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D.C. United rookies looking to carve out roster spots

Chris Odoi-Atsem and Eric Klenofsky made waves in Florida

Two of the rookies that D.C. United drafted this year during the MLS SuperDraft made inroads during United’s first preseason camp, earning playing time during the first set of friendlies. Chris Odoi-Atsem, the right back selected in the first round from played in the first two friendlies, against the USA U-17 team and the Philadelphia Union, while Eric Klenofsky, the towering goalkeeper from Monmouth University, played the second 45 minutes in all three games.

With plenty of work to be done, both players took advantage of their opportunities at the IMG Academy, getting to know their teammates, and using the playing time to showcase their skills for Ben Olsen and his coaching staff.

There were plenty of adjustments for both to make, but all along the lines of what they expected from spent time around professional clubs before.

“The difference from college to know is the pace and how fast the game is at this level.,” Odoi-Atsem told B&RU this week. “Just getting adjusted to the speed of play, but I’m getting better everyday.”

Having spent last summer training with United, Odoi-Atsem is quite familiar to United’s coaching staff. The defender plied his trade as a center back for the first two years of his career at College Park with the Maryland Terrapins, before transitioning to a right back for his junior and senior years.

That foundation of playing center back, is what Odoi-Atsem believes sets him apart from most players who play either left or right back.

“I know a lot of right backs really don’t view themselves as defenders. They view themselves as attackers first,” Odoi-Atsem said. “I’ve always had that defensive first mentality. As a right back, I’m a defender first, that’s my job. And then I can go forward and help with the attack.”

During the draft, his college coach, Sasho Cirovski noted on a telecast that Odoi-Atsem as the best one on one defender he’s ever seen at Maryland. It’s no surprise that Odoi-Atsem sees that at one of his best attributes as well, in addition to the athleticism he brings to the right back position.

“I like to consider myself a pretty athletic player, speed-wise,” said Odoi-Atsem. “Really, my motor can help the team a lot, getting up and down the right flank, helping in attack, and also my defensive abilities. I feel as I’m a very good one on one defender.”

Odoi-Atsem’s addition to the Black-and-Red makes him the third Terrapin currently on the squad. Though Odoi-Atsem arrived after Taylor Kemp finished up his college career, Odoi-Atsem overlapped for a season with striker Patrick Mullins.

With other Terrapins spread out through MLS, the program that Cirovski runs just outside the nation’s capital. The environment, the competition that Cirovski breeds, its all conducive producing professional level players, according to Odoi-Atsem.

“Everyone around the country knows that Maryland is a great soccer program. Sasho does a great job of bringing in the right people, the right talent,” Odoi-Atsem said of his college coach. “Just being in practices there, it’s a competitive atmosphere. It’s like a pro-level atmosphere. That’s what prepares guys well for an easier transition to MLS, and other professional leagues.”

Now in MLS with United, Odoi-Atsem has some navigating of the depth chart to do before he can earn consistent minutes in United’s defense. Veteran Sean Franklin has been United’s mainstay at right back for the past three seasons. This year, Franklin is being tried out at center back, and might see some time there during the regular season.

But, Nick DeLeon’s adventure around the field continues, as he seems next in line to play those right back minutes. DeLeon has some previous experience at the position, having filled in for Franklin at the end of last year. And DeLeon has received all the minutes with the first team in the friendlies thus far, with Odoi-Atsem with the second team.

Still, he’ll have his chance to push into the spot.

“[Olsen] mentioned to me that he wants me to come in and compete right away,” said Odoi-Atsem. “Knowing coming in, I want to compete, show my talents, and work hard every day. If playing time comes with it, that would be great.”

Odoi-Atsem didn’t appear in the third and final game, against Jönköpings Södra IF, due to a slight injury. The right back had his practice ended early on Monday, and was held out as a precaution agaisnt J-Södra. Olsen said Odoi-Atsem was dealing with “muscle issues”.

Olsen said that Odoi-Atsem shouldn’t be sidelined too long, but that the defender would get checked up on when the team returns to Washington, D.C. Still, the former Maryland Terrapin made his mark in Florida.

“He had a very good camp,” Olsen told B&RU after the win against J-Södra. “Until he got sidelined, he was a huge bright spot.”

Fellow rookie Klenofsky took advantage of Bill Hamid’s absence in Florida. With Hamid recovering from knee surgery, Travis Worra was the recipient of the first team minutes in the friendlies. That left Klenofsky to battle with Charlie Horton and trialist Matt Sanchez for the second team minutes.

It’s a battle that had a clear winner. Klenofsky.

Despite being a four year starter at Monmouth University, there were still anxious nerves for the towering 6’6’’ keeper in his first preseason games.

“There were some preseason, first game kind of jitters from transitioning from college to the pros,” Klenofsky told B&RU. “[Goalkeeper coach] Zach Thornton is an incredible coach, he’s been giving me a lot of pointers, a lot of information I have been able to take on and improve with.”

Klenofsky had several encounters with Thornton while at Monmouth. Before Thornton joined up with United, he was a goalkeeper coach at Villanova University. The two teams played twice during the overlap between Klenofsky and Thornton, allowing the former MLS keeper a first hand view Klenofsky.

And in United’s behind the scene look at the MLS SuperDraft, it was Thornton who gave the final seal of approval to General Manager Dave Kasper to draft Klenofsky.

Klenofsky now embraces the chance to work with Thornton.

“The sky's the limit. Zach is as good as they come in terms of goalkeeping resume, Klenofsky said. “He’s been giving me valuable information, things I’ve never been told before, and stuff that is helping me transition.”

Unlike his fellow rookie, Odoi-Atsem, Klenofsky took the road less traveled to get to MLS. Klenofsky decided to spend his four years of college playing at Monmouth University, a small college based in West Long Branch, New Jersey.

Playing in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference did not afford Klenofsky the opportunity to regularly play against the best colleges in the country. It did however, allow Klenofsky to spend most of his career as the starter for the Hawks, save the first couple of games in his freshman year.

That just might have been the difference in his career.

“Monmouth gave me this opportunity. If I went to any other school, I don’t think I’d be talking with you right now,” Klenofsky told B&RU. “The coaching staff was incredible They know what they are talking about, they’re genuine people that just want to see you succeed.”

What also helped Klenofsky was spending part of December on trial with Everton Football Club in England. He was spotted during the summer during his time with the New York Red Bulls’ U-23 team. Though he was skeptical of a Facebook message he received claiming that he could go on trial in England, he eventually received the call to head to Merseyside for the trial.

The experience was one that he relishes, for helping him prepare to be a professional.

“It was incredible. What better way to prepare for a MLS season or a MLS combine than training with a Premier League club,” Klenofsky said. “I was with the reserves for most of the time, but I got into the first team training after [Martin] Stecklenburg got hurt during the Merseyside derby. At one point I was standing between Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley, and I was like ‘what’s going on.’”

Klenofsky’s obvious strength as a keeper is his height. Towering at 6’6’’, Klenofsky is just an inch shorter than the two tallest players in MLS, New York City FC keeper Eirik Johansen, and Colorado Rapids defender Axel Sjöberg. He’s a commanding physical presence in the box, but it’s not the only asset he believes he brings to the position.

“I take pride in my distribution. I worked hard making sure my feet are as good as they can be,” said Klenofsky. “My severe amount of commitment. There’s a lot of ways that I could have strayed off of the path, and not ended up in a MLS preseason.”

The night before the draft, Klenofsky signed a contract with MLS. That didn’t quite relieve all the stress of trying to make it as a professional though, knowing that he could cut at any time.

And he’s not likely to see as much playing time in United’s next trip down to Florida, in which they’ll play three more games before the start of the MLS season. Hamid is slated to return to the team for that trip, and that means that there will be fewer minutes for Klenofsky to fight for.

But that won’t deter him from being the best version of himself, to show to Olsen and Thorton that he’s capable of being trusted as keeper in MLS.

“I don’t want to make any assumptions about how the next two weeks will go,” said Klenofsky. “I want to take it day by day, and be the best Eric Klenofsky I can be.”