The Washington Post
Ku-dipietro has a homegrown ‘hunger’ to succeed
D.C. United nurtured young attacker’s rise from Oakton High
The moment his rising shot rippled the net, capping D.C. United’s far-fetched, opening-night victory over Toronto FC last Saturday, Ted Ku-dipietro was in full sprint.
With Audi Field’s roars showering over him, he tore toward the corner flag, and before delirious teammates could catch him, the 21-year-old attacker glided on his shins and knees as if he were executing a trick at a water park.
“That was one of the best knee slides I’ve ever seen,” said teammate Kristian Fletcher, one of the first to reach Ku-dipietro after the latter skimmed over the sideline and popped up.
Defender Victor Palsson yanked the scorer’s hair over and over. In the stands, Tim and
Dorothea Ku-dipietro — parents to nine children — were in tears, and the siblings who attended the match joined the party.
In the mass of black-clad players, the night’s hero was overcome by not only his first MLS goal but the late-game drama, saying: “I honestly forgot to breathe. After a while, I was like, ‘I should start breathing again.’ ”
This was the oxygen United needed after three consecutive losing seasons, after ending last year on a six-game winless rut and after relinquishing the lead after intermission Saturday. A secondyear MLS player and second-half sub, Ku-dipietro assisted on Christian Benteke’s 90th-minute equalizer before scoring in the last seconds of the 3-2 victory.
“It was pretty crazy but easily the best moment of my career so far,” he said this week. “Coming off the bench, it’s my job; it’s what I’ve got to do.”
The source of United’s openingnight valor was an Oakton High graduate whose MLS roster classification offers a starting salary of $67,360 — one-208th of Toronto star Lorenzo Insigne’s $14 million.
Ku-dipietro has taken a slower road than his homegrown teammates who signed MLS contracts while still in the youth academy and broke into the first team almost right away. He began his pro career with Loudoun United, scoring goals and polishing his game for two years in the second division before receiving a contract upgrade last winter.
Even last season, he split time between D.C. and Loudoun, appearing in 10 games for each side and starting twice for MLS’S lastplace team. At training camp in California this year, Ku-dipietro was D.C.’S leading scorer.
“He’s got real quality,” Coach Wayne Rooney said. “He can impact games, whether with his dribbling or with his desire [to score]. He’s come back in [this year] a lot more mature than maybe what he was last season.”
Ku-dipietro said he never felt United was holding him back. To the contrary, he said he belonged in the shadows.
“I don’t think I was really ready until last year,” he said. “Loudoun helped me build more of a foundation and build my confidence. . . . Everybody’s journey is very different. So for me to take that route and grow, I wouldn’t change anything.”
Ku-dipietro’s pop and perseverance have won over his elders.
“Ted naturally has an aggressive, competitive mind-set,” said Russell Canouse, 27, a defensive midfielder who captained the team last weekend. “He brings a different set of intensity that a lot of guys don’t have. He’s got a hunger.”
On Saturday, Ku-dipietro entered for forward Nigel Robertha just after Toronto had tied the game at 1. Later, after the visitors had taken the lead, a trio of academy graduates helped spark the late charge: Ku-dipietro; Fletcher, 17; and Jackson Hopkins, 18.
In the 90th minute, Ku-dipietro chipped a cross from the left side to the edge of the six-yard box, where Benteke was waiting. “I knew Christian was going to dunk on someone,” Ku-dipietro said.
In stoppage time, he floated into the center of the box as United worked the ball on the left. Mohanad Jeahze served a low cross. Because the ball was a bit behind him, a one-time strike probably would have sent the ball sailing into the cold night, KuDipietro thought, so with one quick touch to settle it and another to stab it, United was in the lead.
Ku-dipietro became the fourth-youngest player in MLS’S 27-year history to record a goahead goal and an assist after coming off the bench. He was named to the league’s team of the week.
Goal-scoring is a treasured trait, and with Manchester United’s greatest scorer at D.C.’S helm, Ku-dipietro is drawing from Rooney’s wisdom.
During preseason, he and some others were pounding shots on target when Rooney asked: “Why are you guys smacking it? Just pass it into the goal.”
Ku-dipietro said: “That’s a great way to put it because I’ve always seen [Lionel] Messi just passing the ball into the corner of the net and makes it look so easy. So I just started passing the ball into the net and not smacking it at all or rarely ever. And things started to fall into place.”
With 2022 leading scorer Taxi Fountas sidelined at least a month with a hamstring strain, Robertha and Ku-dipietro are the prime candidates to fill the front-line void alongside Benteke in Saturday’s visit to the Columbus Crew.
Ku-dipietro’s journey began in a clan devoted to soccer and cars. The family owns eight oil change outlets in Virginia; Ted’s three older siblings work in the family business. Before soccer took hold, Ted said he would sometimes hang around the Fairfax shop. That was not his calling, though.
“Everybody else is interested in cars and working in the business,” said Michael Ku-dipietro, 25, the finance manager. “Ted never really showed that interest because he was so dedicated to soccer pretty much all the time, every weekend. There was no time to work in the shop.”
Michael added, “We make fun of him because we can all drive stick shift, we can change oil, but he never really got into it.”
Six siblings played youth soccer, and the youngest, 7-year-old Lilly, is getting started. Michael went on to play Division III soccer at Marymount University in Arlington, and Hope, a senior at Fairfax High, has signed a letterof-intent to join the George Washington program.
“Ted was very talented and had such a love of the game — more than the rest of us,” Michael said. “We celebrate Ted. We love to see him be successful.”
Ted Ku-dipietro’s family is never far from his mind. He rattles off the names of his siblings: “Anna, Michael, Katy, Hope, Reese, Rose, Elle and Lilly.”
Asked the age range, he paused for a moment.
“Birthdays, I know all the birthdays!” he said. “It’s the years” that sometimes stump him.
Ku-dipietro played two seasons for Oakton before committing full-time to United’s academy. In his sophomore year, the Cougars advanced to the Class 6A championship game before losing to Cosby, 2-1. He was named to The Washington Post’s All-met second team.
Until Ted sprouted six inches late in high school — he’s now listed at 5-foot-9, though he claims to be 5-10 — his brother said, “he was always this tiny guy playing with kids a foot taller than him.”
After graduating a year early, he signed with Loudoun United before the 2020 USL Championship season. A seven-goal campaign the following year earned him an MLS contract.
Two years later, he finds himself in the mix for first-team playing time.
“It’s been a lot [in reflecting on the progress], especially this past weekend because of the game, but I have seen it as a longtime coming,” Ku-dipietro said. “For me to reach the next level, I just had to keep doing it every single day and eventually it would come.”