Less than a minute into his return to competitive soccer, a comeback 14 months in the making after recovering from injuries and a cancer diagnosis, Chris Odoi-Atsem slipped and fell on the slick grass Saturday in Charlotte.
He popped back up before any damage was done.
It was, he said, a blunt reminder that, “Wow, I am really back in this.”
In his first game since beating Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Odoi-Atsem played the last 22 minutes of Loudoun United’s 3-1 victory Saturday. He will probably play again this weekend for D.C. United’s second-division team and perhaps receive time next Wednesday in D.C.'s home friendly against Spanish club Real Betis.
“It felt good to be back, but I know I’ve got a long way to go before I really feel like myself out on the field,” he said Tuesday. “I know I have to be patient with it. I know that will take a little bit of time to get to where I am flying up and down again.
“That will come, week by week and month by month. This weekend was a great step in that direction.”
Odoi-Atsem, who turns 24 this month, had not played in a real game since March 2018 at Columbus. Mysterious ailments sidelined him for months and eventually led to the dreaded diagnosis last fall.
The DeMatha High and University of Maryland graduate spent the fall and winter undergoing chemotherapy treatments. After a setback early in the year — “a scan did not look as great as the doctor would have liked,” he said — Odoi-Atsem was cleared to play this spring.
A long way behind his teammates in conditioning, Odoi-Atsem followed a preseason regimen in March and April to get into game shape.
Practices and matches are different things, however, and for the first few minutes Saturday, his mind was in a better place than his muscles.
“I was mentally prepared for it,” said Odoi-Atsem, a 2017 first-round draft pick who, as a rookie, started five MLS matches. “We had talked for over a week about playing in this game. I wasn’t too nervous. I was more excited to get back out there and run around with the guys.”
He is a natural right back, but with Loudoun hit hard by injuries to the defensive corps, Coach Richie Williams had told him he might end up anywhere on the back line. When the moment came, he played on the left corner.
D.C. Coach Ben Olsen and his staff will continue to closely monitor Odoi-Atsem, who has been training regularly with the first team.
“Everyone is super-excited about seeing him get back on the field,” Olsen said. “We are going to continue to push his minutes, and then he is in contention [to receive first-team assignments] and start pushing some of the starters."
With several defenders felled by injuries the past two months, Olsen could use another option this summer.
On a personal note, Olsen added: “He is such a great kid. He has handled this with such maturity.”
In the locker room after Saturday’s match, Williams addressed both the comeback victory and Odoi-Atsem’s comeback. The players responded with loud applause for their healthy teammate.
“Everyone is concerned with your health first and then your career, but I was just as concerned with my career as my health,” Odoi-Atsem said. “That’s just how we are as professional athletes. I was confident I would get back out there. It felt great, really great.”