Chris Odoi-Atsem tried to keep his emotions in check before the game. Around him, he probably saw his D.C. United teammates dressing for the team’s match Wednesday against the Chicago Fire, a standard midweek affair that no one necessarily had circled on their calendars.
But it was not a regular night for Odoi-Atsem. He saw this coming after coach Ben Olsen approached him Monday, saying he was thinking of penciling him into the starting 11.
He was in the lineup at Tuesday’s practice, too.
A University of Maryland soccer star, a former D.C. United first-round pick and a native of Mitchellville, Maryland, Odoi-Atsem took the final step Wednesday in his recovery from Hodgkin lymphoma. He played in an MLS match for the first time since beating cancer.
It was a goal Odoi-Atsem had dreamed about for months, imagining it “every day,” he said.
“Especially during my chemo treatments, this was kind of like my light at the end of the tunnel — coming back to Audi Field, playing an MLS game in front of these fans and this atmosphere,” Odoi-Atsem told reporters after Wednesday’s 3-3 draw. “So you know, on rough days, this would get me through.”
United selected Odoi-Atsem, a defender out of soccer powerhouse Maryland, with the 12th pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft. Terrapins coach Sasho Cirovski remembered him as a “one of the most humble, honest, hard-working players I’ve ever coached” — who, in fact, converted from the sexier position of striker (which he played at nearby DeMatha High School) to right back in college.
“He’s the genuine article,” Cirovski told The Washington Times. “He’s the real deal … You immediately get impressed with his raw speed, athleticism. But it’s when you get to know him that you realize there’s so much substance to who he is.”
Odoi-Atsem, who turned 24 Tuesday, missed a big portion of the 2018 MLS season as he battled injuries and symptoms like muscle weakness; Cirovski said he and Maryland’s staff thought it could be compartment syndrome. But last October, United announced Odoi-Atsem had received a diagnosis of Stage Two Hodgkin lymphoma.
“We were all shocked because he’s such a young and healthy individual. It just goes to show you that the evil of cancer can strike anyone at any time,” Cirovski said. “Having said that, if there’s one guy that was gonna tackle it head-on and maintain a positive attitude and beat it, it would be Chris.”
Four months of chemotherapy at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital awaited Odoi-Atsem. He finished his last session in late January, and things were looking up. By that time he had reported to United’s training camp and reunited with his teammates, who had been supporting him the whole way.
But then came the biggest scare, the most difficult step on the journey, according to Odoi-Atsem. About a month after finishing chemo, he went in for a scan. His doctor said it didn’t look as good as he’d expected.
“Then I had to wait two months, so I had to leave a port in my chest for most of that time,” Odoi-Atsem said, pointing to a small scar on the top-right corner of his bare chest. “That was a little bit rough and that’s what kind of delayed my comeback a little bit more.”
When it came time for his final scan, everything looked clear again. “That was a blessing because that could have been a few months of more intense chemo and stuff like that, and I didn’t want to go down that road,” Odoi-Atsem said.
Odoi-Atsem felt his chemotherapy went by fast, and he said the same for his reintroduction to competitive soccer. He hadn’t played in a match since March 2018, but after one appearance for the club’s USL affiliate, Loudoun United, he got into the Black and Red’s friendly last week with Spanish club Real Betis.
Still, playing in an MLS contest was a “different atmosphere,” he said. Odoi-Atsem slid in to block a shot in the opening minutes, sparking big cheers from the home supporters. That turned into an ovation when he subbed out of the game in the 68th minute.
His journey drew deserved praise from the United locker room, not the least of which came from superstar teammate Wayne Rooney.
“You talk about character and courage,” Rooney said. “I think Chris has shown us all — not just tonight, obviously everyone and fans and you guys (only) see him on the pitch, but we’ve seen him putting all the hard work in on the training pitch and in the gym to get back to play. And to do so so quick after going through his treatment is a testament to him as a person.”
Coach Ben Olsen, who gave Odoi-Atsem a word of encouragement and a slap on the rear as he left the game, reflected on “all these little steps” in the player’s recovery.
“There’s coming back into the locker room and then there’s training and then coming into a USL game,” Olsen said. “So it’s really been a lot of fun to watch him take all these little steps. This is a special night for him I’m sure, and I think it’s a special night for us in a small way to have gone on this journey with him.”
Odoi-Atsem knew reporters would want to talk to him after his accomplishment — he was waiting at his locker, ready before any of his teammates to address the media — but it was no ego move. Those who know him describe him as humble; he has no interest in social media.
In fact, at that point Wednesday, close to midnight, he hadn’t grappled with the weight of the moment.
“I think a little bit more when I get home and get settled down, I can really reflect on it with my family and stuff like that,” Odoi-Atsem said.
“It really, fully hasn’t hit me yet, but I’m sure it will.”