LEESBURG, Va. — There was a distinctly Black-and-Red feel at the newly unveiled Segra Field on Wednesday as the Loudoun United lineup featured a wealth of players boasting at least some experience with D.C. United’s first team, offering a high-level treat to fans in attendance.
Names like Donovan Pines, Chris Seitz, Griffin Yow, Antonio Bustamante and Gordon Wild all graced the lineup for head coach Ryan Martin, who navigated the unusual requirement ascribed to all coaches working for a parent club: to foster continuity within the team while also reserving minutes for the senior players who need them.
“It’s a challenge for any coach,” Martin said following a 2-1 defeat to the Charleston Battery before an announced crowd of 1,012 on a steamy August evening.
Among his chief responsibilities this week was allotting 60 minutes for Pines at center back and 90 minutes for Seitz as the starting goalkeeper, two players whose contributions are equal parts sporadic and spontaneous for D.C. United and whose efficacy hinges on their ability to stay ready in the absence of steady playing time. Both Pines and Seitz trained with Loudoun in the buildup to Wednesday’s game and then found themselves on a plane bound for Canada approximately 12 hours after its conclusion, rejoining their D.C. teammates ahead of Saturday’s clash with the Vancouver Whitecaps.
But while the overarching purpose attached to their Loudoun appearances was identical — remain on top of their game for when D.C. United needs them — the logic behind their experience was unique to each player.
For Seitz, who backs up starting goalkeeper Bill Hamid, his minutes have been fleeting during a year in which Hamid is playing perhaps the best soccer of his career. In fact, Seitz’s lone appearance in MLS this season was a 4-1 victory over FC Cincinnati in mid-July that drew praise from coach Ben Olsen. His remaining minutes have come through U.S. Open Cup matches and various friendlies against the likes of Real Betis and Marseille. That Seitz is on pace to log his fewest MLS minutes since 2011, when he made just a single appearance for FC Dallas, surely influenced the decision to have him on the field for Loudoun.
“I’ve obviously been in the league for a long time so I don’t need a whole lot of games to keep sharp and keep strong,” Seitz said following Wednesday’s game. “Obviously that game in Cincy was a good one was well. So they’re just finding an opportunity to get me some minutes here and there.
“I think when there’s a Wednesday game (with Loudoun) that doesn’t affect a first-team trip or a first-team game, I’m up for getting minutes and up for getting 90s in and working on distribution and live time, because you can’t replicate it in practice. Luckily enough, we have a good setup to where I have an opportunity and they’re gracious enough to allow us to come down here and train and play, so it’s good.”
At 32 years old and with 103 starts during 13 years in Major League Soccer, Seitz was far and away the most experienced player on the field Wednesday night. And with that, he said, comes an opportunity to share a bit of knowledge with Loudoun’s younger players.
“You don’t want to step on toes, right, so there’s a fine balance,” Seitz said. “But there’s definitely some knowledge I can give. And I pick my times and moments — especially in games — to work with the guys. I had two young boys (in the back line) at the end of that game, and working with them and trying to get them to do the right things and figure out when to do it is good. Hopefully it will pay dividends for them, and it’s good for me to stay sharp for myself as well.”
Said Martin: “The good news is Chris Seitz is a tremendous leader and (fellow goalkeeper) Earl (Edwards Jr.) is as well. So when we get those two guys (from D.C. United), typically we’re a lot more organized and disciplined.”
Pines, meanwhile, was instructed to log 60 minutes with Loudoun in an attempt to restore some of his confidence following a dip in form with D.C. United. The 21-year-old rookie had returned strongly from an early season injury to win a place in Olsen’s three-center back lineup for most of July, but a pair of subpar performances against the Chicago Fire and Philadelphia Union triggered a return to the bench. When Olsen reverted to a back four, Pines was the odd man out with Steven Birnbaum and Frederic Brillant manning the center back positions.
With just one training session alongside his temporary teammates, Pines opened Wednesday’s game a bit sloppily with a dangerous pass across his own penalty area in the first minute. He deferred much of the vocal leadership to fellow center back Collin Verfurth — a player more familiar with the Loudoun side — and predictably had his strongest relationship with Seitz, a player with whom he practices on a daily basis.
Pines’ performance strengthened as the match continued until Martin removed him in the 58th minute, but player and coach both acknowledged the obvious room for improvement. There were a handful of wayward passes from Pines, and Loudoun conceded a headed goal off a set piece.
“I’m just mad at myself that I couldn’t play to my expectation and I felt like I should have contributed more to the team,” Pines said. “I’m really hard on myself and mad at myself that I couldn’t contribute more. We came up with a loss today, but I keep learning, I’ve got to keep staying positive. I’ve had two bad games and I’m dwelling on that, but I’ve got to make sure I just come back stronger and keep working hard in training next week.
“It’s been a really interesting rookie season, just trying to find my way. I want to keep playing, trying to keep playing with the first team and trying to improve and hopefully get some more starts, keep elevating my game, you know? Because I know I can play at this level and I’m just trying to learn as much as I can and always play to my strengths and with the same passion that I had in the beginning of the season and just keep that consistently.”
Said Martin: “His first three passes were a little bit off because, really, he’s not used to playing with the guys. So it took him a little while to settle in and find himself. I think the hard part for him is that he is a talented player and he’s been in the first team’s 18-man roster, but he hasn’t really gotten minutes there. So he’s not match-sharp either, which is why he’s getting 60 minutes with us. And you could see a little bit of the rustiness in him.
“But the hope is when we send him to Vancouver and if (D.C. United) need him, then he has a significantly better performance and helps lead the group. So there’s a frustration in terms of the result here and how it played out, but that’s also really part of the job of how can we get him to where he needs to go. And that was a conversation with him as well saying, ‘No matter where you play in the match, or if you get thrown into a game in the 50th minute and you’re not warmed up and you haven’t played in weeks, you’re gonna have to get it done.’
“And that’s a lesson that a 21-year-old (has to learn), and unfortunately it takes experiences like this to grow.”
By now, Pines and Seitz have put their midweek cameos behind them and rejoined D.C. United for the long flight to Vancouver, where the goal is stringing together back-to-back wins for the first time since May. And the hope is that both players will have benefitted from extra game action if called upon by Olsen this weekend.