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D.C. United season review: Chris Odoi-Atsem

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It was a mixed rookie season for United’s top 2017 draft pick

Entering last year’s MLS SuperDraft, expectations for what D.C. United’s plans were ended up being all over the place. Mock drafts had United going for an attacker, a speedy winger, and a center back. Those same mocks all saw Chris Odoi-Atsem going several picks earlier than the Black-and-Red’s first opportunity with the #12 spot on the list, but when draft day came around, the Mitchellville, MD native was still available. United, in need of a right back and defensive speed in general, pounced.

That choice made a lot of sense. United’s only real back-up for Sean Franklin at the time was Nick DeLeon, who was also projected to be needed elsewhere on the field. On top of that, Franklin was being considered for a role at center back. Given Odoi-Atsem’s local roots and his status as a four-year starter with a Maryland program that has produced many of United’s recent draft picks, the move felt like a no-brainer.

The projection for Odoi-Atsem was that his speed and one-on-one defending would likely let him start without giving away much of anything on the defensive side. The question marks were about what he could do going forward on a team that, in 2016, had gotten a lot out of DeLeon and Taylor Kemp pushing up aggressively. Odoi-Atsem had never been that sort of attacking threat with the Terrapins, after all, and that side of the game looked like the one that would require the biggest adjustment.

In the end, 2017 was a mixed bag for Odoi-Atsem. Despite a poor season from Franklin, and a late-season injury for Kemp forcing DeLeon to play a few games at left back, Odoi-Atsem was given just five starts in MLS play (and nine overall appearances). He also went the full 90 against Christos FC and the New England Revolution in United’s two Open Cup matches.

While it remains a bit odd that Odoi-Atsem wasn’t given more chances to prove himself (particularly late in the season, when United shifted into “build for 2018” mode), it must be said that his only truly impressive performance came as a sub against Toronto FC. On that day, with United playing the entire second half down a man and TFC bringing in speedster Raheem Edwards to push for a winner, Odoi-Atsem was the perfect response. Edwards couldn’t solve his fellow rookie, and United managed to leave BMO Field with a 1-1 draw against the team that collected the most points in a season in MLS history.

That illustrates what Odoi-Atsem brings to the table. If teams want to send out a fast, direct winger who wants to run the flanks and put in crosses, Odoi-Atsem is going to eat them for lunch. That’s not all that common in today’s MLS, though, and Odoi-Atsem adjusting to players that want to drift inside from the left is going to take some work. He also struggled at times with being in the right place when United was defending in transition, and would get caught too high or too wide. No amount of speed can cover that up.

All that said, those are typical rookie issues, and he’d probably be further along if he had played more often. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation: Odoi-Atsem would be better if he had more playing time, but he also needed to make more out of his opportunities. A tough night at the office in September’s 3-0 loss to Chicago ended up being his final appearance of 2017, which is both fair (from a performance perspective) and frustrating (when thinking about the future).

When thinking about Odoi-Atsem, it’s important to keep in mind that most rookies don’t become day one starters any more. Even young fullbacks who were lauded for their work in 2017, like Brandon Vincent, spent a full season getting torched first. This league has gotten to a place where Odoi-Atsem’s largely uneventful 482 minutes played fall somewhere within the “normal” section of the rookie spectrum.

Next season, with competition at right back possibly thinned out (this is being written before United announces their contract choices, but it seems fair to expect one or two veteran right backs to be let go), Odoi-Atsem will have a better shot at playing time. He’ll still be second choice behind DeLeon, but given DeLeon’s use elsewhere and the vast amount of travel United will grapple with next spring, that’s a job that comes with significant minutes to play.

Is he who you want in that role?

Poll

Do you want Chris Odoi-Atsem back for the 2017 season?

This poll is closed

  • 96%
    Yes
    (155 votes)
  • 3%
    No
    (6 votes)
161 votes total Vote Now