Two days before an early-season matchup against the Colorado Rapids in April, D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen posted the team's starting XI in the locker room. In the center of the defensive backline were the initials "D.P."
When rookie defender Donovan Pines saw the team sheet, he said, "Who is D.P.?"
"Oh, wait," he thought. "That's me."
Pines, a towering 6-foot-5 defender, was exceptional against Colorado during his debut. He earned an assist on a deflected cross into the box that allowed speedy midfielder Luciano Acosta to pounce on the ball and rocket it into the net to tie the game.
His strong play was rewarded with three more starts in D.C.'s next four games before a knee injury in early June sidelined him for more than a month. He recently returned to action July 12, playing the full 90 minutes during a 2-2 draw with New England.
At 21 years old, the Clarksville, Md., native has quickly shown he belongs in MLS. But Pines' development as a top-level defender has been a gradual progression that began around the time he was a freshman at River Hill High School (Md.) and came to a head in December when he helped lead the Maryland men's soccer team to an improbable NCAA championship.
"If you notice in his career, he didn't start every game in his freshman year but he played a lot, and then he played increasingly more and more and there was a perfect crescendo to how he developed," Terps men's soccer coach Sasho Cirovski said. "He got better from practice to practice and game to game and semester to semester and season to season. It was a perfect growth process for him."
During the NCAA Tournament, Pines, then a junior, anchored a Maryland defense that didn't allow a single goal in 450 minutes on the way to the program's fourth national title.
"You can tell at Maryland, the fans fell in love with him because they saw how much heart and pride he put into every game," Cirovski said. "His teammates fell in love with him because they saw what a genuinely great kid and teammate he was and I think now the D.C. United locker room is starting to see the same thing."
Pines doesn't seem bothered by the pressure of being a rookie on one of the better teams in MLS. This is where he is supposed to be.
"Coming out of college [and] going to a professional environment, I thought it was similar, maybe a little more physical, but I started to get more comfortable with my feet and my play," said Pines, who exudes the unending confidence of a 21-year-old but is always quick to balance it with the humility of a kid who was raised by his parents to be selfless and respectful.
"When I got my start I was like, 'All right, I can do this," he said. "I can play at this level."
Pines' talent began to appear early in high school when he played varsity at River Hill as a freshman.
"He was all legs," River Hill coach Matt Shagogue said. "It was his first experience with kids who were three-plus years older than him, but you could see it right away."
After one year at River Hill, Pines joined D.C. United's academy team rather than traveling to Liverpool, England, to participate in soccer trials there as his father, Darryll, had suggested. Pines called the decision a "big turning point in my life," which allowed him to stay close to his family and friends where he was more comfortable.
Enter Cirovski, who saw how much Pines loved being close to home and made sure he knew he would be a valued part of Maryland's soccer program during his recruitment.
"Recruiting local kids is always a little difficult because sometimes it's best for them to get away from home," Cirovski said. "But as our conversations kept going, I think everything Donovan wanted and needed was in College Park."
Before Pines even played a minute with the Terps, his Maryland teammates -- such as Chris Odoi-Atsem, then a senior right back for Maryland who is now Pines' teammate on D.C. United -- had already heard about his potential as a defender.
"I had always heard great things about him, especially from [Cirovski]," Odoi-Atsem said. "He surpassed expectations day one. Seeing how great of a defender he was and a great athlete, the fastest guy on the team, tallest guy [who] could jump very high. All those things really stood out right away. Everybody would look around and say, 'Oh, this guy could be really good.'"
Pines was impossible to keep off the field, starting every game of a junior year that culminated in a national title. He scored a late goal during the semifinal against Indiana and wheeled away in celebration, knowing his effort had booked the Terps a finals appearance against Akron.
Maryland clung to a one-goal lead with 10 minutes to go when Pines collected a free-kick in the box and poked it into the corner of the net.
The goal was the "most magical moment of my life and my career as a soccer player so far," Pines said.
Maryland would go on to beat Akron, 1-0, in the championship game.
"I'm still dumbfounded by the fact that we did that," he said. "We knew what to do to get the job done and we did it."
In January, D.C. United inked Pines to a homegrown professional contract. He then debuted with the team's second-division squad, Loudoun United, in March before earning his first start with D.C. in mid-April.
"When he went to D.C. United, I told the D.C. United brass that Donovan will take some time, it will be a process," Cirovski said. "I told them six or seven games in he'll be ready to be in your lineup and sure enough, I think it was the seventh game of the season, he was in the lineup. I have a feeling that he just needs to find his way, find his place and then after that, the sky's the limit."
For someone with undeniable talent who appears destined for a long professional career, Pines' preference to dodge the limelight is apparent.
A self-described introvert, Pines doesn't use social media -- except for Snapchat -- and he still lives in his college apartment with a former teammate from the River Hill soccer team. Odoi-Atsem will occasionally stop by and the pair will get a haircut from Pines' barber right in the apartment.
Pines said his avoidance of social media and staying in College Park has helped him cope with the whirlwind of the past few months and the pressure of playing for his hometown team.
"Even though I was getting all of this publicity and everyone knew who I was, it was kind of overwhelming, you know?" Pines said. "I was like, 'Wow people like me, they like the way I play.' ... It was so surreal that all of this stuff was happening in such a short time span."
In March, Pines was called up to the U.S. under-23 men's national team camp in preparation for the 2020 Olympics. Pines said the camp was a thrilling experience but now that he's 100 percent healthy, his focus is solely on gaining regular minutes with United.
Cirovski said Pines' performance as a professional has justified his decision to forgo his final year of college eligibility to turn pro, particularly with the chance to one day play for the national team.
"This is only the beginning because he has massive upside," Cirovski said. "I think he is a guy that has full U.S. national team potential. I fully expect at some point he's going to be playing for the national team."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of D.C. United