WASHINGTON – During the majority of training sessions during the international break, D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen and his players have been in good spirits.
And why not?
The club has won four of its last five matches, stands solidly in third place in the Eastern Conference and can secure a playoff spot for the first time since 2007 with a win or draw against Columbus on Saturday at RFK Stadium.
At the heart of United’s success is a core of young players who will be tested on a truly big stage for the first time in their respective careers against the Crew, and potentially beyond.
Nick DeLeon, Bill Hamid, Perry Kitchen, Andy Najar and Chris Pontius all are 25 or younger. Pontius, in fact, could be considered the veteran of the group as the other four are all 21 or younger.
“I feel like most young guys in this league, that’s what it’s all about,” said Hamid, who has 12 wins in 22 matches this year. “We want the chance to go and show what we can do. We’re young guys and we’re going to make mistakes, but if you give us the chance, we’re going to shine. All of us young guys in this locker room, we want the chance to show what we can do in the playoffs.”
It’d be one thing if D.C.’s youthful nucleus was sparingly used, or if only one or two players were consistently making a difference. But all of the aforementioned players are impact starters for a storied club on the verge of returning to the playoffs.
DeLeon, a rookie, has scored five goals and assisted four more. Kitchen has played the second-most minutes on the team behind 26-year-old Brandon McDonald, who could be considered ancient by these standards.
“We have great young talent, but we also have experienced guys who are helping us along,” Kitchen said. “It’s exciting to see young guys doing well.”
Pontius leads the team with 12 goals and four assists while Najar, displaced from his normal position further up the field, is excelling at right back and has started 10 of 11 matches since returning from a succesful Olympic tournament with Honduras. And that’s all without mention of 25-year-old Chris Korb’s efforts at left back, locking down the position since Daniel Woolard went down with a concussion.
At the start of the year, United were the sixth-youngest club in the league with an average age of 27.37. Of Olsen’s most recent starting XI in a 1-0 victory against Toronto, only three were older than 30.
“I think it’s good for me as a young head coach and I think it’s good for our players as a young team which hasn’t been put in these situations in the last couple years,” said Olsen, 35. “By situations, I mean games that really mean something. That’s certainly what [Columbus] is.
"It’s a game that both teams need. It’s down to the wire. It will be good for us as an organization to be a part of that.”
Part of the excitement surrounding the match involves the uncertainty of not knowing how the young players on United’s roster will respond, coupled with the opportunity to pop some champagne.
“I look forward to it and welcome the challenge,” DeLeon said. “We have a great mixture of young and older guys.”