The 2023 Major League Soccer season kicked off last weekend, the 28th edition of the United States’ top-flight domestic competition. Each year brings forth the emergence of new talents, some with a potential national-team future. Perhaps the brightest star on Opening Day was Theodore “Ted” Ku-DiPietro of D.C. United. The 21-year-old attacking midfielder led his club to a 3-2 victory over Toronto FC with a goal and an assist in stoppage time.
Born in Oakton, Virginia, Ku-DiPietro played for Arlington Soccer Association, traveled to Argentina with the Olympic Development Program All-Stars, and starred at the high school level, earning first-team all-state honors as a sophomore. After joining the D.C. United Academy, he was promoted to the reserve level in June of 2019, making nine appearances and contributing one goal and one assist during his first season with Loudoun United, enjoying the “transition year” that “helped a lot.”
Ku-DiPietro had a later entry into the elite youth level than many of his peers. “It was a really big transition because I played high school [soccer] sophomore year and I played with Arlington, and then I went straight into the academy in the summer with the U17s,” he told the RFK Refugees podcast. “The process felt really good. I had a really good experience in the academy, especially the first three months being a little wobbly and not knowing if I’ll have a spot on the team because I’m just some club team kid going into the academy. I started to excel more and more, and that year, I think I grew twice as much of a player as I was before.”
Despite previous academy players being given MLS contracts, the club signed him to a USL deal. He declined other amateur options in order to “gain experience” as a “hands-on learner” due to his “passion for the sport,” taking a “slower route” up the development pyramid. During the schedule shortened by COVID-19, Ku-DiPietro played in another nine matches and worked on his mentality while also dealing with a hip fracture. The following year, his first full season, he made 30 appearances, registering seven goals and three assists in the USL Championship.
In January of 2022, Ku-DiPietro was promoted to the MLS squad, signing a Homegrown contract through the end of 2023 with options for 2024 and 2025. “We’ve been impressed with Ted over the last two seasons in the USL Championship,” said then-General Manager Lucy Rushton. “He has made great strides as a player since joining Loudoun United and we’re excited to see him continue to develop with our first team. He has the unique ability to break lines with the ball at his feet and covers a lot of ground in the midfield.”
Last year, Ku-DiPietro split time between the MLS and USL Championship. He made 12 appearances for the first team, displaying purposeful dribbling and a willingness to engage on the tackle. With the reserves, the midfielder added two goals and four assists in ten matches, considered one of highest-rated, “most efficient” players and described as “a force to be reckoned with [and] for opposing defenses to respect.” During the offseason, the midfielder trained with English Championship side Swansea City “for several weeks.”
With D.C. United looking to rebuild under manager Wayne Rooney, the club is expected to give more opportunities to young players. Following an “excellent” preseason, Ku-DiPietro entered the opener midway through the second half, with proceedings tied at 1-1. He played the hero, assisting Christian Benteke with a perfectly-placed cross in the 90th minute before converting the match-winner deep into stoppage time, taking a quick touch before calmly shooting into the roof of the net. His stellar performance could portend a breakout year with further displays of “individual magic.”
At the international level, Ku-DiPietro has a January 2002 birthday and will be eligible for the upcoming Olympic Games. He is typically deployed in his preferred role as an attacking midfielder, with the abilities to “cover ground and break lines with his passing,” but can line up at most positions in the formation, including winger. His best moments come on the counter-attack when receiving the ball, turning quickly out of trouble, and driving deep into the final third or finding a streaking teammate. An adept goal-scorer, his finishes tend to come from runs through the middle, whether on solo efforts or being played in behind the back line.
“This guy has all of the tools you want in a half space, attacking player,” wrote Marcus Chairez for Chasing a Cup. “He is strong, fast, he is ball secure and has good dribbling ability and he also arrives well in the box and can score in different ways, but my favorite aspect of his game is his passing ability. He can break lines and he can find and execute that clever final ball that leads to big chances, something the USMNT is really missing through the middle of the field.”
After his performance to open the MLS season, Ku-DiPietro appears to have officially arrived, standing out among the young American talent. His goal and assist should earn further opportunities to demonstrate his worth as D.C. United attempts to rebuild from the previous year’s dismal last-place finish. Most players can experience a superlative night, but the challenge is maintaining consistency and continuing to produce on a week-to-week basis. If he is able to become a key figure for his club, then the next step of international soccer could be rapidly approaching.