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D.C. United focusing on positives after 5-2 friendly loss to Real Betis

Chris Odoi-Atsem’s return and Griffin Yow’s goal were the noteworthy stories for the Black-and-Red last night

D.C. United’s players and coaches would normally be in a sour mood after a 5-2 loss at home, but not all defeats are created equal. An MLS league match at full strength? Curt answers and a silent locker room are sure to follow. Last night was quite different, though, as a nearly full-strength Real Betis tacked on two late goals after United — already playing a largely second-choice team — began emptying their bench, finishing up with Loudoun United call-ups making up half of the group on the field.

As such, United’s post-game thoughts were mostly about accentuating the positives.

“I don’t like to lose 5-2, but you try to look past the score and look at it as a good night of soccer,” said head coach Ben Olsen after a game in which both teams pressed high and strung together some nice sequences of attacking play. “I thought it was a fun night. A lot of goals for the fans. I thought both teams came with a pretty good mentality.”

Betis started six regulars, including five from the team that beat Real Madrid at the Bernabeu this past Saturday. By contrast, United’s only first-choice players to start tonight were Junior Moreno and Paul Arriola, and one starter (Collin Verfurth) was a short-term call-up from Loudoun United. After a grueling week of travel, Olsen left eight probable starters for this weekend’s trip to play the New England Revolution out of uniform entirely, including key players like Wayne Rooney, Luciano Acosta, Bill Hamid, and Steven Birnbaum.

Olsen’s summary on that front was right to the point: “My mind is for the most part on New England,” before later adding some praise for the visitors, who showed passing ability and an understanding of space that was a step above what is seen in MLS. “That’s a top 30 team in the world right now,” said Olsen. “The way we were pressing them in the first half wasn’t cutting it. A team like that, if you’re off by one or two players, their ability to take the space...if you close that hole up, they just take the next hole. They have so much quality around the field from a passing standpoint, starting from the keeper and through the back line. I thought we adjusted at halftime, the way we [pressed] them. I thought we actually did a much better job in the second half, but then the subs start flying in, it becomes a bit of a circus [later in the game].”

Betis certainly put on a show, but the bigger story from United’s perspective was Chris Odoi-Atsem’s first appearance in 14 months.

“You talk about joy. I mean, this kid, what he’s been through, it’s been a lot, and for him to be at home playing again, moving up and down...I didn’t think he missed a beat, really,” said Olsen with a grin when asked about Odoi-Atsem. The Mitchellville, MD native spent most of the 2018 season and this year’s preseason battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and hadn’t yet dressed for a home game at United’s new digs on Buzzard Point. “Defensively he was sharp, calm on the ball. I’m sure he’ll factor into this season sooner than later.”

“It means everything. Especially this organization that stood by me throughout this whole time, this battle with cancer, on my way to recovery,” said Odoi-Atsem when asked what it meant to take the field in a D.C. kit for the first time since his diagnosis. “It felt great. The only way I can repay the city and the organization is coming out and playing as hard as I can every time I put on the jersey. So, just feel really appreciative for the organization, everybody in it from top to bottom, fans, teammates, coaches, staff, everybody. They’ve given me support, and it’s my way to repay them.”

It was a busy 65 minute appearance at right back for Odoi-Atsem, who found some joy getting up the flank. Both player and manager confirmed that their initial plan was for Odoi-Atsem to play 45 minutes, but with the former Maryland Terrapin feeling good at halftime, he stuck it out for a chunk of the second half. Odoi-Atsem summed it up: “I definitely felt tired out there, but I felt better than expected.”

There was further good news, as 16-year-old winger Griffin Yow came on in the 32nd minute for Ulises Segura — a planned substitution, according to Olsen — and was heavily involved in the Black-and-Red attack, including striking his first goal for the club.

“I thought he was great,” said Olsen. “He’s just so comfortable in his own skin out there, the way he plays. Even when he makes some naive steps...he gets out of it because he’s just so clever. He ends up getting a lot of deflection goals, or he’s on the end of crosses. He’s just got a real good feel for the game. Technically, he’s gifted. We’ve gotta work physically on him, and...certainly out of possession, he’s got some lessons to learn defensively, but he’s gonna be fun to work with.”

Yow, after getting some congratulations from his teammates in the locker room, clearly enjoyed his night. “It was an incredible experience... I think it’s huge for me, not just to get my first goal, but it’s a confidence builder so that when that first game, more than 10 minutes does come around...I’ll be ready for it and confident and I’ll be able to maybe get another goal.”

Olsen pointed out that he was impressed by the atmosphere, which has sometimes been an issue during mid-week friendlies. “For our market, it was a good turnout. The energy was good in there, I think our players really enjoyed being in front of [the crowd],” said Olsen.