There was not much joy in the D.C. United locker room on Wednesday night following a 3-3 draw against the Chicago Fire. It was more points dropped at home for the Black-and-Red, who conceded a stoppage-time equalizer after fighting back from an early two-goal deficit. But while the result was the source of some angst, there was another storyline to celebrate: the return of Chris Odoi-Atsem.
Odoi-Atsem was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma last fall, having to go undergo chemotherapy to beat the cancer. But on Wednesday night, the former University of Maryland defender was given his first MLS start, marking his comeback with a 68-minute appearance at left back.
With so many emotions, how'd Odoi-Atsem sum up his night?
"I feel good physically. Tired, as expected," said the 2017 MLS SuperDraft pick in the locker room after the game.
It was a moment that his coach and teammates spoke glowingly about after the game as well.
"I’m happy for Chris Odoi. I thought he had a really good night," head coach Ben Olsen said after the game. "Ran out of steam there early in the second half. He kept chugging along. Proud of him."
Added team captain Wayne Rooney, who played alongside Odoi-Atsem for the first time since joining the club last summer: "It’s fantastic, and you talk about character and courage, Chris has shown us all. Not just tonight, but we’ve seen him put in all the hard work on the training pitch and the gym. To get back to playing, to do so so quick after going through his treatments, it’s a testament to him as a person."
Back at the end of January, Odoi-Atsem completed his final chemotherapy treatment, which should have helped paved the way for his comeback with United. However, a month later, a follow-up scan revealed some concern, which delayed Odoi-Atsem's timetable for a return to playing competitive soccer.
For the 24-year-old, that moment represented the toughest step in his recovery. Knowing that there was a chance that his cancer had immediately come back, robbing him of a chance to get back out onto the field.
"Most difficult was getting the news that after I had my final treatment. I got re-scanned for my cancer, and it didn’t look as good as my doctor thought [it should]," Odoi-Atsem retold after the Fire draw. "He was saying that it was possible that [the cancer] came back. So I had to wait another two months to get the final clear."
Once he did get the clearance, Odoi-Atsem was back training with United, looking to make his first appearance for the Black-and-Red since early 2018. He figured he would get some time to get his legs underneath him with Loudoun United, not having to jump right back into the deep end in MLS play.
After one substitute appearance with the second division side three weekends ago, Odoi-Atsem started making the bench for D.C. United. Then came a start last week in a friendly against Real Betis at Audi Field. That was his first opportunity to play at United's new stadium, but Wednesday night's experience was just a bit different, playing in a meaningful MLS game.
"Definitely different," said Chris, comparing the Betis game to the Fire game. "It was a different atmosphere, different speed to the game. Up, down, open game."
With his performance on Wednesday night, there will likely be more opportunities in upcoming weeks for Odoi-Atsem to earn more playing time. But there was still plenty to celebrate on Wednesday, even with the disappointing result.
"This is a special night for him," Olsen said about Odoi-Atsem. "It’s a special night for us, in a small way, having gone through this journey with him. He’s a great kid, I’m glad he performed tonight."