Ready or not, D.C. United’s second-division start-up will take the stage Saturday in Nashville as a player incubator and branding extension for the MLS organization.
Some Loudoun players are D.C. first-team prospects. Some are high school kids from D.C.'s academy program. Some have come from abroad or from other United Soccer League teams.
“It’s been a pretty unique experience,” said Coach Richie Williams, a star midfielder in D.C. United’s early years. “You embrace the challenge because it’s a great opportunity — for young D.C. United guys to get matches, academy players to get experience, USL players to join a new team. We know it’s not going to be perfect. As the season moves along, we will get stronger.”
Loudoun United is one of nine outfits in the USL’s 36-team Championship division that is fully owned and operated by an MLS group. Previously, the Richmond Kickers served as United’s lower-tier affiliates, an imperfect arrangement with an independent team carrying its own priorities.
With full control over the Loudoun squad, D.C. chose the coach, players and playing philosophy.
“We want to win, but we want to do it in the right way because we are trying to develop young professionals,” Williams said. “There is a bit of a balance.”
Williams intends to employ the same formation — four defenders, two defensive midfielders, a playmaker, two wings and a striker — used by Ben Olsen at D.C. United.
Donovan Pines, a D.C. homegrown defender from the University of Maryland, will begin his pro career with Loudoun this weekend. So will Antonio Bustamante, a homegrown midfielder from William & Mary, and defender Akeem Ward, a first-round draft pick from Creighton University.
In the past, Pines and Ward would have received periodic starts at Richmond and Bustamante might not have gotten a contract offer at all. At times, D.C. will assign third-choice goalkeeper Earl Edwards Jr. to Loudoun.
Local teenagers aligned with D.C.'s academy are permitted to play without losing amateur eligibility: attacker Griffin Yow, a member of the U.S. under-17 national team; midfielders Bryang Kayo and Elian Nalerio Gamboa; and defender Allexon Saravia are the top prospects.
Yow, Kayo and Saravia spent time at D.C. United training camp in Florida and appeared in friendlies against pro opponents. Yow, in particular, appears to be a prime candidate for a homegrown pro contract. He might end up being Williams’s playmaker.
Another playmaking option is attacker Shinya Kadono, a D.C. third-round draft pick who signed a USL contract.
Players with USL experience include 6-foot-6 goalkeeper Calle Brown, a Leesburg native who won an NCAA title at the University of Virginia in 2014 before joining the Houston and Seattle MLS organizations; striker Kyle Murphy; and defenders Harri Hawkins and Peabo Doue, a former D.C. academy prospect.
With both teams training at the RFK Stadium grounds — until both move into a new facility in Leesburg next year — Olsen can keep close tabs on the junior squad.
He will be in close contact with his former teammate, Williams, 48, who most recently was a U.S. men’s national team assistant. Previously, he was head coach of the U.S. under-17 and under-18 national teams and served as an assistant for Real Salt Lake and the New York Red Bulls.
Ahead of the opener, against a Nashville team that will move to MLS next year, Williams has had to navigate a fluid situation. The team’s technical director, Dane Murphy, is already up for a job with English club Barnsley. The assistant coach, Gus Teren, was pulled from the academy’s under-14 squad.
None of the four Latin American newcomers has received a work visa yet. They are Honduran midfielder Jack Baptiste, 19; Salvadoran midfielder Omar Campos, 18; Argentine forward Ariel Fantoni, 20; and Costa Rican forward Orlando Sinclair, 20. It’s unclear when they will arrive.
Loudoun United is trying to catch up in other areas.
Eventually, the team will play home matches at a 5,000-seat stadium, the centerpiece of the Leesburg project housing the training center. Until the stadium opens Aug. 9, five home matches will take place elsewhere in the area, probably at George Mason University in Fairfax or Audi Field, the 20,000-seat MLS stadium that opened last summer.
The first six games — and 13 of the first 18 — will be on the road. The home opener is May 3.
The other day, as he was making final preparations for the opener, Williams was approached by Dave Kasper, D.C. United’s general manager.
"He asked, ‘What do you think?’ " Williams said. “I said, ‘I don’t know what to think.’
“I want to see how it unfolds. It’s been only a few weeks — we haven’t had a lot of time — but we’ve tried to prepare them the best we can.”