DC United’s Chris Odoi-Atsem on playing time, Rooney’s arrival

Welcome to the District Fútbol Report, WTOP Sports’ soccer blog by José Umaña, recapping the week’s action from D.C.’s two soccer teams and taking you around the world’s game.

Wayne Rooney’s arrival over the summer as head coach of D.C. United caused the reshaping of several positions around the field, including the defense.

One name consistently appearing in Rooney’s starting lineups is defender Chris Odoi-Atsem. In his sixth season as a professional soccer player, the Mitchellville, Maryland, native is having a career year, already surpassing his career-high in games played (18) and minutes logged (781), most of which were logged once the Englishman in charge.

Odoi-Atsem’s increased playing time comes three years after his bout with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which almost threaten his career.

Now at full strength and competing for playing time daily, Odoi-Atsem proves another option in attack for D.C. with his speed down the wing and ability to send crosses into the penalty area.

Bayern Munich defender Josip Stanišić, right, and D.C. United defender Chris Odoi-Atsem (3) vie for the ball during the second half of a friendly soccer match Wednesday, July 20, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Following United’s home draw against Colorado on Sept. 4, Odoi-Atsem spoke to WTOP about his increased role, his relationship with Rooney and where the defense stands for the rest of the season. (Editor’s Note: This Q&A has been slightly edited and shortened for clarity)

Q: Head coach Wayne Rooney mentioned you in a recent news conference, saying while he’s watching your minutes, he wants to have you play full matches for the club. How have you felt since Wayne has come in and taken over the coaching reigns?

Odoi-Atsem: “For me personally, I think it’s been good having a coach come in who you played with, someone who knows me well and knows what I am capable of. As soon as he came in, he talked to me, said I fit his system. And I was coming back from injury at the time, so he wanted me to work my way up to [play] 90 minutes, progressively and right away.

I think it’s been good for me. It’s more comfortable for me playing in a back four, and I liked the system being a little bit higher up the field. Overall, I think it’s been good for me, I think I’ve been able to help the team, especially the past couple games I’ve started.”

Q: How does it feel when you have the manager’s confidence right away, especially when he tells you “can you be ready to play 90 minutes?”

Odoi-Atsem: “Definitely a lot. I think I kind of had to shift my mindset. Prior to that, I really wasn’t viewed as like an every game starter [or] playing 90 minutes. I think I was more of an impact on the bench or a spot starter. Now, I think I’ve been able to push to start every game.

That’s my goal for the rest of the season: to be starting every game. And I know [Rooney] has a lot of confidence in me, so if he has confidence in me and my teammates have confidence in me, I have no choice but to have confidence in myself.”

Q: How’s it been (having) David Ochoa in goal? How’s he been compared to what you have had all season?

Odoi-Atsem: “David’s been good since he’s come in. If you saw the [New York City FC] game, he saved us a win with that big save at the end. He’s been communicating well with the backline, and he’s coming up with big saves. Overall, I think it’s been great for us.”

D.C. United defender Chris Odoi-Atsem in action during the second half of an MLS soccer match against CF Montreal, Saturday, July 23, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Q: This defense has played multiple formations this year, starting with a lineup with three defenders in the back to now a back-four under Rooney. What are your thoughts on going back to a back-four lineup and looking more stable?

Odoi-Atsem: “Yeah, I think you can see (a) difference. I think towards the middle of the season, we’re supposed to be back three but ended up looking like back-five. Our wingbacks were being pushed back really low, and we weren’t able to get a lot of pressure on the ball.

“But I think this system, we’ve been able to very compact, clogging up the middle and still being able to get out and get pressure out wide. Overall, it’s been good. I played last couple games with [Chris] Durkin out wide and I think we’ve had a good relationship. It’s only going to improve, the more we play together.”

Q: Christian Benteke’s arrival to this squad has added eyes on this team. For you on the defensive side of the ball, how does it fell to have more attacking power than what you had to start the season?

Odoi-Atsem: “Absolutely, he’s a big target forward. Something that you can see really helped us. Sometimes when we have to relieve pressure, kick it up to him and he’s able to hold it up. And then the whole team is able to come up and join the attack.

I think for me, he’s a big target to get crosses in. I was looking for him a couple of times [against Colorado]. We didn’t fully connect, but we’ve been working on in training, and it’s been good.

“In training, I was looking for him, like on the ground, low balls and near post and we weren’t connecting. We were talking after [and] he was saying, ‘look more back post.’ That’s kind of what he likes, so that’s something that I want to work on even more.

Trying to get that connection, that clip ball, back post for him to head it in. That’s something that we’re gonna work on, and the more chemistry we get, the better we will be.”

Listen to the whole interview below:

DC United's Chris Odoi-Atsem tells WTOP he's excited to be a starter under coach Wayne Rooney.

Spirit to play spoiler in regular-season finale

Aubrey Kingsbury of the Washington Spirit yells to teammates during the first half against Angel City FC at Banc of California Stadium on Sept. 21, 2022 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

In its regular season finale Saturday night, the Washington Spirit are not looking to nab one of the final spots for the playoffs. Instead, last year’s National Women’s Soccer League champions are looking to play spoiler at home against fifth place Houston Dash on Saturday at Audi Field.

Washington (3-8-10, 19 points) remained in the thick of a final playoff spot after sweeping its last homestand, defeating the San Diego Wave and NJ/NY Gotham FC. However, results around the league and losing two straight on the road — most recently falling 3-0 to the Kansas City Current on Sunday —  have the Spirit missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons.

“Now, this time it’s playing in front our fans in our last game, let’s go out and put out a show,” interim head coach Albertin Montoya said Sunday. “[The players] are also going to have a week to rest and prepare properly. I think we are going to see a much different team as far as the effort and movement.”

The Spirit started the game against the Current without two of their most lethal attacking threats, Ashley Sanchez and Trinity Rodman. Montoya said the plan was to get them some rest after playing against Angel City FC in Los Angeles last Wednesday and to keep them ready for Saturday’s finale.

Houston (9-6-6, 33 points) currently sit in fifth play and need a win or a draw to secure one of the two final playoff spots. While some players may be motivated to stop the Texas side from qualifying to the playoffs for the first time in club history, captain Andi Sullivan said she hopes her teammates come out playing their best to end the season on a high note.

“I want everyone to bring their best performances and do what’s in our control,” Sullivan said. ” … if people need that as motivation to play well, I hope they use it but we should be playing for ourselves and our club and this team.”

Fans with a valid college ID can attend Saturday’s match for free. There will be a postgame fireworks show as well.

Upcoming matches to watch

D.C. United’s regular season finale on Oct. 9 against FC Cincinnati will also be the return of an old friend. Former Black and Red playmaker Lucho Acosta leads the Blue and Orange into town looking to secure its place into the playoffs. The Argentine midfielder has scored 8 goals and provided 18 assists (a league high) for Cincinnati this season. Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m.

As the professional soccer season winds down, the college soccer campaign is ramping up. Starting this fall, the Maryland SoccerPlex, located in Boyds, will host both men’s and women’s Big East Tournaments for the next three years. Both Georgetown teams have dominated the tournament, winning nine titles in the last six postseasons.

The take from Lot 8

In honor of the supporter culture that existed in Lot 8 before D.C. United games left RFK Stadium, this section will focus on some of the best, or more interesting stories on soccer available online so you can be ready for your next tailgate.

Become a well-informed fan and give these stories about the world’s game your attention.

José Umaña

José Umaña is a digital editor for WTOP. He’s been working as a journalist for almost a decade, covering local news, education and sports. His work has appeared in The Prince George’s Sentinel, The Montgomery Sentinel, Orlando Sentinel, PressBox and The Diamondback.

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