WASHINGTON — No one — not D.C. United coach Ben Olsen or Ethan White himself — could have known for sure how much the rookie center back would feature in his debut season.
But one thing's certain, the amount he's played in 2011 has eclipsed what Olsen expected.
"I think if you told me Ethan would have this many games when we got him last year, I probably wouldn't have believed you," Olsen said this week. "To his credit, he's stepped in ... always willing to push his fitness, his mind, to learn the game. He's been a pleasant surprise."
White has appeared 21 times this season for D.C. United, starting on 18 occasions. Mostly, the towering central defender has filled in for international absences or injury problems that have plagued the back line. D.C. signed the 20-year-old in December 2010 as a Home Grown player after White spent two seasons playing collegiately at the University of Maryland.
They expected to bring him along slowly. Instead, White was thrown in at the deep end. Now long-term injuries to more experienced defenders like Devon McTavish, Jed Zayner and Dejan Jakovic have opened the door for the youngster.
"We've asked a lot of Ethan in his first year," Olsen said. "But overall, it's been pretty good. He has his moments where he looks like a young defender, but he's a young defender."
Added White: "I'm happy with the way things have gone. Coming in as a rookie, you don't know what to expect. Leaving Maryland early and getting some time is great."
Recently, White has started D.C.'s last four league games because of a hamstring injury regular center back Jakovic suffered in September. That gave White the chance to score his first pro goal in last week's 2-2 draw against Chivas USA, a proud moment for him.
During that stretch, White has formed a solid partnership alongside Brandon McDonald at the back, with the 25-year-old veteran looking out for the rookie.
"He's kind of taking me under his wing, talks to me and helps me through certain situations during the game and off the field as well," White said of McDonald.
With Jakovic still struggling with the hamstring injury — the Canadian international trained on Tuesday, but not fully, and is listed as doubtful for Thursday's matchup against Philadelphia — White is likely to keep his starting spot for the upcoming contests against the Union and Columbus.
But while he doesn't yet know for certain if he'll feature on Thursday, White aims to keep himself focused and ready to go if needed.
"When my time is called, I make sure I'm doing just a good a job as [Jakovic] has," he said.
Travis Clark covers D.C. United, College and Youth soccer for MLSsoccer.com.