As D.C. United’s 2015 campaign came to a close and players scheduled their end-of-season meetings, Jared Jeffrey figured a mutual parting was in the cards.
There was little reason to think otherwise. Signed midway through 2013 as a promising prospect, Jeffrey was a regular in Ben Olsen’s lineup during his first half-season but made just three starts over the next two MLS seasons.
While the 25-year-old midfielder was mulling a fresh start, the United brass reached out with an unexpected expression of faith.
“I didn’t think that I would be back here, honestly,” Jeffrey said. “But I talked to Ben and he said, ‘I don’t know what we’re going to do — but if we bring you back, we’re going to give you a chance and trust you a little bit more.’”
United ultimately announced in December that the club had picked up Jeffrey’s contract option for 2016. Between Davy Arnaud’s retirement and the departure of free agent Perry Kitchen to Scotland, the team underwent a changing of the guard in central midfield.
Although newcomer Marcelo Sarvas and converted winger Nick DeLeon have been the first-choice duo in the middle, Jeffrey already has earned a pair of spot starts for United (2-3-4), including a 90-minute outing in a 1-1 draw at the Chicago Fire on Saturday.
“I think he’s filled in very well in the two games that he’s had this year,” Olsen said. “It hasn’t been an easy road for Jared. I give him a lot of credit for hanging in there and understanding that his opportunity will come, and he’s confident that he belongs in this league.”
Jeffrey made a swift impression for United after arriving in July 2013 from German club Mainz, as the U.S. youth national team veteran scored two goals in 10 starts for the league’s worst team.
An offseason overhaul brought about a return to respectability for United, which booked back-to-back trips to the Eastern Conference semifinals, but Jeffrey found himself knocked down the depth chart. While he said extensive playing time in the U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League helped keep him “sane,” the lack of MLS opportunities tested his resolve.
“It’s not something I can say that I’ve mastered,” Jeffrey said. “It can still be frustrating at times.”
Jeffrey also made nine appearances over the past two years for the Richmond Kickers, United’s third-tier affiliate. The Texas native relished every opportunity to earn match action, even if such loans ask players to endure arduous travel and some questionable playing conditions.
“I give Jared a lot of credit for his mentality over the last couple years because it’s no secret he’s had to be patient for his opportunities,” United defender Taylor Kemp said. “He’s a guy who’s really talented, works really hard and is a great pro. It’s easy when you get in a situation like his to lose focus or get frustrated and kind of want to throw in the towel, and he never did that.”
Jeffrey likely will return to the bench against New York City FC (2-3-4) on Sunday at RFK Stadium, with Sarvas back from a one-game suspension and DeLeon recovered from the illness that sidelined him against Chicago.
But, unlike past seasons, Jeffrey finds himself on the cusp of Olsen’s first-choice lineup. He has already impressed with his ability to win tackles, direct traffic and spray passes, and Jeffrey hopes the return of regular playing time will further build his comfort level.
“You don’t want to come and sit on the bench all year,” Jeffrey said. “That’s not fun and you can get stuck, especially around my age. You’re not a young player anymore and now I’m a guy that hasn’t played minutes, so the next thing you know you’re out of the league.
“But I’ve gotten really fortunate this year with the opportunities to play in a couple of games early, and hopefully I can keep getting better.”