It’s been a trying 2016 for D.C. United. They were immediately dumped out of the CONCACAF Champions League in March - for the second consecutive year - and failed to get clear their first hurdle in the US Open Cup despite a home game against a lower-division side. In the league, the Black-and-Red have just five wins in MLS play in 19 games. While they aren't losing that often, United's total of 18 goals scored has meant many less-than-exciting games.
Injuries, international duty, and suspensions have all taken their toll on United, as would be expected of any team. But United have kept themselves alive in a weaker Eastern Conference this year by giving up only 22 goals thus far, good enough for third best in the league. A crucial factor in that figure has been the consistency of outside backs Sean Franklin and Taylor Kemp, who have played every single minute of MLS and CCL action, and split the 120 minutes in the Open Cup (with Franklin coming off at halftime for Kemp, who ended up logging 75 minutes thanks to the extra time period).
"Throughout the year you want to keep a good core together with your back line," right back Franklin told B&RU. "And me and Taylor have been fortunate enough to have been able to play every game and every minute."
The back line has seen plenty of chopping and changing throughout the course of the season. At center back, United has used four different players, with Jalen Robinson making a spot start, and Kofi Opare filling in at times for Bobby Boswell and Steve Birnbaum. And in goal, offseason surgery for Bill Hamid meant that Andrew Dykstra was the guy for United in goal, until he had surgery of his own, and Travis Worra filled in admirably until Hamid returned in May.
Given all that, you might excuse United for having a worse defensive record than they do. A big reason why that’s not the case has been Ben Olsen’s ability to lean on Franklin and Kemp for every single minute this year.
"It helps. It absolutely helps. Knock on wood, they’ve been durable," Olsen said of having both Franklin and Kemp healthy throughout the season. "They’ve both been very good throughout the year."
It also helps that the six defenders that have played part this year have been together in some fashion since 2014. It wasn’t until near the half way point in the 2014 campaign that Birnbaum took over for an injured Jeff Parke, and Kemp took over for the departed Christian Fernández. Opare joined the team that summer, but it’s been that core that has grown together through goods times and bad as United made the playoffs in both 2014 and 2015.
"Our group now, we are all pretty comfortable together. And we’ve all now been together for a couple of years," Kemp told B&RU. "That doesn’t mean we’ve always started next to each other, but we all know each other pretty well."
"I think our defense, for the most part, has a good idea of what we’re trying to do, and how to do it," added Kemp. "It doesn’t necessarily really matter. Every guy brings different qualities, but each guy can do the job that we need them to do."
Despite the stellar defensive record, it hasn’t quite all been roses for United defensively in 2016. Losses to the LA Galaxy, FC Dallas, and the Philadelphia Union have yielded 10 goals conceded in just three games. But the fact that they’ve banded together as an unit to only concede 12 goals in the other 16 games has helped United keep afloat in the Eastern Conference despite scoring less and a goal per game.
One factor that has helped Franklin and Kemp play every single minute in MLS play this year has been the lack of midweek games. After the two Champions League games to start the season, United did not have another one until June, when they lost 2-0 at home to the Seattle Sounders. That was followed by a two week break before the Open Cup loss to the Strikers.
July will feature five games by the end of the month, but each of those has come with a suitable period of rest days in between. Contrast that to last year, when United played 15 games in all competitions spread across May and June, at which point Franklin went down injured.
"Those games complicate things. You can’t play Saturday, Wednesday, Saturday. It’s too many minutes," said Kemp. "That makes a huge difference. That’s helped us stay healthy. That’s less minutes that have to go around, and we were pretty thin for a while at the back."
That’ll change though at some point in the season. United have three midweek games remaining in 2016, including a brutal stretch to end August when they play four games in 12 days. Presumably at that point, Olsen will be forced to break up his outside back tandem, having others fill in for some minutes trying to keep everyone healthy.
"Every team has a tough stretch through the year where they are playing four games in two weeks. It’s all about being prepared and making sure your body is ready for it," Franklin said. "If the coaches ask me to play part in all four of those games, it’s your job to make sure you’re doing the right things, to make sure your body is feeling as good as it can be for that stretch."
Unfortunately for United, it’s not something they can prepare much for. In an ideal world, Olsen might be able to switch things up defensively before that stretch in August, just to make sure everyone gets minutes to stay sharp and comfortable playing alongside their teammates.
Instead, with United on the outside looking in for the playoffs with 15 games remaining heading into this weekend’s clash with Toronto FC, they don’t have that luxury. Olsen will have to play his best 11 every week until the congestion, and only then will he be forced into changes, especially at the outside back positions.
"Our focus right now is Toronto," said Olsen when B&RU asked if he could plan ahead for the flurry of games to end August. "That’s where we’re at in the table. We have to start moving up, and get some wins. There’s an urgency for now."