the season without midfielder Luciano Acosta due to a nagging ankle injury. Forward Patrick Mullins missed some time with a hamstring injury and is now projected to be out between six weeks and six months after knee surgery.
One position that seemed the most stable heading into the season was the right back position.
“Not at present, but when everybody is healthy, the right back position is not one I stay awake worrying about,” Olsen said.
Returning players Sean Franklin and Nick DeLeon were the guys for the job. Midway through the season, United re-signed right back Chris Korb, who was working toward a comeback with United since his season-ending injury in 2015. With the position all but locked up, United’s draft pick Odoi-Atsem wondered how he could contribute to the team.
“To be honest, I really wasn’t sure. I just wanted to come in and work hard and try to get better everyday,” Odoi-Atsem said. “I knew if I got my chance I would definitely take it.”
Franklin is currently out with a hamstring injury and DeLeon is recovering from a recent back surgery, leaving Korb and Odoi-Atsem as the two options for right back.
Though he spent most of the preseason working back from a flare up of Compartment Syndrome in both of his calves, Odoi-Atsem made his first appearance in United’s game-day roster on April 16 against the New York Red Bulls.
Since that appearance, Odoi-Atsem has spent every week in the lineup for United. He got his first minutes late in the win against Atlanta United and then again in the 84th minute in the loss to Chicago Fire.
“Getting a little more time in the Chicago game, I felt very comfortable starting in [Orlando],” Odoi-Atsem said. “When I got that first ball, I settled down even more.”
Odoi-Atsem brings speed, dangerous crosses, and a quiet nature to United.
“He has a very low-key demeanor,” Olsen said. “It is tough to get a word out of him and when you do you kind of have to lean in.”
The defender chooses to speak with his feet.
“I have always been the type to lead through playing,” Odoi-Atsem said. “I express myself a little more on the field than I do off the field.”
Odoi-Atsem made a quick connection with United right winger Lloyd Sam in Orlando. Though the two have spent minimal time playing together, they were able to click during the run of play.
“I like his style a lot. I think we complement each other well,” Odoi-Atsem said. “Opposites attract.”
Before Wednesday’s game against Orlando, another player helped Odoi-Atsem. Defender Kofi Opare, who gained a starting role after injuries and shifts in United’s backline, gave Odoi-Atsem advice minutes before the match.
“He pulled me to the side as we were walking out of the tunnel and said, ‘Hey Chris, I know it is going to be a crazy atmosphere. You are going to have a lot of people yelling, but once you cross that line and the whistle blows, it is just like any other game. You have been playing your whole life,’” Odoi-Atsem said. “That was the way I was thinking throughout the game that it was like any other game.”
United is back home this Saturday, June 3 at 7 p.m. at RFK Stadium as they host the LA Galaxy. Though Korb will likely start for United against the LA Galaxy, Odoi-Atsem made the coaches’ conversation a little more difficult and hopes to have a continued impact at home.
With the University of Maryland campus less than 20 minutes away, an appearance from Odoi-Atsem’s former coach Cirvoski isn’t out of the question. Whether he is there or not, Cirovski’s praise and guidance are with Odoi-Atsem every time he plays.
“I hear his screams running through my head even now, ‘Chris go!’”
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