The D.C. United offense is like the Avengers: I’m thinking Wayne Rooney is probably Thor (from another planet, a kind of serious and brooding star with a very stern look all the time), Luciano Acosta is Spider-Man (nimble, duh), and Paul Arriola is Ant-Man. This is a star-studded collection of players. These are names you know, faces you recognize.
But the DCU defense? They’re not, for the most part, household names. To be sure, these are very good players: Joseph Mora on the left, Steve Birnbaum and Frederic Brillant in the middle, and new addition Leo Jara on the right. These guys are like the Wakanda army that helps defend against Thanos’ diabolical force: warriors who know their spot on the lines, who don’t blink at imposing forces.
This is a defense that has not conceded a goal in 180 minutes — the only defense in the MLS to accomplish such a feat. This is the only D.C. United defense ever to not concede through the first two games. Certainly Bill Hamid — Hulk? Black Panther? Captain America? — standing between the pipes makes a difference, like it did at the end of the NYC FC game.
Their success so far has been a combination of a new addition to the roster and some collective buy-in to Ben Olsen’s points of focus.
“We put Leo in at right back, and he’s done a great job,” Birnbaum said of his new backline mate. “We worked a lot with him in the preseason in spots we wanted to defend, and how we want to go about it, and he’s picked it up quick. He’s a good defender.”
Jara hasn’t stuffed the stat sheet through two games, but he’s been pretty heavily involved without making any costly mistakes. Against Atlanta, for instances, he logged 68 touches with a 91.5-percent pass accuracy. Both of those marks were tops for D.C. defenders in the opener.
Last year, of course, right back was a “by committee” kind of approach. Jalen Robinson, Nick DeLeon, Oniel Fisher, and occasionally Paul Arriola took swipes at the position. Each had his strengths and weaknesses, but Jara offers solidity from a defensive standpoint as well as offensive threat and support for Arriola.
The other major element of success so far has been the collective buy-in to Olsen’s desire for a higher press, a more intense pressure from box to box. This kind of attack, like we (and they) have said over and over, is only possible if every unit on the field commits.
“It’s collective,” Olsen said. “It’s been Russell, it’s Junior, it’s our outside midfielders helping out the isolations with our wide backs. It’s our front pressure, the way Wayne and Lucho are starting our attack. Our defensive shape has been good.”
The team has been solid end to end, but the play of the center backs in front of Hamid has been particularly striking, too. The understanding and interplay between the pair has been nearly flawless.
“Towards the end of the season, we had a good idea of how we wanted to defend,” Birnbaum said. “Especially box defending — in our mid- to low-block. We worked a lot on that in preseason, and having the same group of guys here is a big deal.”
There was some fan clamor about strengthening the center back position over the offseason, but the team's decision to stick with Birnbaum and Brillant has been the right move to this point. Once the Black-and-Red begin doubling up on games during the week, or else when one of those two struggles with health or injury, it’ll be interesting to see where the depth comes from.
“I think our center backs have been good so far,” Olsen said. “Jalen Robinson is also a guy that we believe in. It’s time for him to step up his role for the team when called upon. Donovan [Pines] is a guy we believe in, a little bit more long-term.”
Taking in the form and points tallied through games, Olsen said he’s “pleasantly surprised” with his squad. The defense has performed, and though Rooney hasn’t opened his 2019 account yet the offense has been threatening. Lucho looks sharp as ever. Arriola’s improvement continues in front of goal.
With three of the next four games happening in Audi Field, D.C. have a huge opportunity to transform that “pleasant surprise” into a searing start.