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Among D.C. United players, a new team-building drill: Spanish lessons

Spanish instructor Katherin Rodriguez hands a lesson plan to Chris Durkin during a Spanish language course also attended by United teammates David Ousted, center, and Russell Canouse, right. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

After practice and lunch Wednesday, most D.C. United players headed home for the day. Others had meetings or media obligations.

For three players and two assistant coaches, the next stop was a windowless, cinder-block room around the corner and down the hallway from the locker room.

Each carried a textbook and, upon entering, grabbed a work sheet from a table in front of a screen and whiteboard in the middle of the room and settled at makeshift desks.

“Hola, David,” instructor Katherin Rodriguez said to her first arrival, David Ousted.

The Danish goalkeeper responded in kind.

Class was in session.

In the morning, during the first physical workouts since extending its unbeaten streak to five Sunday against New England, United worked on combination plays and crosses at RFK Stadium’s training grounds. In the afternoon, in the first class since last Thursday, a small group turned to conjugating verbs and understanding masculine and feminine usage of Spanish words.

It’s common for newly arrived Latin American soccer players in MLS to take English classes to understand coaching orders, communicate with teammates and assimilate into largely English-speaking circles.

It’s not common for the English speakers to pursue Spanish skills. But this month, at the urging of English-speaking players eager to expand their linguistic horizons in a sport with heavy Latin American influence, United introduced a Spanish class.

“I was taken back a little, but in a good way,” team administrator Francisco Tobar said of the request early this year by the wannabe Spanish speakers. “I thought, ‘Yeah, good idea.’ ”

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The group, which has up to eight participants, meets twice a week for 90 minutes per session. The organization covers the cost, including the “Spanish Demystified” textbooks. Classes will run through September and might continue into October.

The purpose is to improve communication with Latino team members — who, in most cases, have learned English to varying degrees through classes and tutors — and to strengthen bonds on a diverse roster.

“The priority is for them to learn English,” said midfielder Russell Canouse, 23, a central Pennsylvania native who is taking the Spanish class. “But if they see some guys making the effort to learn their language too, it makes them feel more welcome and hopefully helps them want to learn English.

“I can fit in with them better and they can see I’m trying. I can interact, make jokes and be more involved, which is important for the group.”

Because soccer is played professionally in most countries, locker rooms are mixing bowls of language and culture. With that global footprint, players typically speak several languages.

Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian national team striker, speaks six, and during news conferences at the World Cup this summer in Russia, he and others from various countries transitioned seamlessly between questions in multiple tongues.

Ousted is fluent in Danish, English, Swedish and Norwegian and knows some German. He leaped at the chance to learn another.

“I pushed for it. I asked for it,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to communicate with guys on another level. And at some point, we won’t be soccer players anymore and speaking another language is going to be a plus.”

Aside from English, Spanish is most prevalent in MLS. At the start of the season, 21.4 percent of the 637 players were born in countries where Spanish is the first language. When Portuguese is included, the total rises to 23.9 percent.

The largest Latin delegations were from Argentina (23 players), Colombia (14) and Costa Rica (14). Five other countries were represented by nine players apiece. Brazil, a Portuguese-speaking nation, sent 12.

United’s 27-man roster features Argentina’s Luciano Acosta and Yamil Asad; Costa Rica’s Joseph Mora and Ulises Segura; Bolivia’s Bruno Miranda; and Venezuela’s Junior Moreno. Only Asad played in MLS before arriving in Washington.

Acosta, who at age 21 arrived before the 2016 season, has made great strides learning English. He knew few words before engaging in lessons and assimilating here; he’s now able to converse in English (though he is more comfortable using an interpreter in interviews with English-language reporters).

Language was never a major obstacle for the coaching staff because Tobar, a native of Chile, and physical therapist Gabriel Manoel (Brazil) are on the bench during matches. Team coordinator Rory Molleda (Spain) is a constant presence, as well.

“We usually got by,” assistant coach Chad Ashton said, “but there are times you would like it to be a little more personal.”

Added Tobar: “In a quick moment, a coach wants to get a message across. An interpreter takes a little more time and is less personal. They want to meet them halfway.”

Ashton and colleague Nolan Sheldon are taking the class. Other participants have included Stewart Mairs, United’s director of soccer strategy and analysis, and fellow Englishman Jonny Northeast, head of sports science and fitness.

Ben Olsen, United’s head coach, said he attended the first class but hasn’t returned because of constant scheduling conflicts.

Some of United’s U.S. players, such as Paul Arriola, were already proficient in Spanish.

Besides Ousted and Canouse, students include midfielder Chris Durkin, 18, and defender Chris Odoi-Atsem, 23.

Ousted, 33, is seeking to add another language to his portfolio. He had learned English (with British emphasis) and German in school in Denmark, then picked up Nordic languages from teammates on Danish clubs. He was introduced to English with a Canadian accent when he joined the Vancouver Whitecaps in 2013. “It was a little confusing,” he said, laughing.

Canouse moved to Germany when he was 15 and, through his club, Hoffenheim, took language courses for three years as part of high school curriculum.

“I had to pick up the language or I would be lost,” he said. “Everything feels distant when you don’t know the language.”

To retain German skills, Canouse practices with Zoltan Stieber, United’s Hungarian midfielder who played nine years in Germany, and speaks on the phone periodically with former teammates at Hoffenheim and Bochum.

Three weeks into Spanish lessons, the D.C. group is making progress. Still, as Ousted said, it’s difficult to understand informal conversation and slang.

“It’s a process,” Canouse said. “I just need to continue with my vocabulary and it will fall into place.”

The class is beginning to take hold, though.

On a recent morning, Odoi-Atsem saw Tobar in the hallway outside the locker room and greeted him by saying, “Buenos dias, Cisco.”

Reflecting on that moment, Tobar said smiling this week: “I liked that.”

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