Cancer will always be part of Chris Odoi-Atsem’s story. Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma during his second season as a professional soccer player for D.C. United, the defender was sidelined for more than a year in 2018 and 2019 as he underwent treatment and rehabilitated his weakened body.

The road back was long and difficult, culminating with regular assignments this year. And amid United’s terrible campaign, the former DeMatha High and University of Maryland standout reached new heights Sunday night, scoring his first MLS goal over four seasons, a go-ahead strike in the 78th minute as visiting D.C. defeated FC Cincinnati, 2-1.

“People know my story and what I’ve been through, but I try not to dwell on it too much,” Odoi-Atsem, 25, said. “I try to live in the present, and right now everything is great.”

Making his seventh start of the year, Odoi-Atsem helped United end its winless streak at nine and keep alive the team’s faint playoff hopes. United is 3-10-6 with four matches left.

High pressure led to a Cincinnati giveaway. Moses Nyeman, 16, pushed the ball wide to substitute Kevin Paredes, 17, whose 18-yard shot was stopped by diving goalkeeper Bobby Edwards. On the back side, Odoi-Atsem pumped in the rebound.

Entering the night, Odoi-Atsem had produced two shots in his career.

As for putting the goal in perspective, he said: “I’ll be able to dwell on it more a little bit later. That’s all I want to do is help the team. That’s all I ever wanted to do. When I was out, just to be healthy and help the team on the field and get a win, that’s everything to me.”

In a season with few feel-good moments, this was a great one.

“It’s so awesome,” said interim coach Chad Ashton, who improved to 1-1-1 since he took over for the fired Ben Olsen on Oct. 8. “He has just been through a lot and continues to work and work and work. It’s such a credit to him, and I am so happy for him. He is well deserving to get that.”

Earlier, both teams had taken advantage of goalkeeping errors to score. Donovan Pines, another former Maryland player, put shorthanded United ahead in the first half with his second goal in two matches. Brandon Vazquez equalized for Cincinnati (4-11-4) midway through the second half.

United’s absences included long-term injuries (Paul Arriola, Felipe Martins, Mohammed Abu, Ulises Segura and Steven Birnbaum), short-term ailments (Júnior Moreno), illness (Bill Hamid and Yordy Reyna) and a yellow-card suspension (Russell Canouse).

Because of the pandemic disruptions, MLS has allowed nine substitutes on the bench. United on Sunday had six spare bodies.

Cincinnati did not have nearly as many injuries but was down to its third-string goalkeeper, Edwards, who made his MLS debut Wednesday.

Ashton stuck largely with what worked in a 2-2 draw against Philadelphia on Wednesday, keeping Yamil Asad in central midfield and Edison Flores on the left wing.

Odoi-Atsem replaced Oniel Fisher at right back. Nyeman filled in for Canouse in defensive midfield.

With Hamid missing a second consecutive match, Chris Seitz made his sixth start in net.

The first half strolled along with minor threats at both ends. United’s early highlight was Nyeman, from deep in his end, warding off an opponent while pushing forward with possession and pulling away from two others before delivering a terrific through ball that almost connected with Gelmin Rivas.

United went ahead in the 36th minute on Pines’s second career goal, facilitated by Edwards’s extraordinary blunder.

From 40 yards, Asad served a free kick that sailed well beyond his preferred target. Edwards should have let it fly out of bounds for a goal kick.

Instead, he leaped at the end line and tried to catch the errant ball. Edwards’s momentum was carrying him over the line, but instead of conceding a corner kick, he dropped the ball in play next to the right post.

Pines hadn’t given up on the play, and when the ball fell in front of him, he controlled it with his right foot and tucked it into the net with his left.

Edwards pulled his orange jersey over his face in embarrassment, then prayed the video assistant referee would rule the ball had gone out of bounds before his unintended assist. No such luck.

United had trailed at intermission eight times this season and been tied 10 times. Finally, it took a halftime lead into the locker room.

Cincinnati tied it in the 66th minute thanks to Seitz’s error. The 14-year MLS veteran fumbled Siem de Jong’s 25-yard bid, leaving the ball for Vazquez to poke into the net.

Odoi-Atsem’s goal and the resulting outcome capped a stretch of three matches in eight days in which United played well but, until Sunday, hadn’t won.

“It would be difficult to have the week that we’ve had, to play as well as we’ve played, and not end up with three points,” Ashton said. “To be rewarded puts us in a good place mentally, helps us move forward, helps us believe in what we are doing, that we are doing the right things.”

Notes: United will visit Atlanta (5-10-4) on Saturday. Ashton said there is a “very good chance” Hamid and Moreno (hamstring) will be available.

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