D.C. United's Defense Has The Guns To Be Historically Good Under Ben Olsen

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D.C. United have their most points through two games in an MLS season since 2009. They are the only team that has not conceded a goal yet this year, the first time in club history that they have kept two clean sheets to start the season. Everything seems to be clicking so far for the Black-and-Red defensively. They are getting standout performances along the backline, and getting the needed support from midfield, mainly from Russell Canouse and Junior Moreno.

For most of Ben Olsen’s tenure as head coach of the Black-and-Red, his teams have been average defensively in MLS in terms of goals given up. In four of the eight seasons, United have ended up around in the middle of the pack in goals allowed. Three times United were among the worst, but in 2014 United led the league (along with the LA Galaxy) in fewest goals conceded. That year they gave up just 37 goals in 34 games, a big reason why they went from the worst team in MLS history in 2013 to winning the Eastern Conference in 2014.

So far in 2019, United has been stout defensively, against competition who expect to be near the top of the Eastern Conference by the end of the year. Our question for this week’s roundtable: Can D.C. United replicate their 2014 success defensively and end up in the top five of fewest goals conceded?

Wesley Davidson, FloFC Contributor: Putting. In. Work. This is what has gone through my mind while watching D.C. so far in 2019. Doubt their efforts to track back or step into a challenge? The Black-and-Red currently lead the league in both tackles attempted per game (35) and tackles completed (25). While Ben Olsen’s squad has no shortage of quality going forward, through two games they are performing in the likeness of their manager through their willingness to scrap and fight for every inch on the field.

Back-to-back Man of the Match honors are a testament to what a stud Bill Hamid has been between the sticks. One of the biggest questions heading into the season, however, was who exactly would be providing the goalkeeper cover alongside Steven Birnbaum. Frédéric Brillant has wasted no time in stating his case as to why he can build on his last year and be the trusted partner moving forward. A standout performance against Atlanta earned him a spot in the MLS Team of the Week, and Yankee Stadium was the setting for another solid shift.

I think Brillant has had time to find his way a bit and he will continue to have a stronger second campaign. D.C.’s pieces through the middle of the park will prove too difficult for many teams to break down and, as a result, the Black-and-Red will finish in the top five in fewest goals conceded. 

Steven Streff, FloFC’s D.C. United Beat Writer: With two good defensive performances to start the season, Ben Olsen and players alike have been quick to point out the collective nature of United’s success. Yes, Bill Hamid stood on his head late against New York City, but for the most part, City was left taking shots from outside of the box, a testament to how well United defended the box.

But United has also gotten good performances from their outside backs as well. When he joined at the beginning of last season, left back Joseph Mora took time to adjust to the league. There were a couple of slip-ups, but once United got to Audi Field, the Costa Rican dialed up his performances. That has continued into 2019, as he continues to get forward to support the attack, but is putting in solid defensive shifts as well.

At right back, United brought in Leonardo Jara and his wealth of experience in Argentina and South American tournaments with Boca Juniors and Estudiantes. Jara hasn’t missed a beat yet for United. The right back hasn’t stood out yet, in a way that Moreno, Canouse, Brillant, and Birnbaum have at times, but he hasn’t been the source of problems either, and will likely only continue to improve with more time in the league.

D.C. won’t continue to keep a clean sheet every week, but if they can continue to defend well as a unit, there is no reason why they can’t be a top-five defense in the league, giving up fewer than 45 goals over the course of the season. 

Hunter Sharpless, FloFC Content Writer: The first dude that popped into my mind when I read this question was Leo Jara. The Argentine was brought into the club somewhat in the shadow of Titi Rodriguez and his flashy blonde hair, but Jara and, like Streff said, his experience may actually be the most valuable addition to this team over the MLS transfer window. 

I’m once again echoing what Ben has said a couple times, but through 180 minutes the most impressive feat to me out of this team has been the end-to-end commitment to harassing the opponent in possession. That starts with Hamid and goes to Wayne Rooney, but everyone in between has been throwing themselves like madmen at the ball. Lucho Acosta is committed, the defensive mids are committed, the wingers are committed, Brillant has been wonderful . . . everybody is going balls to the wall, and that’s the only way to achieve a top defense in this sport.

Look, I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring Juventus into the picture, because I’m a huge fan of the Old Lady and a miracle just struck yesterday in Turin. If you watched that 90 minutes and managed to have your eyes on something besides Cristiano Ronaldo and Federico Bernardeschi, you could see that the Black and White pressed with manic fervor. A team possessed, every time Atletico Madrid gained possession of the ball someone like Blaise Matuidi or Giorgio Chiellini was haranguing them as if the world would end if the stopped just for a moment.

If D.C. United want to win the MLS Cup, they’ve got to play with that kind of defensive desperation, that kind of hunger. 

For 180 minutes, they’ve done so.

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