WASHINGTON – While their MLS team may have been dormant last weekend, D.C. United Homegrown players Donovan Pines and Chris Durkin were quite busy.
The pair were summoned by U.S. Soccer for last week’s U23 and U20 MNT camps in Spain, as one group began its Olympic cycle and the other heads into the final stretch for a World Cup.
Pines competed for the U23s, which lost 2-0 against Egypt and drew 0-0 versus a talented Netherlands side. In their opener, the U.S. U20s drew 2-2 against France, erasing a 2-0 deficit and beat Japan 2-1 in the final game this past Monday.
“The experience was awesome, it was everything I wanted it to be,” Pines told topdrawersoccer.com about his time with the Under-23 side. “It was just a great, great time. I enjoyed everything the national team had to offer: the players, the coaching staff, they gave me a lot of feedback, coaching tips, formation style. I just really enjoyed it, it was something that I really wanted to get myself into and be a part of, make the Olympic team. Hopefully I keep getting put into the training pool, keep doing well, working hard and proving my worth as a player and person overall.”
Said Durkin: “It was a great experience. To be able to challenge yourself against teams of that caliber is always really, really exciting. It’s something that I look forward to, being able to be across the same pitch as your peers who are playing at the highest levels in their respective environments, their countries, is always a great thing.”
Durkin and Pines took divergent paths to becoming teammates at D.C. Durkin was a longtime member of the U.S. Under-17 cycle for 2017, having turned pro with United in the summer of 2016 when he was just 16 years old. Pines played the past three seasons at Maryland after matriculating through the United Academy, coming into his own last fall as a junior, part of the Terps’ title-winning squad. After signing a Homegrown deal after the 2018 college season, Pines’ pro career on the field has started on loan at Loudoun United, D.C.’s USL affiliate.
While both were competing at the Pinatar Arena Football Festival, each U.S. youth squad is in a different place. The U23s are at the start of a one-year buildup to Olympic qualifying. Jason Kreis was named as head coach the week of their first two games, and after doing well in the first couple of sessions in the week, Pines found himself in the starting lineup last Friday against Egypt.
“Egypt was very cohesive, they had already played four games already, and that was our first game, rotating guys, trying to figure out who is good in what position,” Pines said. “It was interesting, a good dynamic. Overall, we’ll be a very good team in the long run if we keep playing hard against these harder opponents, keep getting minutes and finding a formation style that works for us. It was really interesting playing in the Egypt game, just watching the different dynamic players, some really fast small guys I’m not used to, bigger, strong guys like me and trying to figure out how to play them, how to work with the team, how to defend against that.”
After playing 45 minutes and coming off at the half against Egypt, Pines then got a cameo in the second game. Entering from the bench and playing about 15 minutes against the Netherlands, he helped the U.S. come away with the draw. The hulking, 6-foot-5 center back left the experience feeling confident about his ability to compete at the level.
In Spain at the same time as his D.C. counterpart, Durkin and the U20 squad in Spain were in a much different spot than their U23 compatriots. With so many U.S. U17 World Cup veterans from 2017 in the mix – the likes of Sergino Dest, Chris Gloster, Andrew Carleton, Jaylin Lindsey and Ayo Akinola were all in Spain – the group has a leg up in terms of team chemistry, as several U17 holdovers appear to be on the inside track to making the squad.
“We’re all a very close-knit group, we’ve known each other for a very long time,” Durkin said. “There’s a big 2000 pool within this U20 cycle and we’re all very familiar with each other, so that’s good with the chemistry. We all have a level of understanding of what Tab wants and being able to put that into play.”
The games against France and Japan provided a stiff test for the Under-20s, Durkin calling the France match the “best team” he’s played so far in his extensive youth international career. Not only was the time in Spain valuable for the U.S. in terms of World Cup preparation, but the Ukraine U20s were also there competing. The entire group was able to sit with the coaching staff and watch a half of one of their games, a chance to scout their first group opponent.
Not only is the chemistry factor among the 2000s and World Cup holdovers a bonus, but there are also similarities in the way both the U17s tried to play in 2017 and the way U20 head coach Tab Ramos is trying to get them to play.
“I think our press is more aggressive with Tab for sure,” Durkin said. “[U17 head coach John Hackworth] stressed wing play, wing progression, getting crosses in, finding Timothy Weah, Andrew Carleton, Ayo, we still have those same players in the U20 cycle that we want to find. We have Konrad, Jonathan Amon, guys who are really good in the one-v-one. We get them the ball, and we rely on Sebastian Soto, Justin Rennicks, Ayo if he’s playing striker, all good finishers. Serve it to the near post. That’s our game plan. Press high, get crosses in, create chances. It’s somewhat similar to what Under-17s was like.”
For now, both Durkin and Pines are back in the nation’s capital, seeking a step forward in their club career. Durkin’s focus, along with making the U20 World Cup squad, is on cracking D.C.’s central midfield rotation. He sits behind Junior Moreno and Russell Canouse in the pecking order, though he's made a couple of sub appearances during United's 2-0-1 start to the season.
In the near term, while he hopes to eventually become a regular in the U.S. Under-23 group, Pines is going to see minutes in the USL Championship with Loudoun. So far, it’s been a positive experience for the center back as he continues adjusting to the pro level.
“Everyone wants to play when they are coming out of college in any environment,” Pines said. “So I’m glad that I’m not on the bench for D.C., just sitting on the bench, not getting minutes. I need to make sure I can get the minutes with Loudoun so I can get my confidence, grow into the league, how the USL can be similar to the MLS and how guys are stronger, faster, and there could be some MLS guys playing in USL so I can adjust to that.”