Let's be up front: D.C. United's last truly good defensive team was in 2007, and that was still a team that thrived almost entirely on using a combination of possession and attacking might to starve teams of the ball and scare the life out of them. Take away a couple key attackers - say, Jaime Moreno and Luciano Emilio - and the defense was a bit more exposed, and out we went to the Chicago Fire in the playoffs.
In 2012, however, I think United finally assembled a team capable of winning the games where defending was the order of the day. This time around, a loss of a key attacking player didn't derail our hopes because we had a group capable of shifting gears and succeeding with conservative soccer. While we still struggled at times with finding a balance when playing our preferred attacking style - that 4-2 win over the Chicago Fire, for example, really should have been 4-0 - it seems safe to say that the defense is good enough for us to have expectations beyond merely making the playoffs.
On the other hand, we're still not a team that can step on the field expecting shutouts while still playing the way we want to play. Necessity will force us to think conservatively if a clean sheet is our priority. In other words, we're not Sporting Kansas City or the Seattle Sounders yet. We had a good defensive record - tied for 7th best over the full season - but not a great one.
With that in mind, let's take a look at each defensive position:
Depth chart: Bill Hamid, Joe Willis, Andrew Dykstra
We get to start with some good news: United's group of keepers is elite. Bill Hamid is the best young GK in MLS (what's up Chicago Fire fans? You know it's true). Joe Willis has shown that he's a starting-quality keeper himself on numerous occasions. In fact, until USMNT and Premier League veteran Marcus Hahnemann returned to MLS with Seattle, Willis was probably the top second-choice goalkeeper in the country. Even third-stringer Andrew Dykstra has over 20 starts in MLS as well as a Best 11 nod from his time in the USL. In all likelihood, he's probably the best third-choice keeper in the league if you had to win a game tomorrow.
In other words, we're stacked.
However, the rumblings in the press point to Dykstra probably wanting to move on. He has acquired a German passport, so finding a gig in any league in Europe won't be a problem in terms of work permit issues. Dykstra will turn 27 in a couple of weeks, and there's little hope of advancement in DC. Even if Hamid were to suddenly be the subject of a multi-million dollar bid from some Premier League club, Willis would clearly assume the starter's role. Dykstra will be in search of a starting job, and it's not going to happen here.
Therefore, we probably need to bring in a young keeper. With third-stringers, the idea is to find guys with big potential, because the odds that they'll have to play actual games for you are remote. The goal is for today's third-stringer to have the potential to become a starter some day. That said, I wouldn't expect United to use a draft pick on a keeper; it seems more likely that we'd bring in undrafted players and/or young guys with starting experience in the NASL and USL to fight for the job in preseason.
Depth chart: Andy Najar, Chris Korb, Robbie Russell, Perry Kitchen, Ethan White, John Thorrington, Marcelo Saragosa
Naturals: Najar (arguably), Korb, Russell
The biggest story for United this offseason thus far is that Najar is
on trial "training, wink wink" with Belgian powerhouse Anderlecht. If our first of many Najars ends up on loan or transferring outright, we lose out on the potential fun of watching Najar and Nick DeLeon terrorize teams for a whole season. There's no way around it: Losing a player as good as Najar will hurt.
However, Korb quietly grew as the season wore on, and despite getting most of his minutes at left back, appears ready to move up to a starting job. And if Korb is needed on the other side, we still have Russell, who most teams would love to have as depth. If Najar does move on, we have the luxury of not having to go out and sign one or suffer dire consequences.
Korb's utility on both flanks and Russell's vulnerability to speedy players running onto long balls probably means we need one more guy capable of playing here. Sure, we have plenty of people who have played right back at some point, but most of them are more important for us in other roles and/or aren't particularly comfortable in this spot. I'm not saying we should go find a specialist right back, but maybe if Emiliano Dudar doesn't return we should look for a center back who can also fill in adequately at right back. Ideally, White will be able to fill that role and allow us to focus on other signings, but it might come one year too early for the Maryland product.
Depth chart: Brandon McDonald, Dejan Jakovic, Emiliano Dudar (?), Ethan White, Perry Kitchen, Daniel Woolard, Conor Shanosky, Robbie Russell
Naturals: McDonald, Jakovic, Dudar, White
Let's start with the good news: McDonald stepped up his game to the point that he has to be in any respectable list of the top 10 center backs in MLS. For the first time in ages, our top center back isn't injury prone or inconsistent. Next to him we have Jakovic, who significantly reduced the number of mistakes that often plagued him. Intriguingly, Jakovic still looks to have some growing to do as a player; it seems fair to say we should expect him to continue to improve in 2013.
Bottom line: United's starting center back duo is good enough for us to win trophies.
Now the bad news: Dudar's deal was not renewed - a sensible decision due to him having a high-end starter's salary in 2012 - and there have been no updates past United saying they wanted to have talks with the big Argentine about staying at a lower salary. Dudar would be more than adequate depth as our third-best center back. Most teams would be happy to have a guy like Dudar ready to step in.
However, as of this writing he's not actually a United player, so we have to address this issue. We can't wait on Dudar forever, and by all accounts White isn't quite ready to be our top option off the bench. Sure we have plenty of guys who have spent time at center back, but in each case there's an issue: Kitchen and Woolard are needed elsewhere, Shanosky is totally unproven at the MLS level, and Russell looked uncomfortable there this season.
If United can re-sign Dudar at a more reasonable salary, we're solid here. If a deal can't be reached, we really need to find one more center back that can reasonably be expected to start 10 games across all competitions at a level close to that of McDonald and Jakovic (who will probably get called up for Canada's Gold Cup squad). The only way we can skip making that kind of signing is if White takes a big step up and Shanosky is truly ready to be the fourth center back after spending a season playing that role in the NASL.
Depth chart: Daniel Woolard, Chris Korb, Lewis Neal, Robbie Russell
Naturals: Woolard, Korb
Yes, that's Korb listed as a natural left back. After his late-season performance there, I'm of the belief that Korb is a natural fullback rather than just a right back.
I also think this will be the biggest competition for one starting role on the team. Over the last third of 2012, Korb appeared to take a step up from being adequate depth to a guy we can count on. Part of that was the defense-first system, which simplified his job, but he clearly made progress at a time when we needed him to do so.
That shouldn't make us forget about Woolard, who was one of the best quiet success stories in all of MLS until a concussion left him unable to even train for months. During the early months of the season, Woolard appeared to be our most dependable defender, and how rare is it to say that about any MLS club's left back? Woolard even did well filling in at center back, though it should be noted that he was more of a reactive defender relying on bravery and determination than we should be comfortable with over long periods of time.
This doesn't appear to be a position to worry about at the moment. Neal won't make us comfortable if he ever plays here, but that seems unlikely. Even if Najar leaves and Woolard misses a game, we'd be able to use Korb here and start Russell on the right. Naturally, finding a player capable of filling in here at a higher level than Neal would be nice, but it's pretty low down the list of priorities.