As a Mitchellville native who played for a youth club in Bethesda, attended DeMatha Catholic High School and logged four years at the University of Maryland, Chris Odoi-Atsem represents a pure product of the local soccer scene.
For the past decade and a half, RFK Stadium has proved to be a frequent destination for Odoi-Atsem — from fond memories of watching teenage prodigy Freddy Adu in the mid-2000s to his own rookie campaign with D.C. United this season.
After 22 years at the beloved but battered venue, United (8-17-4) will play its second-to-last match at RFK Stadium when the team hosts the San Jose Earthquakes (11-12-6) on Saturday. To Odoi-Atsem, it’s a bittersweet farewell to a stadium that played no small part in his professional trajectory.
“My first professional game I went to see was here at RFK, growing up watching these D.C. United games as a little kid,” Odoi-Atsem recalled. “I was having all of these memories and now it’s so surreal that I’m here playing at RFK. I think it’s the right time [to leave] for sure, but it’s definitely sentimental to me.”
Selected 12th overall in the MLS draft this past winter, Odoi-Atsem has started five of his nine appearances this season. With United all but eliminated from playoff contention entering its final five matches of 2017, the 22-year-old defender seems poised for increased opportunities as the club turns an eye toward the future.
“He’s gotten some games,” United coach Ben Olsen said. “And I think he’s gotten a passing grade in most of them. For a kid put under some real strain out there with some of the attackers in this league, he’s done all right.”
Competing with veterans Sean Franklin, Nick DeLeon and Chris Korb for minutes at right back, Odoi-Atsem has had to settle for spot duty throughout his rookie season.
When he started a 3-0 loss to the Chicago Fire last weekend, it marked his first appearance since Aug. 13. If Odoi-Atsem gets the nod Saturday, it’ll be the first time he’s earned consecutive starts in his young MLS career.
“It’s definitely different, but I understand my role in the team,” Odoi-Atsem said. “Whenever I’m called upon I have to come in and do my job — it could be two months between a game. But I just knew I would get chances, and it’s about being patient and staying ready.”
While Odoi-Atsem was hailed for his athletic gifts and defensive work rate coming out of the college, he understood his game could use polish on the attacking side. So the rookie has worked with the United coaching staff on honing his offensive instincts while trying to give a jolt of energy to the league’s worst attack.
“I knew that defensively I was pretty solid, but the offensive part of my game as a right back I would need to get better at,” Odoi-Atsem said. “I’ve found that I’m getting better every time I go out there going forward, trying to get my service in and add to the attack.”
Midfielder Ian Harkes added: “Chris brings kind of a new dynamic to the game because of how fast he is, his athletic ability, his ability to get up and down the field. It’s been great having him in there. It gives us some width for the team and definitely gives us some cover on defense.”
Although United boasts a slew of options at right back, there’s a sense the position is there for the taking entering 2017. Franklin, 32, and Korb, 29, are likely not seen as long-term solutions, while DeLeon is a utility player also used at left back and across the midfield.
With United pivoting from RFK Stadium, Odoi-Atsem has the potential to be a fixture for the club as a new era at Audi Field in Southwest kicks off next season.
“He’s another guy who has a lot of room to grow,” Olsen said. “That’s the challenging part of coaching, but it’s also a fun part to see these guys grow over the next few years and see what kind of pros they can be.”