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D.C. United U-23 update: Draws, Debuts and Development

We recap the weekend for the baby Black and Red and while there is a mini-Atlantic Cup rivalry match this coming weekend, the focus on development remains.

Much like how the first team fared Sunday, the D.C. United U-23 squad also played in the heat of Evergreen Sports Center earlier Sunday against the Jersey Express. The team underachieved in the first half, particularly after the Express had a man sent off, but went into halftime finding themselves the recipients of a dressing down by coach Richie Burke. Things did not improve immediately as the Express scored a goal in the 64th minute. But the Black and Red persevered as second half substitute (and Academy alum) Jacori Hayes scored via service from Pablo Aguilar in the 77th. And as D.C. continued to press, Hayes scored in stoppage time (from Cody Albrecht) to secure the three points.

The lineup was almost totally different than the one that played on Friday night, as defenders Carter Manley, Taylor Washington and forward Jeremy Ebobisse were the only holdovers in Sunday's lineup. Among those making their debuts this past weekend were Aguilar (from the University of Virginia and an IMG Academy grad), Melvin Snoh (Georgetown University), and Academy grad Suliaman Dainkeh (University of Maryland).

"I was really happy to make my debut with them," Dainkeh said of his first minutes Friday. "I know a lot of the kids from the [Academy] over the years, so it’s easy to fit in with them."

Friday's game with Division-leading Reading United AC was anticipated on both sides. Reading wanted to avenge their home loss to D.C. earlier in the month and had said as much to local press. D.C. heard about this smack and prepared accordingly. Early on, the feelings carried over to the field, with subtle shoves after a ball was away from a player's feet or in a 50/50 battle.

With first team General Manager Dave Kasper and Scouting Coordinator Kurt Morsink looking on, midfielder Jake Rozhansky's exquisitely struck free kick goal from 25 yards out over the Reading wall (and leaping goalkeeper Kyle Morton's left) into the upper corner in first half stoppage buoyed D.C. However in the second half, a ball that Reading forward Brett Campbell carried deep into the D.C. end was dispossessed yet quickly picked up by Thomas Barlow, who fired it over the head of D.C. keeper Cody Niedermeier for a 1-1 draw, despite late pressure on Morton, who saved rapid-fire, close-range shots by Snoh and Ebobisse in the final moments of the game.

Rozhansky was particularly pleased at his goal, partly because he was the target of persistent fouling by Reading in the first half. "They were fouling me a lot, so I was getting a little pissed off," Rozhansky said. "As soon as they set up the wall a guy was talking trash to me in the wall and I knew I was going to get it."

Burke echoed his midfielder's sentiment. "I had a chat with the officials had halftime because I think Jake gets a bit victimized. [Opposing teams] know he’s a playmaker, they know he’s the leader of our orchestra. He must have been fouled 20 times out there, he spent more time on the ground than he did on his feet. That’s not good for the League, it’s not good for football and it’s not good for those watching the game. I thought the officials did a good job, but I think at some stage if they’d given a card it would have stopped the persistent fouling that was going on."

When asked about Ebobisse, Burke was ebullient. "He’s very good. He can play the high striker, he can play the second striker, he’s got a little bit of discipline in his game where after possession he drops into midfield and plays a little prevention defense, where as he wasn’t doing it as much going on. He’s a powerful kid, got a great work ethic."

While Burke is aware of the team's success, he also places emphasis on development of those under his tutelage.

"We’ve used this program as a developmental program, so irrespective of results, we want to get some players some match time," Burke said about the lineup turnover. "Players like Jacori Hayes, Jake Rozhansky, Cody Albrecht, who really are good players for us, who might make some changes because we have a very busy period coming in. I don’t want to get sideways with [college coaches] who send their players into our program for the purpose of getting better and not getting worn out. This is a developmental league and by definition, players don’t get better if they’re not in the park, we’re going to rotate our players and give a fresh look. Performance markers for us are not results, performance markers are trying to get kids playing time and make improvements in their football."

The weekend's action moved the D.C. U-23s up to fifth in the Mid-Atlantic division, level on points with the New York Red Bulls U-23. D.C.'s unbeaten streak is now at seven (winning five) since their opening match forfeit to the Red Bulls, whom they face Sunday at home at Evergreen at 5pm. They also host Lehigh Valley Saturday night at 7:30pm.