For much of 2018, whether it be home or away, D.C. United struggled to earn points thanks to a leaky defense. Even before the arrival of Wayne Rooney at Buzzard Point, United was having little trouble scoring goals. However, they couldn’t find a way to prevent goals, and ended up throwing away plenty of points, as they quickly dropped to the bottom of the Eastern Conference, thanks to fewer games played, and just two wins before July 14th.
There was just one clean sheet to speak of, as the Black-and-Red fought tooth and nail with 10 men to earn a 1-0 victory over the Columbus Crew in April. In nine of United’s first 14 games, they conceded at least two goals. And even when Rooney came to town, United’s fortunes didn’t exactly change drastically right away.
Those defensive frailties seem to be in the past now though, as United picked up their fourth clean sheet in their past six games with Sunday’s 0-0 draw against the Chicago Fire. In that six game stretch, United conceded just two goals, picking up two 1-0 victories.
“Defensively, we are an above average team right now,” Head Coach Ben Olsen told B&RU last week, before the draw against the Fire. “You better be, if you’re going to make noise in the playoffs.”
Thanks to their defense, United has a chance now to make some noise in the playoffs. United’s shutout against the Fire, on a day when they struggled to click offensively, ended up being the difference between hosting this week’s knockout round game at Audi Field, and going on the road instead.
The Black-and-Red have had a rotating cast of players defensively, with injuries playing a big factor. Taylor Kemp never played in 2018, and starting right back Nick DeLeon missed four months due to injury. Oniel Fisher took over for DeLeon, but then suffered a season ending knee injury, just as DeLeon was getting back healthy.
Kofi Opare took over at center back for Frederic Brillant during the summer, but a recent season ending injury thrust Brillant back into the starting lineup, alongside Steven Birnbaum, who played every minute of every MLS game for the Black-and-Red in 2018.
And after getting mixed results from the tandem of David Ousted and Steve Clark, United went out at the transfer deadline, and brought back Bill Hamid to the club. Hamid, who left at the end of 2017 to try his luck in Europe, returned to the nation’s capital on loan, looking to get games after spending most of his time on the bench for FC Midtjylland. Since returning, Hamid has picked up five shutouts, regaining some of his glory minding United’s net.
“Bill has a huge impact on that. His shot stopping ability is incredible,” DeLeon told B&RU last week about United’s defensive turnaround in the second half of the season.
Another impact on United’s defensive capabilities was the slight switch in formations. Once Russell Canouse returned from injury, he was paired with Junior Moreno, as Olsen moved from a 4-1-4-1 to a 4-2-3-1, to shield the backline more. It took some getting used to, but both defensive midfielders grew into the formation, providing cover for any lapses the back line might have had.
“Our system, putting two holding [midfielders] in there, has helped our defense tremendously,” Birnbaum said in an interview with B&RU last Friday. “As a group, earlier in the year, we were pressing teams and getting stretched at the wrong moments. As the year progressed, we’ve become smarter in those moments. Our box defending has gotten much better.”
Because of the back-loaded schedule this year, United were faced with several quick turnarounds between games, playing three times a week on a couple of occasions to make up for lost time. That led to some not so great offensive games down the stretch, even as United put together a five game winning streak, and went 10 unbeaten to finish out the season.
But even when the offense wasn’t firing on all cylinders, United’s defense gave the team a chance to get a win. And the difference between now and the beginning of the season, is thanks to improved performances from the back line, United will get a chance to make the Eastern Conference semifinals by hosting the Crew at Audi Field.
“There’s been a lot of focus on the attacking play, but in the last month, especially when you have these consecutive games, you have to rely on your defense shape, because your energy levels aren’t at their peak,” added Olsen, in last week’s interview.
“That means sometimes you are going to be in a low block, relying on your discipline to squeak out results,” said Olsen. “We’ve done that several times in this stretch. It’s good to have a team that can go about winning in different ways.”