WASHINGTON – Injuries can come at an inopportune time for many athletes. Some are starting to finally get a shot to get consistent playing time while others are in the prime of their careers and showing their values to their teams.
For Donovan Pines, the past two months off was the longest layoff of his young soccer career as he recovered from a grade 2 medial collateral ligament (MCL) sprain. It was also his first break in the past year, allowing the 21-year-old to evaluate himself and be reflective.
“It was kind of good so I can find myself,” Pines said. “I finally realized my likes and dislikes because I was not caught up in a lot of soccer. It was okay to slow down for a little bit.”
Now, fully healthy and heading into the second half of the Major League Soccer season (MLS), Pines looks to continue his impressive rookie campaign with a new starting role for D.C. United. Combined with high expectations to match, the 6-foot-5 center back adds depth and defensive grit as the Black-and-Red look to prepare for a lengthy playoff run.
The injury, announced on May 7 following his fourth game with the club, was his first long-term soccer injury, Pines said. During his time off, the center back had a chance to breathe, and missed the sport as he watched on the sidelines as his teammates trained.
“It was tough, I had never been injured like that. I had to trust the process and make sure I did my rehab every day,” Pines said. “Watching the guys go out to practices, I started to feel indifferent. I wanted to play but I had to focus on what I had to do in order to be successful, be strong so I can come back stronger.”
One year ago, the Clarksburg native was preparing for his third college soccer season at the University of Maryland. Despite a poor start, the Terrapins bounced back at the end of the year, accumulating a 9-1-1 record on route to winning the program’s fourth national championship.
As a junior, Pines was the lynchpin for a backline that shutout all five of their opponents in the NCAA tournament. As rumors began to swirl about his future, United leveraged its previous relationship with Pines at his academy club to offer him a contract following Maryland’s national title win.
“We have monitored Donovan’s progression at Maryland and feel he is ready to take the next step in his career,” Dave Kasper, United general manager and vice president of Soccer Operations, said. “He fits the profile of a modern MLS center back in a physically demanding league and has the technical qualities that suit our system.”
Following his signing, Pines did not have time to celebrate his collegiate feats as he joined his new teammates in training camp in January. Pines played his first few months as a professional on United’s reserve team, Loudoun United FC, before making his debut in the Black-and-Red’s 3-2 win at Colorado on April 13. He added his first career assist when his header landed in front of Luciano Acosta for the game’s opening goal.
“Youthful raw energy,” Goalkeeper Bill Hamid said. “He has a lot of playing experience playing at the University of Maryland; the kid has quality, a lot of strength, a lot of height and a lot of ability. He is unique in the way he plays and we are lucky to have him.”
His return from the injury on July 4 came just in time as United employed a new defensive shift that would allow three center backs on the field at the same time. Head Coach Ben Olsen said that Pines earned his way back to the starting line-up, crediting his ability to cover space when his fellow defenders go forward in attack and being an underrated passer.
The former Terp has started the club’s last four games, including a 2-0 loss to Atlanta United where he kept last year’s league-leading goal scorer, Josef Martinez, scoreless for over 90 minutes. Pines leads MLS with 4.06 clearances per 90 minutes among players who have logged at least 500 minutes this season.
“He is an excellent player,” United defender Leonardo Jara said. “He’s improving a lot day by day and it is very noticeable. For us, he is a very important player; he’s hard to be one-on-one and having him behind me, he did a great job covering for me and allow me to play my game. With someone like him and a backline of three, it makes starting an attack that much easier.”
Pines’ rookie year also earned him a spot in the MLS Homegrown Game on July 30, an annual contest for the league’s best rookies and prospects to take on an international academy team. The defender admits that due to his lack of social media use, he was unaware of the selection until a large number of celebratory text messages rang through his phone.
He was set to join striker Wayne Rooney in attending MLS All-Week festivities as the team’s lone representative but elected to stay home. Not one for attention, the center back said his focus is on preparing for the rest of his season with United.
As of July 29, D.C. sits in third place in the Eastern Conference. With Pines in the fold, United will look to make a second-half push to make its fifth playoff appearance in sixth years.
“Going from Maryland and all the stuff going on there to winning the national championship, all that stuff was great,” Pines said. “But for me, I am not the guy who likes to be in the limelight. I am quiet and like doing my job and whatever is needed for the team so it was good for me just to relax and find myself as a person. It was a blessing and a curse but I am glad to be back.”