Donovan Pines has two career aspirations: pro soccer player and fungus fighter.
The athletic pursuit will come first. The 6-foot-5 junior defender will anchor Maryland’s defense against Indiana in a College Cup semifinal Friday in Santa Barbara, Calif., an unimaginable appearance by the Terrapins after starting the season with a 4-5-3 record.
Then in the coming weeks, Pines will decide whether to put ambitious academic work on hold — he is a biology major and the son of the university’s engineering dean — to sign with D.C. United or venture overseas.
No matter what Pines decides, “he has an incredibly bright future,” Maryland Coach Sasho Cirovski said. “He’s made of the best stuff on Earth.”
Athletically, the Howard County, Md., native carries the rare soccer blend of height and skill. He has started all season for the Terrapins (11-6-4) after featuring with United’s under-23 squad last summer.
Because Pines is a longtime member of D.C.'s youth academy, United owns his MLS homegrown rights. He would become available in the league’s draft only if United renounces those rights, an unlikely scenario. He might also decide to stay in school.
Club officials said they will not comment on targeted players, but the technical staff has closely monitored Pines’s development for two years.
Loudoun United, United’s second-division team slated to launch in 2019, would seem to be an appropriate place for a prospect to begin a pro career and gain playing time.
With that new developmental platform, D.C. General Manager Dave Kasper said last week that United is aiming to accelerate the number of homegrown signings. United has had eight since 2009, far fewer than teams such as FC Dallas and the New York Red Bulls.
Long term, the organization is in need of depth at center back.
With pro opportunities on the horizon, Pines said “academics are important. My parents got to where they are through education and I want to make them proud."
But, he added, “If someone reaches out, I should probably look into it.”
Concussions also could factor into his decision, he said; he has suffered three at Maryland, which seems to have made him more inclined to jump to the pros before another one potentially undermines his career.
“Because,” he added, “you never know what could happen.”
Cirovski, who has lost numerous players over the years to early departures, said he expects to engage in conversations with Pines and his parents soon. Cirovski lives near the family and has known Darryll and Sylvia Pines for many years.
“I think he is going to have many opportunities after the season,” Cirovski said. “There are a lot of people tracking him right now.”
Soccer has been in Pines’s blood since boyhood. He began in Soccer Association of Columbia before switching to United’s academy, a steppingstone to a possible homegrown pro contract.
Pines, who will turn 21 in March, said he was “always lean, skinny and the tallest on my teams. I had to refine my touch because I kept growing. I made sure I kept playing with the ball and working on my skill. I got use to my legs as I kept growing.”
Cirovski is no stranger to working with unusually tall players. Before Pines, he coached 6-4 Clarence Goodson, 6-5 Omar Gonzalez and 6-5 Alex Crognale. Goodson and Gonzalez developed into national team players, while Crognale just completed his second season as a Columbus Crew homegrown prospect.
“Those other guys were converted defenders and had to learn to love defending,” Cirovski said. “Donovan is in love with the art of defending. He prides himself on shutting people down.”
Beyond soccer, Pines wants to save some of Earth’s vulnerable creatures. Fascinated by environmental sciences, he has taken a keen interest in the battle against chytrid fungus, which has devastated amphibian populations around the world, most notably frogs, by penetrating their thin skin.
Someday, after soccer and a master’s degree, Pines said he would like to become a professor, research scientist or wildlife biologist. An assignment in China would be particularly appealing because he studied the language and culture while attending River Hill High School and visited the country on a school-sponsored odyssey.
“It opened my eyes,” he said, “to different perspectives, cultures and life in general.”
Pines has also volunteered at Columbia’s Robinson Nature Center.
“I love the environment,” he said. His formal major is called environmental science and biodiversity.
In his youth, “I would go down to the pond, look for little creatures — amphibians, reptiles — and take samples to look at in the microscope I got for Christmas.”
Chytrid fungus piqued his interest because “amphibians are an indicator species — the first to respond to anything that happens in the wild.”
At the moment, soccer is consuming his time and thoughts. The 11th-seeded Terrapins are on a 7-1-1 surge and have recorded shutouts in all three NCAA tournament matches. They upset No. 10 Duke in the round of 16 and, with Pines silencing 6-4, 200-pound, 18-goal scorer J.J. Williams, they beat No. 3 Kentucky to advance to the College Cup for the first time in five years.
“I tried to shut [Williams] down as much as possible, make him a little angry, make him frustrated with himself,” Pines said. “It was an incredible win, an awesome win.”
Where: Harder Stadium, Santa Barbara, Calif.
TV: All games on ESPNU and ESPN digital platforms.
Akron (14-6-2) vs. Michigan State (14-4-4), 8 p.m. Eastern.
Maryland (11-6-4) vs. Indiana (20-2-1), 10:45.
Sunday’s final, 8 p.m.