With D.C. United’s available numbers dwindling for Tuesday’s game against the Montreal Impact, Ben Olsen included rookie Akeem Ward in his gameday 18 for the first time this season. Ward, who was a first round draft pick out of Creighton University, had spent time away from the Black-and-Red with Loudoun United this season, starting all three games in the USL Championship season for the expansion side.
With Oniel Fisher and Chris Odoi-Atsem out long term, D.C.’s options at both outside back positions got paper thin over the past couple of weeks, with Joseph Mora, Leonardo Jara, and Chris McCann picking up various injuries. That leaves Ward, who grew up in the D.C. area, as one of the few options for Saturday night, when United are on the road against the Colorado Rapids.
“I’m trying to be focused, and stay prepared at all times,” Ward told B&RU on Wednesday, about the increased possibility that he makes his MLS debut on Saturday. “Things change quickly. If I’m called upon, I believe that I’m ready, and I’ll give my all and my best.”
Ward, who has started and played all 270 minutes at right back for Loudoun in their first three games, is also capable of filling in at left back. Where minutes haven’t yet been available to him yet at the MLS level, time with Richie Williams’ side in USL has helped the 23-year-old ease into the professional environment.
He’d much rather be with D.C. than Loudoun, but the opportunity to play games regularly is not one that Ward wants to pass up.
“You have to recognize the opportunity to get games, and Loudoun does that, to help me improve, get games under my belt, and professional experience,” said Ward. “Just trying to stay positive, and use it as a stepping stone.”
While splitting time between the two teams, Ward — along with Black-and-Red teammates — Donovan Pines and Griffin Yow, have been practicing with D.C., and then playing games on the weekend for Loudoun. Ward said that it’s not easy to bounce back and forth between the two, but that the mentality remains the same, no matter which team you are practicing or playing with.
“If you want to play at the MLS level, you have to train like it, no matter where you are at” said Ward. “You have to compete, and give your best in everything you do.”
Making that transition between the two easier is Williams, who has plenty of coaching experience working with younger players. Williams’ task each week is made a bit more difficult given that some of his players train with D.C. for much of the week, and then with his team, which is trying to quickly mold into a competitive side.
For example, this weekend Williams will have to do without the services of Ward, Pines, and Yow for Loudoun’s game against the Ottawa Fury. All three have contributed in Loudoun’s first three games, and might find themselves back with the side next weekend.
“The process, with the difficulty having players coming up and down, in and out so much, he’s been good with that, and helped managed that,” Ward said of Williams.
Making the D.C. bench for the first time on Tuesday night gave Ward a first chance to walk up the steps at Audi Field. He had climbed the flight of stairs before, as United occasionally practice at Buzzard Point. Next time he climbs up the stairs in front of the home fans, Ward is hoping that it’ll be when he’s on the field, showing off why United made him a first round draft pick.
“It was awesome, it was a great atmosphere. It was finally nice to come up the stairs for a match,” Ward said of his experience on Tuesday. “It was a good experience, and I hope I get more opportunities.”