In a sport often ruled by smaller men, D.C. United's Brandon McDonald towers over teammates and opposing attackers alike. The 6-foot-1 defender's chiseled frame and unmistakable blonde mohawk serve as a clear warning for those bold enough to venture deep into the heart of the Black-and-Red defense: Enter at your own risk.
He is, to be direct, the perfectly hulking image of masculinity.
But in hearing McDonald tell his story, a softer side of D.C.'s hardest player quickly emerges. He is also a mama's boy.
McDonald's mother was a standout athlete - even earning a spot on the boys soccer team - at the same Glendale, Arizona high school he would attend two decades later, and the 26-year-old credits much of his physical prowess to her 'athletic genes'. The University of San Francisco alum also points to his grandmother, who was primarily responsible for raising him, as a source of the dogged determination that permeates McDonald’s game.
"My grandmother raised nine kids pretty much by herself," notes the central defender, clearly in awe of the incredible feat. "To be honest, I think I get the fight and the passion from my mom and grandmother."
McDonald also owes his start in soccer to his grandmother. At just five years of age, it was she who enrolled the precocious youngster in a youth program along with his sister and cousins. But what started as a family activity quickly turned into much more. In Arizona's Sereno Golden Eagles, McDonald played for one of the most successful youth teams of the past decade. Alongside future professionals Robbie Findley, Michael Gavin and Rob Valentino, McDonald and the Golden Eagles won eight state championships, four regional titles and finished as national runners-up twice during a near-decade of dominance.
Beyond serving as a solid foundation for his future in Major League Soccer, McDonald's highly decorated youth career - in which he was selected to the U.S. Under-17 player pool - doubled as an amazing education in the world's game. Coaches from Scotland, England and even Croatia lent a variety of elements to McDonald's burgeoning skill-set, as the physically gifted youngster turned into a student of the sport. It's a trait McDonald hasn't abandoned in his days as a professional.
"Your physical attributes can only get you so far," says McDonald, who rates FC Barcelona matches as must-see television. "When you get to these higher levels, it's all about your brain, your mental capacity and how quick you are able to process and do things. For me it's all about learning the game and being a student of your craft."
If McDonald labels himself a student of the game, he likely could not have picked a better spot to start his professional career. Taken by the Los Angeles Galaxy in third round of the 2008 MLS SuperDraft, the then-rookie shared a locker room with David Beckham and Landon Donovan while taking instruction from Bruce Arena. After a season in Hollywood McDonald moved to San Jose, where the Earthquakes finally gave him the chance to play on a regular basis. McDonald made the most of the opportunity, starting 28 matches in 2010 as the Northern California side advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals. Despite the team's success, improved depth along San Jose's back line made playing time difficult to come by in 2011 and - in need of cap space - the 'Quakes began looking to make a deal involving the talented back.
United General Manager Dave Kasper learned of the opportunity and, together with head coach Ben Olsen, decided to gamble. With just one year left on his contract there was no guarantee that McDonald would be a long-term solution in Washington, but - with D.C.'s defense struggling - Kasper pulled the trigger on a late June trade.
"We took a little bit of a risk," Kasper admitted from his office, recalling the decision to acquire a player on an expiring deal. "We gave up a pretty big asset in the allocation to get him, but we saw it as an opportunity to get a quality starting center back."
Once in D.C., it didn't take long for McDonald to prove United's front office right. The Black-and-Red conceded just twice in McDonald's first three matches with the club, this after having allowed seven goals over the three games immediately preceding his arrival. Eager to lock-up his services, D.C. inked McDonald to a new deal in late August.
"In any aspect of life it feels great to be wanted," McDonald said of the deal aimed at keeping in Washington for the long haul. "When you go somewhere you are wanted, that means you are appreciated. So for me it's about repaying what the club has given me. In my style of play I try to express everything about me on the field. I'm passionate and I work hard."
The hard work is paying off. Now a constant in Olsen's starting eleven, McDonald is morphing into a leader on the field and – perhaps more importantly - in D.C.'s youthful dressing room. It's a role the fifth-year pro embraces, especially with a group he profoundly believes in.
"There's respect and a genuine care for one another," McDonald says of United's close-knit dressing room. "We have so much to learn and grow as a group, but we can be special. If we just stay the course and keep moving in this direction, the sky is the limit."
This article was originally published in the May 16 issue of the Matchday Program