Youth is served as DC United push for the playoffs

WASHINGTON – A reliance on a young defense for much of 2011 has led to some of the ups and downs this season for D.C. United, but the fun has seemingly only begun.

The microscope is about to focus even tighter on the likes of Perry Kitchen, Ethan White and Chris Korb as United look to complete their push for the playoffs, and now even the most minute of errors could cost the club their shot.

But from a young head coach to a very young back line, there’s plenty of faith they can get the job done.

“When you’re in this, and you’re in a race, it becomes much more dramatic,” head coach Ben Olsen said. “And I still think overall looking back at the season, I’m very happy with how they’ve done, and I think they’ve got some valuable experience.”

Kitchen, a highly-rated US youth international drafted by D.C. with the third overall pick in January, leads the team in starts (27) and minutes played (2.366), spending time mostly as a right back. At times in the year, the Akron product paired with White in central defense, and he downplayed the age factor putting more pressure on him and the rest of the young defense.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with age,” he said. “Every back line endures some pressure. We’ve had good times, we’ve had bad, it’s nothing to get down on.”

While the last two league games didn’t go D.C.’s way – dropping two straight to Eastern Conference foes Philadelphia and Columbus– the younger defenders are still eager to finish strong and deal with the pressure of the final four games.

“The veteran guys were saying that this is the best part of the year and this is what we play for,” Kitchen said. “I’m definitely excited and the pressure’s good.”

Becoming so reliant on rookie defenders, however, wasn’t completely by design.

Injuries to more experienced players like Dejan Jakovic, Devon McTavish and Jed Zayner came into play as well – and the young defenders have coped with the adjustment. The midseason addition of Brandon McDonald has also provided a boost.

But regardless of how the final games play out, with D.C. now five points out of the final playoff spot but with a couple of games in hand, the experience these players pick up in 2011 will only help United down the road.

“This is a process over a couple years, and we’ve committed to having some young guys out there, taking lumps is part of the learning process for them,” Olsen said. “Doesn’t make it any easier on them and our staff and our fans, but overall we’re OK.”

Travis Clark covers D.C. United, College and Youth soccer for MLSsoccer.com.