Chris Odoi-Atsem played forward until he joined the Maryland men’s soccer team in 2013, but he didn’t like the position just for the scoring chances it offered.
Odoi-Atsem loved to set up opportunities for his teammates with his passes. The senior defender still gets the same feeling when he assists on goals now, and he’s done so three times this season by sending crosses into the box as a right back.
After playing center back his first two seasons, Odoi-Atsem converted to right back, where he had to develop familiarity through the attacking tendencies he used growing up. Now, Odoi-Atsem is one of the No. 1 Terps’ most dangerous two-way players.
“Chris has improved every year that he’s been here,” coach Sasho Cirovski said. “He’s incredibly competitive, super focused and very disciplined. He’s been a delight to coach. He’s a staple on our team every time we put our lineup on the board.”
Odoi-Atsem was a standout forward at DeMatha Catholic High School, earning WCAC Player of the Year and first team All-Met honors in 2012. In 2011, DeMatha went undefeated and was No. 1 in NSCAA’s high school rankings.
But when Odoi-Atsem arrived in College Park in 2013, the Terps were stacked on offense. Cirovski needed help on defense, so he asked the Mitchellville native to play center back.
Odoi-Atsem worked with Cirovski on his one-on-one defending and communication throughout the summer. Odoi-Atsem describes himself as quiet, so yelling to his teammates about spacing was one of the hardest parts of his transition.
He earned the starting job as a rookie on the team that lost in the NCAA championship to Notre Dame.
Cirovski recruited Odoi-Atsem to play right wing with his speed and ability to shut down counterattacks. The veteran coach said center back was a “short-term solution.”
So, after Odoi-Atsem’s junior year, Cirovski moved him to right back.
“I told [Cirovski] I can play anywhere he needed me,” Odoi-Atsem said. “At right back, you have to worry about the same defensive responsibilities as well as the attacking responsibilities. [My teammates] see me when I get the ball in one-one-one situations, and they expect me to beat that defender every time.”
Odoi-Atsem had never played right back and spent two years without much offensive involvement. So over the summer, the 5-foot-10, 150-pound defender crossed balls into the box to his teammates almost every day on the Terps’ practice fields. That effort has paid off this season after he recorded one assist last year.
Against Hartford on Aug. 29, Odoi-Atsem sprinted down the right side of the field and crossed to midfielder Eryk Williamson in the box. Williamson then headed the ball to forward Sebastian Elney for a point.
After assisting forward Gordon Wild’s goal against South Florida on Sept. 5, Odoi-Atsem sent almost an identical cross to Williamson against Michigan State on Sept. 23. for midfielder Jake Rozhansky’s score.
When he hasn’t a recorded an assist, Odoi-Atsem has worked to create opportunities by beating his defender one-on-one and pushing the ball into the attacking third.
“That kid’s the man,” goalkeeper Cody Niedermeier said. “I don’t know if any team should underrate him with his speed and what he can do with the ball. I love playing with him. He’s one of the most soft-spoken guys who leads by example out there, which is awesome. He’s going to have a successful future in the MLS.”
Odoi-Atsem’s offensive skills have helped him log the most minutes (1,099) on the team this season, and he’s also shut down the right side of the field when foes test the Terps defense.
Maryland has recorded five straight shutouts, tied for the longest streak in school history, after struggling to defend counterattacks earlier this season. Odoi-Atsem isn’t the flashiest player — he’s one a few Maryland players who doesn’t have a Twitter account, and he doesn’t speak much off the field — but he’s been a mainstay in the roles Cirovski has assigned him.
“He’s the most unsung, underrated, big-time player in college soccer,” Cirovski said. “It’s not even close.”