By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (May 3, 2023) US Soccer Players – With four wins in a row and three straight wins in the league, April proved fruitful for Wayne Rooney and DC United. A mix of the old and new is starting to click under Rooney ten games into the schedule. United has added some European names to a team with a core group of American talent.
Striker Christian Benteke arrived late last season and appears well-settled in MLS as the club’s chief goal-scoring option. Benteke’s bicycle kick for his fifth goal of the campaign stole the show in DC’s 3-0 win over Charlotte on Saturday. Midfielder Lewis O’Brien, on loan until July from Nottingham Forest, is thriving in the middle of the park alongside American Russell Canouse and former Leeds United player Mateusz Klich.
There’s also a group of young, academy-developed players who are contributing in significant ways. The final goal in the win over Charlotte came from Jacob Greene, a 20-year-old homegrown player who spent time with Loudoun United in recent seasons. Rooney has given meaningful minutes to Ted Ku-DiPietro, Jackson Hopkins, and Matai Akinboni this season as well.
Rooney has been consistent in his messaging. While Benteke’s stunning overhead effort deserved a bit of individual praise, United’s boss points to a full team effort as the reason for the strong run of recent form. DC isn’t a team reliant on the talents of one or two stars. For this team to win, Rooney has to maximize every name on his roster.
United’s defense is contributing in multiple areas to push the club forward. A recent shift to a 3-man backline gives the team’s wingbacks license to get up the field but means Rooney needs an extra center back to make the system work. Victor Palsson, a 2022 summer signing, is deputizing in that position, with veteran Steve Birnbaum and Donovan Pines holding down the other two spots.
Birnbaum ranks among the more underappreciated players at his position in MLS over the last decade. A veteran of ten MLS seasons, the center back arrived in DC as the second-overall pick of the 2014 SuperDraft out of California. Despite being limited by occasional injury absences and the abridged 2020 league schedule, Birnbaum currently ranks third all-time for appearances with DC United behind Jaime Moreno and Bill Hamid.
A dominant force in the air, Birnbaum’s role as a leader is critical for a club that has seen so much turnover over two seasons. Recognizing the value of a savvy center back with ample league experience, United signed Birnbaum to a new contract last week through 2025.
“I’m excited to be here. It’s the only club I’ve played for, hopefully it’s the only club I’ll play for,” a smiling Birnbaum said to the media after the announcement of his new deal. “I want to be part of this club and help them win championships. Getting it off my shoulders and making sure I’m focused on winning games.”
Despite his California roots, Birnbaum referred to himself a “Washingtonian,” a reflection of the connection he’s formed with his adopted city while playing for United.
Pines, now 25, grew up in the United academy system before playing three years of college soccer at the University of Maryland. He signed a homegrown contract in 2019 and acquired his first professional experience with DC United’s then-reserve outfit, Loudoun United. By his second month as a pro, Pines was getting starts for the senior team.
A good 2020 campaign and a strong start to the 2021 season earned Pines a chance to play for the USMNT at the 2021 Gold Cup. He appeared in two group stage games as the Americans marched to the continental title. An injury ended his tournament early, but the showing promised a bright future.
After starting the season as a reserve, Pines is playing a big role in United’s climb up the table. There’s a correlation between Rooney’s decision to install Pines in the starting lineup and the improvement in the club’s form. Pines didn’t play in any of United’s first five matches, a stretch that delivered four total points for the club. In the five games since Pines moved into the starting lineup, United is unbeaten and has collected 10 points. He scored the eventual game-winning goal in a 3-1 win over Orlando City on April 22nd, his first goal since 2020.
The numbers stress Pines’s importance for DC, ranking second among regulars in passing completion percentage and providing some of the direct balls upfield that have made United more dangerous in the attack. Defensively, Pines is tied for second on the team in clearances and is third in aerial duels won despite playing half the available minutes.
Benteke is invigorated. DC’s contingent of young talent is finding ways to impact games. While United may have benefited from the relative strength of schedule with their wins over Montreal, Orlando, and Charlotte, good teams, playoff-contending teams, take their opportunities. United is doing that.
May’s schedule is decidedly more difficult for United. The strides the club has taken will be tested against better opposition. Winning, though, breeds confidence, and confidence breeds bigger strides. United’s intriguing mix of players, young and veteran, foreign and domestic, will get its chance to prove itself.
Jason Davis is the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM.
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