Last weekend's defensive performance from D.C. United against the Montreal Impact was not the prettiest effort the team has put together. Despite keeping Montreal scoreless in a 1-0 victory, United conceded 25 shots and had to be bailed out on several occasions by keeper Bill Hamid.
But after conceding six goals in the previous two games - including four goals before the 25 minute mark - managing the first clean sheet for a visiting side in Montreal was a sign of improvements along the back line.
"It was great to get the shutout. Obviously we'd like to not have them have 25 shots, but [Hamid] did a great job behind us," defender Steve Birnbaum told B&RU this week. "We were happy in getting the shutout, and when we put up a zero, we always have a chance of winning the game."
It was the first time that Montreal had been held without a goal since May 30th, and only the fifth game this season in all competitions that the Impact had been held without a goal. Still, the shutout masked over some deficiencies for manager Ben Olsen, who wasn't impressed with how the game went after Chris Rolfe's winning goal.
"It was an improvement in the goals against category. We were a little bit fortunate not to give up a few goals there. [Hamid] had to make some great saves," Olsen said. "The start was better, our mentality for the first 15 to 20 minutes was what we wanted. We got our goal, but I didn't think we responded well after that."
The biggest struggle in the previous two games for United had been the concession of goals early on. At home against the Philadelphia Union, D.C. found themselves in a two goal hole within the opening five minutes. A week later against RSL, Kyle Beckerman's strike in the 22nd minute put the Black-and-Red in a similar quandary.
Against Montreal on Saturday, United were able to make it past that first 20 minute mark without conceding, something that they had tried to focus in on recently. And though the game didn't quite unfold as they would have liked, being ahead early combined with doing just enough defensively is what earned United all three points on the road.
"That's been an emphasis for a while, and unfortunately we just haven't done it. Now, teams kind of know that if they jump on us, they are going to get a good chance or two," left back Taylor Kemp told B&RU on Wednesday. "So we want to start the game well, and not let them get all over us early, and put ourselves in a hole that we have to dig ourselves out of."
The focus going into tomorrow's game against New York City FC has changed, as United had to prepare for their first game on a baseball stadium since 2010. The narrower field at Yankee Stadium, combined with NYCFC's trio of David Villa, Andrea Pirlo, and Frank Lampard, will challenge United a few different ways than what they've encountered this year.
"It's going to be a different game on the tight field. We tried to not take too much from that," Birnbaum said of watching NYCFC's loss on Sunday to the New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena. "But you can see in their attack that they have some pieces there, so we have to stay focused and keep track of their runners the whole time."
The key for United will lie in taking advantage of the fact that NYCFC is still coming together as a team. Sunday's Hudson River Rivalry game was the first time that Villa, Lampard, and Pirlo had all started a game together this season. Getting them now is an opportunity to exploit their inexperience in the league, according to Kemp.
"Their big guys are still learning to play with the team, with each other, and figuring out MLS," said Kemp. "So we want to make it hectic for them, and play a high energy game. We will have to be good defensively and tuned in, especially on the small field."
But the small field will present a few challenges to United. Playing at RFK Stadium, the Black-and-Red are accustomed to using all of the field available to them. With less room to operate, United will be forced to adapt their playing style to find a way to win the game on league's smallest field.
"We know it's going to be tight, we are going to have to try to be good with the ball and keep possession. There's not going to be a lot of space to play over the top or find balls wide," Kemp added.