Nearly a decade has passed, but Donovan Pines can still see the ball leaving Andy Najar’s foot. He may have had the best seat in the house, after all: The Clarksville, Md., native was a ball boy, stationed behind the goal at RFK Stadium, as Najar’s shot nestled in the back of the net and D.C. United flocked to the corner flag to celebrate.

“I was like, ‘Whoa, that was one of the greatest feelings ever,’” Pines said. “And I thought, ‘I really want to play for this team.’”

Nowadays, Pines has an even better view: The 21-year-old defender has made nine appearances for United this season since signing with the club out of Maryland last winter.

Like Najar before him, Pines made the jump from United’s academy to the first team by inking a homegrown contract. Having proven increasingly valuable to D.C.’s back line, with his recovery speed, 6-foot-5 frame and knack for sniffing out opposing attacks, Pines is aiming to make his fifth consecutive start when United (9-6-9) hosts the first-place Philadelphia Union (11-7-6) on Sunday at Audi Field.

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“He bails us out with his legs and his ability to read the game,” United coach Ben Olsen said. “He does it five times a half.”

Pines, who helped lead Maryland to an NCAA title last fall, has had a rookie season filled with stops and starts. After spending the early stages of the MLS campaign biding his time on the bench or on assignment with second-division affiliate Loudoun United, he played his way into the D.C. lineup with four starts from mid-April to early May.

But in Pines’ Audi Field debut, a 3-1 win over the Columbus Crew on May 4, he suffered a sprained knee ligament that would keep him on the sidelines for two months.

“I had never really had an injury like that or been out that long,” Pines said. “So I felt really weird and conscientious of myself. … I learned that patience is a virtue. Just take your time, trust the process, make sure you don’t rush into it and make sure you’re 100% before you go all out because you know your body best.”

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Since returning to the field, Pines has joined veterans Steve Birnbaum and Frederic Brillant in the back line of a 3-4-2-1 formation. The rookie’s spot in the lineup for the MLS stretch run could depend on whether Olsen continues with that formation or reverts to a more attack-minded 4-2-3-1 alignment.

Whatever Pines’ role is the rest of 2019, the local product already has established himself as a pivotal piece of United’s long-term plans.

“He’s becoming a little bit of a cult hero out there,” Olsen said. “He’s going to be a good player for this team for years to come.”

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