Last summer, Christian Benteke had a decision to make.
A decade into his distinguished English Premier League career at age 31, his minutes and productivity at Crystal Palace were slipping. His long-running international career with Belgium was still active, yet the prospects for making the Red Devils’ 2022 World Cup squad looked hazy – and this is a player whose place on their 2014 roster was snatched away by injury, then by a coach’s choice in 2018, which Roberto Martinez called his “toughest decision.”
With an autumn tournament in Qatar, the right transfer and a run of good form might just help him earn a spot on the plane. As a beloved and productive member of Belgium’s so-called ‘golden generation’ – his friendship with Eden Hazard is so strong that a documentary was filmed about it in 2019 – it would seem he had a shot.
But the big striker had a different set of priorities in mind for his next move.
“This time I really wanted to choose something that makes me happy,” Benteke said after signing with D.C. United on a multi-million-dollar August 2022 transfer that made him the highest-paid player in Black-and-Red history. “And I’m ready to take any consequences. I wanted to do something that I wanted to choose myself, that was going to make me happy when I wake up. So that's my whole decision. So I didn't really think about anything else.”
Turning a corner
The early returns on that bold move were not exactly encouraging. D.C. were struggling at the bottom of the table and stayed there, finishing last in the overall MLS table, going 1W-4L-2D in the matches in which Benteke appeared last season. He missed a penalty kick in his home debut and scored just once in those first seven games.
He didn’t make Belgium’s list, either, and the Red Devils, ranked second in the world before the tournament, crashed badly in Qatar, failing to advance out of Group F. Yet Benteke was thoughtful and grounded when he reported to MLS media day in San Jose come January, flashing a ready smile when sitting down for a 1-on-1 conversation with MLSsoccer.com.
“I feel happy when I wake up,” he said. “Like, I wake up and I get to do what I love the most. It’s to play football. And the conditions where we are playing, good facilities, nice field, how can you complain? You can just be grateful and happy.
“So this is something that I was looking for, being somewhere where people want you and where you feel that you can help or you can give something back. That's why I really look forward for this season, to do well, to perform.”
Fast-forward to Matchday 11 and Benteke’s vision is bearing fruit. United have climbed above the Eastern Conference’s Audi MLS Cup Playoffs line and are riding a three-game winning streak into Saturday’s visit to league co-leaders FC Cincinnati (7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass). He leads the team and ranks tied for fourth-most in MLS with five goals, the most recent of which was a worldie, a bicycle kick vs. Charlotte FC that won the AT&T 5G Goal of the Matchday award by a 21-point margin.
And that smile is still on his face. Bigger than ever, in fact.
“It was a pretty cool goal,” said Benteke with masterful understatement after his jaw-dropping bike. “I was just hoping to have good contact with the ball and hit the target.”
It’s not just that the Designated Player has been hitting the net. His full No. 9 skill set has proven so powerful that D.C. coach Wayne Rooney shifted his game model to make it the centerpiece of United’s tactics. Their current run of form has been keyed by a change to a 3-5-2 formation that revolves around Benteke.
“He's been huge for us to start the season. He's a leader on and off the field, someone who's obviously relied upon immensely in our team,” D.C. holding midfielder Russell Canouse told MLSsoccer.com this week. “We look to him to score goals, but do a lot of other things within the play of the game, whether that's holding up the ball or even the defensive part, he's taken to that as well. So yeah, he's been a huge piece in the puzzle.
“We're a team that still wants to play. We definitely want to be able to keep possession and do a better job at that, securing the ball and playing, but we also have a dual threat with Christian up top. It's something that I think brings us a lot of value as a team in certain games. If we want to go direct, we can.”
And the warmth and breadth of Benteke’s personality have become the lodestar in the locker room, knitting together a diverse squad that spans a nearly two-decade age spectrum from teenage homegrown Matai Akinmboni to 35-year-old veteran Pedro Santos.
“Us older players sometimes have to, you know, how should I put this? Ground them a bit sometimes,” explained Benteke’s fellow DP Victor Pálsson on Thursday.
How does a star who’s scored 86 career EPL goals (more than Eric Cantona or Fernando Torres) connect with kids barely half his age, or fellow internationals who don’t speak one of the three languages in which he’s fluent?
“He plays ping pong with them,” said Canouse.
The table at the Inova Performance Complex, United’s exurban training facility in Leesburg, Virginia, usually runs on the ‘winner stays on’ policy. Amid all the competitiveness and trash-talking that unfolds there, so too has a sense of kinship, helping root a collective spirit among this squad that feels like a tighter bond than its predecessors.
“He's just a positive figure within the locker room, which has been great to see,” said Canouse of Benteke. “But also sometimes I sit back and I watch and I'm like, that's someone who's brought a positive culture into the team. Those types of players and guys, you need around the club to have successful runs, successful teams.”
Benteke’s selflessness reflects in his eagerness to provide a reference point to his colleagues, to do the dirty work that’s like oxygen for D.C.’s previously anemic attack. In his bruising battles with defenders week after week, he’s won a league-leading proportion of his 133 aerial duels, jousted in a league-leading 214 duels and committed a league-leading 35 fouls.
“Benteke’s a handful,” said New England Revolution coach Bruce Arena after his table-topping side had to mount a late comeback to beat United 2-1 at Audi Field in late March. “They're a fairly direct team. They play into Benteke and they play off him. He's a really dangerous forward.”
Benteke has clearly embraced a ‘by any means’ mentality. And in the wake of his country’s shocking no-show at the World Cup, it’s tempting to wonder if his national team could’ve used some of that in Qatar. The player himself watched in sadness as his comrades fell well short of expectations, though he sounded more resigned than surprised when discussing it in January, pointing to the achievements of Belgium’s next-door neighbors, 2018 champions and last autumn’s finalists.
“For us, it's more like the mentality of the Belgian people. We are not born in a winning culture, I will say,” said Benteke. “Spain, Germany, Brazil, Argentina, France: They are winning countries. Belgium, we didn't win anything. It doesn't mean that we are not good. But it's to try to bring that mindset, too, that winning mentality, not just being a pretty, nice team that plays nice football.
“France is the country next to us; when you compare with France, you can see the mentality, it's different. And you can see it on the pitch.”
“Belgium is a small country,” he said. “So we are grateful. We feel like ‘Oh, yeah, it's a nice generation. Even if we don't win, that's fine. Let's be grateful. We gave so many nice memories and moments.’ But yeah, at the end, we didn't win anything. So there's shame because, as you say, golden generation, that we didn't win anything.
“It’s a cultural thing. When I look at, let’s say Argentina, they are ruthless. It's a winning mentality. ‘Whatever it takes, we're going to do it. Even if we have to be ugly, nasty, we're going to do it.’ But for us, you won't see that. We want to win in a fair way.”
If the Red Devils missed out, D.C. are thrilled to reap the benefits of Benteke’s presence. A life that began in Kinshasa in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was threatened by war, challenged by childhood emigration to Belgium and elevated by his excellence to the brightest stages of the soccer world, still has so much to give, both on the field and off.
“It doesn't matter how talented you can be,” said Benteke. “You need to do more.”