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Kristian Fletcher went to Wales and came back with newfound confidence

Kristian Fletcher went to Wales and came back with newfound confidence

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

Kristian Fletcher’s goal last weekend was his first for D.C. United since the second match of his MLS career in October 2022. That is not to say, though, the 18-year-old forward hadn’t felt the joys of scoring in 2023. He just did it in Wales instead of Washington.

Last fall and into the winter, while United was missing the playoffs before undergoing another coaching change and roster reboot, Fletcher was on loan with Welsh club Swansea City gaining experience and rediscovering his scoring touch.

Playing for the Swans’ under-21 squad, he scored multiple goals five times, including consecutive hat tricks, and finished with between 16 and 18, depending on the source of information, over at least a dozen appearances in multiple youth competitions.

The arrangement ended in December. Fletcher rejoined United for training camp in January. Last Saturday, he scored 10 minutes after entering the game in Oregon as D.C. (1-0-1) completed a late two-goal comeback to earn a 2-2 draw with the Portland Timbers.

The Bowie native and Landon School graduate is an attacking option again Sunday at FC Cincinnati (1-0-1).

Though the level of difficulty on Fletcher’s goal at Portland was not high — a tap-in from inside the six-yard box — it kept Fletcher on track for a possible breakthrough season.

“That’s a big deal,” United Coach Troy Lesesne said. “For a young player like that, especially to step up in that moment, that’s exciting.”

Fletcher credits the three-month assignment in Wales with helping him mature as a player and person.

“It helped me regain some of my confidence because I wasn’t playing much last year here,” he said. Under previous coach Wayne Rooney, Fletcher appeared in 10 of 34 regular season matches, starting once and assisting once, and started two U.S. Open Cup games.

“To go over there and be able to not let [last season] weigh me down and feel like it was a fresh start, it was very good for me in terms of confidence-building and getting back in my groove again,” Fletcher said.

Swansea City’s first team is in the English Championship, one tier below the Premier League. (United co-owners Jason Levien and Steve Kaplan also own major stakes in the Welsh club.) The Swans’ under-21 squad features prospects from the club’s academy.

Loan arrangements often include options for the receiving team to purchase the player’s contract, but in this case, Fletcher was almost certain to return stateside. There were no plans to promote him to the Swans’ first team.

Fletcher lived with two other young players at the home of a police officer who works closely with the club. A teammate provided rides to training. The work was serious and hard, and the games allowed him to flourish.

Fletcher said he benefited from “the mental side of the game … toward my life, toward the game, all aspects.”

“I had responsibilities living on my own, going to a different country, meeting new people,” he said. “I grew in my level of maturity. On the field, I learned some things, but I feel like mentally it was a very good move.”

Hired this winter, Lesesne made a point of learning about Fletcher’s experience abroad.

“It just inspired him in a different way to where he wants to fully focus, fully maximize every single second,” Lesesne said. “The sooner you can come to that realization — and you have talent like he has — the sooner you can probably realize the potential to go to a league that’s at that level.”

Swansea City wasn’t Fletcher’s first experience overseas. While in high school, he worked out with several clubs and almost ended up joining Borussia Dortmund’s youth setup.

United teammates have noticed a difference.

“He’s been given more responsibility this year,” goalkeeper Alex Bono said. “He’s been asked to play a bigger role and he’s really grasped it with two hands. Really excited to see what he can do for us.”

Fletcher, who entered in the 74th minute of the opener against New England and the 72nd against Portland, has embraced Lesesne’s philosophy about substitutes.

“What I like is they don’t really give you too many directions because then it would feel like you’re almost getting pressured to not play your way,” he said.

“Freedom,” said Fletcher, The Washington Post’s All-Met Player of the Year in 2021. “The liberty to do anything that I see fit in this situation while still having our team ideas and keeping our game model in mind.”

Notes: Striker Christian Benteke, who missed the Portland match with a groin injury after netting a hat trick against New England, trained some this week. However, “if it’s not 100 percent ready to go,” Lesesne said, “we’re not going to push anything.”

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