Griffin Yow signed with D.C. United a couple of months ago, and he hadn’t yet played meaningful minutes for the club. He’s 16 years old and still can’t drive. Yet just after halftime at Audi Field on Wednesday, Yow leaped into the air as his teammates swarmed toward him.
Friendlies are largely meaningless, and the 5-2 loss to Real Betis, a Spanish club, won’t have any effect on the club’s MLS aspirations. But for a youngster who scored for the first time in a United jersey, the moment matters.
“It’s huge for me, not just to get my first goal, but it’s a confidence builder,” Yow said, “so when that first game, more than 10 minutes does come around in the MLS season or maybe something bigger, I’ll be ready for it, I’ll be confident, and I’ll be able to maybe get another goal.”
Yow later had a couple of more opportunities that had promise, and each time the crowd crescendoed toward a roar, realizing the teenager from Clifton, Va., could have scored twice.
Wednesday night’s matchup in front of an announced crowd of 11,201 primarily served as a chance to give less experienced players such as Yow and other backups time on the field. Quincy Amarikwa, a 31-year-old forward who was signed before season from Montreal, scored United’s second goal in the 69th minute, his first for D.C.
The friendly had a similar purpose for Chris Odoi-Atsem, even though he has played — and started — for United in the past. Eight months after Odoi-Atsem learned he had cancer and after four months of chemotherapy, the defender returned to the field in a United jersey for the first time since Hodgkin’s lymphoma cut short his second season with the club.
United Coach Ben Olsen said the staff planned to “get a pulse” of how Odoi-Atsem felt at halftime; he ultimately played 65 minutes.
“It means everything, especially this organization that has stood by me throughout this whole time, throughout my battle with cancer and on the way to recovery,” Odoi-Atsem said of returning to the field for United. “It felt great. That's the only way I can repay the city and organization is coming out and playing as hard as I can.”
Odoi-Atsem returned to competitive soccer this month, playing the final 22 minutes of second-division Loudoun United’s win over the Charlotte Independence. Odoi-Atsem, who played for DeMatha and the University of Maryland, then traveled with the team for D.C.’s game against Houston this week, but he didn’t play.
Amarikwa nearly scored midway through the first half off a pass from Odoi-Atsem, but a defender deflected the shot, sending the ball over the goal.
Real Betis finished its La Liga slate with a win Sunday against Real Madrid. With just two days between that game and Wednesday’s friendly, the team had to travel from Spain to Washington after just concluding a season that began in August. After finishing 10th of 20 teams in the league, Betis parted ways with Coach Quique Setien before a U.S. trip that also includes a match Saturday against lower-tier Chattanooga FC. This game marked the first of three friendlies United has planned for this year.
United is in the midst of a three-game road stretch, with a draw in Toronto a week ago and a loss in Houston three days later. Another road contest on Saturday against New England essentially eliminated the chance that any of United’s stars would play in the friendly.
Just two regular starters played Wednesday — midfielders Paul Arriola, who received a red card Saturday against Houston that will keep him from playing this weekend, and Junior Moreno, who missed the past two matches because of his father’s death. No other players in Wednesday’s starting 11 have started more than five of the 14 MLS games United has played so far this season.
“Some of the guys that haven't gotten a lot of minutes at this point in the season, it's good for them to get a run against quality opposition and then you see some young kids come in, kind of the next wave of players for the club,” Olsen said. “Then you have some Loudoun integration, so it was a good night. You don't like to lose 5-2, but you try to look past score and look at it as just a good night of soccer.”
Yow, who recently returned from the 2019 Concacaf Under-17 Championship in Bradenton, Fla., entered the game in the 32nd minute, the earliest of the substitutes.
“He’s just so comfortable in his own skin out there and the way he plays,” Olsen said of Yow. “Even when he makes some naive steps and some youthful movements, he gets out of it because he’s just so clever.”
The friendly gave additional experience to players from second-division Loudoun United, including Collin Verfurth, who was the only starter not from D.C. United’s active roster. A handful of other Loudoun players had minutes off the bench. All their D.C. jerseys just had numbers on the back without names.
All these players more accustomed to lower-tier opponents gained valuable experience, but Yow was the one who left with the standout moments. He still has most of his career lying ahead, but now Yow he has his first United goal — even if this was only a friendly, even if most see this as a match without much meaning.