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Former River Hill, Maryland soccer star Donovan Pines fulfills dream of playing for the U.S. men’s national team

D.C. United star defender Donovan Pines immediately knew the answer to the question United States men’s soccer coach Gregg Berhalter posed to him Sunday.

The 23-year-old Clarksville native had already made his dream-come-true debut with the U.S. men’s national team three days earlier as a late substitute during stage play of the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup in a comfortable win against Martinique. Sunday’s assignment would provide a far greater challenge.

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Looking to finish 3-0 in Group B, the U.S. had an early 1-0 lead over Canada when Pines was called on after starting center defender Walker Zimmerman suffered a hamstring injury 15 minutes into play.

Berhalter kept it simple.

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“The words he told me were, ‘You ready for this?’ and I said, ‘I’m ready,’” said Pines.

Only after he put in 75 quality minutes to help the home team protect the advantage and claim a 1-0 win could Pines reflect on that monumental question and his confident reply.

He thought back to the days he watched the U.S. team play as a youngster, dreaming of the day he would be in the same spot.

Then there was all the good fortune his hard work led to: The national championship in 2018 to highlight his college career at Maryland, his breakthrough second season for D.C. United last year and the phone call he received in January to participate with the Under-23 team in a joint training session with the senior squad. Just as important, he considered all the support he had received over the years from family and friends.

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“In the moment, I said to myself, ‘Just do your best and do your job and do it for the people you love and this country because this all what you’ve been playing for,’” Pines said.

His longstanding love for soccer has provided Pines with a foundation that has held firm. Because of it, he enjoys every minute he’s on a field, whether it’s during practice or a game. It allows him to stay in the moment. His first touch came with a deep breath followed by a quick and simple pass.

Former River Hill and Maryland defender Donovan Pines (4), dribbling the ball down the field as he's chased by Canada forwards Cyle Larin (17) and Ayo Akinola (20) during the fist half of a CONCACAF Gold Cup soccer match in Kansas City, Kansas on Sunday, made his United States men's national soccer team debut on July 15 and played 75 minutes as a substitute against Canada.
Former River Hill and Maryland defender Donovan Pines (4), dribbling the ball down the field as he's chased by Canada forwards Cyle Larin (17) and Ayo Akinola (20) during the fist half of a CONCACAF Gold Cup soccer match in Kansas City, Kansas on Sunday, made his United States men's national soccer team debut on July 15 and played 75 minutes as a substitute against Canada. (Colin E. Braley / AP)

“I was just making sure that I was playing simple because I wanted to get into the flow of the game, understand my role and not do too much to mess up the crew that we have. So I just wanted to be there, circulate the ball, play short passes and play as simple as possible to help the team be successful,” he said.

After the game, he got encouraging words from his teammates and coaches with positive reviews.

“We’ve been pleased with Donovan’s development over the past year with D.C. United and he’s earned this opportunity to compete with the USMNT,” Berhalter said. “And in this tournament, in particular, we’ve seen him come into the game and grow as the game went on. We feel that he’s able to compete at this level, which is an important first step for a young player.”

Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski grew to appreciate that consistent quality Pines — the son of University of Maryland president Darryl J. Pines — brought to the field for the Terps in his three-year career.

“Donovan is a bit of a throwback in that he sees himself as a defender first and someone that either starts or builds the attack second. That’s refreshing because we all want our center backs to be able to build and play with the ball, but they really need to care about their craft of defending and that’s what I appreciate about Donovan,” he said.

“I think that’s what D.C. United people and the staff of the U.S. men’s national team are seeing more regularly is when you need to win a game, you need someone to do their job defensively and never take a play off. Donovan is very tuned in, unbelievably competitive and insanely proud. So it’s just great to see.”

On Sunday morning, Pines had a by-chance meeting with the team’s general manager, Brian McBride, in the hotel elevator. Pines talked about staying positive despite the limited playing time, his desire to lift up the team any way he could and how he would be ready when his time came.

McBride, one of the country’s finest strikers during his playing days, applauded the mindset.

“The game ends and he was the first person I came across off the field and he says, ‘Donovan, look what we said on the elevator!’” Pines said. “It’s something small, but it was really cool how he remembered that. I gave him a big hug and said thanks for the support and everything. The little things really pay dividends in the way it speaks the truth and the person you are.”

Pines was emotional about it all for several days, he said. Immediately after the game, he reached out to his parents and since then had been returning phone calls and texts to all the people close to him, including Cirovski.

“Donovan is one of the most sincere, honest, wonderful players I’ve ever coached. He’s just somebody you want to root for all the time and someone you always appreciate their effort,” Cirovski said. “He cares so much about doing well and pleasing his teammates, his coaches, his fans that it’s just a wonderful trait. So it’s was great to see him come in to a big game last week and I think it’s just the start for him because he’s continuing to grow and evolve every season. It’s great to see.”

Having won the group, the U.S. advances to the quarterfinal round and will play Jamaica at 9:30 p.m. Sunday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. With Zimmerman ruled out of the remainder of the tournament, Pines might have an opportunity to see more vital playing time.

He’s ready.

“It’s just super surreal living my dream each and every day and making sure I’m not squandering it, so I’m always making sure to be in the moment as much as I can,” he said.

“I know I can help this team succeed and be an influential figure to help us win this tourney.”

JAMAICA@USA

CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinals

Sunday, 9:30 p.m. in Arlington, Texas

TV: FS1, Univision

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