D.C. United’s youthful defenders starting to find their way

United unbeaten in last 5 matches

DC United defender Perry Kitchen, left, heads the ball over Portland Timbers forward Kenny Cooper during the first half of their MLS soccer game at the end of May. Most recently, Kitchen and United tied the first-place L.A. Galaxy 0-0 and Kitchen was integral to the solid defensive showing. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)DC United defender Perry Kitchen, left, heads the ball over Portland Timbers forward Kenny Cooper during the first half of their MLS soccer game at the end of May. Most recently, Kitchen and United tied the first-place L.A. Galaxy 0-0 and Kitchen was integral to the solid defensive showing. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)

D.C. United’s young defenders were somewhere between toddlers and teenagers when soccer icon David Beckham was winning Premierships and prestige at the world’s richest club, Manchester United, starting in the mid-to late 1990s.

But last Saturday, they were his equal.

Four out of the five defense-oriented players United started Saturday against the first-place L.A. Galaxy are 23 or younger. Three of them aren’t even old enough yet to legally have a beer in a bar.

Yet second-year player Bill Hamid and rookies Perry Kitchen, Ethan White and Chris Korb were so dominant in United’s 0-0 draw that they hardly looked out of place when dealing with the seasoned Beckham and his notoriously corkscrewing crosses.

After playing at various youth levels with the U.S. national team, they weren’t out of place. In the back of their minds, though, they didn’t forget who they were facing.

“Knowing who he is, you have to be careful,” said White. “Any ball, it can drop anywhere. And he was dropping balls in all day.”

Beckham “had a couple of amazing balls where I was like ‘Wow, how did he see that?’” Kitchen said.

It wasn’t so long ago that the crosses the trio of rookies were seeing weren’t coming from the likes of Beckham but from college players. Kitchen and Korb played together at Akron, the most dynamic team in college soccer and current national champion. White played at perennial powerhouse Maryland - a school coming off a national championship when he came to College Park for his freshman year in 2009.

The caliber of their respective programs combined with their national team experiences helped prepare them for the pros.

“A lot of these guys, particularly Kitchen and Korb, they’ve been playing on some big stages before they got here,” United coach Ben Olsen said. “Akron is a very pro atmosphere, and with Ethan and Kitchen, they’ve been playing on the international stage for a couple years now. … I think the transition is a lot easier if you’ve had that experience.”

The transition hasn’t always been smooth. In mid-April, United were shellacked 4-0 at the hands of the New York Red Bulls - a game Hamid, Kitchen and Korb played in.

“We asked them to look deep in themselves and see if they got what being a professional is about,” Olsen said. “We had quite a few meetings, and we challenged each other and since then it’s been better.”

In the past five matches, United have won two and tied three.

“In the beginning of the season, we thought we were better than we actually were and came out nonchalant,” midfielder Clyde Simms said. “But we’re learning to be more professional and learning to bring it every game, and I think you’ve seen that over these stretch of games.”

Whether the rookie rearguard will continue to be a starter remains to be seen.

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