Back in the good old days — say, 2016 — a D.C. United homegrown player might get the nod in a nonleague match or go on loan to second-flight affiliates in Richmond. For most youth academy graduates over the years, first-team minutes were a long-term aspiration.
Less than two months into this MLS campaign, however, two prospects who did not seem to fit into Coach Ben Olsen’s plans until the summer have already gained playing time.
Next, there was Griffin Yow, a 16-year-old attacker from Clifton, Va., who played the last few minutes of the 2-0 defeat to New York City FC on Sunday at Audi Field. He became the youngest D.C. player since Freddy Adu (14 at the time) in 2004 to enter a regular season match.
Pines and Yow are expected to suit up again Wednesday when United (4-2-2) visits the Columbus Crew (4-3-1). Pines is then slated to travel to Minnesota for Sunday’s match, while Yow will join the U.S. under-17 national team Thursday in Florida to prepare for the U-17 World Cup qualifying tournament.
With the core of a revitalized team returning this season, first-year pros figured to have a hard time cracking the game-day roster. But proper grooming at the organization’s new second-division team, Loudoun United, and a flurry of D.C. injuries opened the door to early-season call-ups.
Another homegrown signing, midfielder Antonio Bustamante, from Springfield, Va., and William & Mary, is gaining experience with Loudoun United.
Although both signed homegrown deals before the season, Pines and Yow were different cases. Pines, 21, had played three years of college soccer and had the physical traits to compete at the pro level; Yow was a high school sophomore listed at 5-7 and 135 pounds.
“Donovan came into this year with higher expectations because of his gains and maturity,” Olsen said. “It doesn’t surprise me he has played a game for us at this point. And he has put himself in the conversation to get more games.”
Pines was on the bench Sunday, yielding to veteran Frederic Brillant. But in a stretch of three matches in eight days, Olsen might give him another look this week.
“We knew he was going to be a potential starter for this team,” Olsen said. “When that is, I don’t know, but we certainly like what we’ve seen.”
After a rocky finish to training camp in Florida — he seemed to regress the last few weeks — Pines performed well in three matches with Loudoun United, which competes in the United Soccer League’s Championship division.
Without much returning depth in central defense, Olsen saw an opportunity for Pines to earn a game-day roster spot. (He and Yow typically practice with D.C., not Loudoun.) Defensive injuries to Leonardo Jara, Joseph Mora and Chris McCann opened a slot and prompted Olsen to adjust his formation at Colorado.
United has no shortage of attacking players, but because of the injury bug, Yow traveled to Colorado and was in uniform Sunday.
“I was a little bit surprised [to play] because most of the homegrowns don’t usually debut this early,” Yow said. “For Ben and the coaching staff to give me this opportunity, they must think a lot of me, but also they have trust in me. That is a really good feeling, and I gain confidence from that.”
With D.C. and Loudoun usually playing on the same weekend, Olsen must weigh providing Yow with MLS exposure but little playing time against regular minutes with the second team. Yow scored the first goal in Loudoun history and has started twice.
“It’s one thing to put him on the bench and give him five, 10 minutes, but there’s maybe more value in getting 90 minutes with Loudoun,” Olsen said. “That will be the case probably more times than not. It’s still about development for him and, in some ways, Donovan as well. That is a balance we will have to find.”
The second-division duty, combined with D.C. training sessions, have eased the transition from youth to pros.
“I didn’t feel as much on edge: ‘What am I doing here? I don’t belong here,’ ” Yow said. “I felt more comfortable and felt I could play a role out there.”
MLS clubs have exclusive league rights to players from their youth academy, even if they decide to play college soccer first. They are exempt from the MLS draft, unless the club declines to tender a contract.
This winter’s signings of Pines, Bustamante and Yow increased United’s homegrown total to 12 since goalkeeper Bill Hamid became the first, in 2009. (Adu joined United before the league introduced the homegrown policy.)
Many have moved on, but in recent matches, there were five on the D.C. game-day roster: Pines; Yow; Hamid; defender Jalen Robinson, 24; and midfielder Chris Durkin, 19.
Durkin, who started 16 regular season matches last year and the past two this year, took a slower route than Yow. He signed in summer 2016 and, for 1½ seasons, split most of his time between the under-17 national team and the Richmond Kickers, an independent club that served as United’s second-division affiliates between 2013 and 2018.
His first-team appearances in 2016-17 came in nonleague matches.
“It took a while,” he said with a laugh. “Griffin is about to embark on a similar path as I did with the U-17s. I know he is excited to have this chance here. He is beginning to immerse himself. Hopefully this feeds the fire to get more and more opportunities.”
D.C. United at Columbus Crew
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: MAPFRE Stadium, Columbus, Ohio
Live streams: FloSports, ESPN+. Both are subscription services. ESPN+ is blacked out in the D.C. area.
Records: United 4-2-2, 14 points; Crew 4-3-1, 13 points
D.C. probable starters: GK Bill Hamid; D Leonard Jara, Frederic Brillant, Steve Birnbaum, Paul Arriola; MF Ulises Segura, Chris Durkin, Junior Moreno, Luciano Acosta, Lucas Rodriguez; F Wayne Rooney
Columbus probable starters: GK Zack Steffen; D Hector Jimenez, Jonathan Mensah, Gaston Sauro, Waylon Francis; MF Pedro Santos, Wil Trapp, Artur, Federico Higuain, Robinho; F Gyasi Zardes