WASHINGTON — Across town from RFK Stadium, the original home of the current incarnation of the Washington Nationals, Nats General Manager Mike Rizzo is often fond of discussing his approach of trying to make his team as strong as possible in the present while keeping an eye on the future. So it’s fitting that as D.C. United prepares to make the move from RFK to Buzzard Point, just blocks from Nationals Park, it heads into the 2017 campaign with a strong returning core of players along with a couple sparkly new additions — and the team hopes they will be integral parts of its long-term future in its new stadium.
They’re also familiar faces to D.C.-area soccer fans.
Just 10 days after selecting Prince George’s County native and University of Maryland star Chris Odoi-Atsem in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, United signed Ian Harkes, a product of their youth academy and son of United legend John Harkes. Both just 21 years old, their contributions this year on a team filled with many entrenched starters remains to be seen. But they will unquestionably be a key part of the Red and Black’s future in Washington.
Factor in a recent four-year extension for 25-year-old Steve Birnbaum and the permanent transfer of 22-year-old Argentine Luciano Acosta (at the highest fee in club history), and it’s clear the team is making investments into its future heading into the opening of the new stadium.
“I think that’s fair to say,” said head coach Ben Olsen. “We have a little bit of a youth movement, for D.C.’s standards.”
Olsen is excited about his two local young prospects and knows as well as anyone, as a University of Virginia product himself, the strong talent pool he has to draw from here in the mid-Atlantic.
“We’re lucky we’re in a hotbed,” he said, adding that he’s happy to see a larger involvement from U.S. Soccer in helping ensure players develop from their team academies all the way to the first team. “It’s great to see that we’re moving in that direction.”
Harkes is the ninth homegrown player the team has signed, but represents a tie back to Olsen’s own playing career, the two overlapping in Olsen’s rookie season back in 1998.
“I’m a romantic, as you know, with this club,” said Olsen. “I love the story behind it.”
But dad didn’t have to push the younger Harkes into the decision to sign in Washington. Despite being born in England and entertaining potential offers abroad, the Hermann Award winner — as the nation’s top college player — reached out to Olsen and GM Dave Kasper after this year’s College Cup and knew he was home.
“My parents are always there to give me advice and help me through it and have been doing that through soccer my whole life, but they never put any pressure on me,” said Harkes. “It was kind of my decision.”
Harkes says he watched the team last year just as he has since he was a kid growing up in Fairfax and attending Gonzaga College High School — as a fan. And while the prospect of actually putting on a uniform and taking the field at RFK still may seem a bit surreal, he knows he’s still a rookie who will have to earn his way into the lineup.
“You always want to play right away and get in, but I know realistically there are a lot of strong midfielders on this team,” he said. “I’m just looking to help the group as much as possible in training and hopefully that translates to games.”
As familiar as the team may have been with Harkes, they might have actually seen more of Odoi-Atsem the last few years. With fellow Terps Taylor Kemp and Patrick Mullins already on the team, team officials had spent plenty of time in College Park for games during Odoi-Atsem’s tenure.
“I know they keep a good eye on the local talent,” he said. “I know they’ve been to a lot of my games over the past four years at University of Maryland, so it’s good to know that they’ve seen me a lot and that they’re really comfortable with what they’re getting.”
The First Team All-Big Ten product and DeMatha Catholic grad even trained with the club over the summer and had a pretty good feeling his hometown club might be interested when the draft rolled around. But just like Harkes, he isn’t taking his opportunity for granted.
“That was my goal coming into Maryland — I really wasn’t expecting to play much, but I came in there in order to become a better soccer player. That’s my same plan here.”
And just like Harkes, after spending his youth attending games at RFK, Odoi-Atsem’s excited not just to step onto the field for himself, but as the inspiration for the next generation of local players.
“This is the team I grew up watching and the reason I love the game,” he said. “Maybe me being on the field, I can do that for another kid from Prince George’s County as well.”