Tampa Bay Sports Day

Defense leads the way for DC United

Through most of April where they managed to win just once in seven total matches, it was defense optional for DC United. Not only did they concede four goals on three occasions, they looked indecisive and disorganized, especially on set pieces.

In their last two matches however, a 2-1 win over Seattle and scoreless draw with FC Dallas both at home, an unlikely combination across the back line coupled with a commitment to defending have produced two dramatically different performances and better results.

“Coming off the bad losses we had, the team came out with a different attitude. We came out knowing we had to play stingier defense and that is what we have done the last two weeks,” said Daniel Woolard, who played left back in these last two results.

“We have played defensively well as a team; we’ve battled for each other and covered for each other in the mistakes that we’ve made and we’ve been fortunate enough to keep some goals off the board.”

In their previous three matches, United gave up a total of 11 goals including three to a marginal bunch of New England reserves in a U.S. Open Cup match that was sandwiched between two four goal leaks to New York and Houston.

The Red Bulls moved the ball freely and consistently forced United into odd man situations, forcing them to make decisions for which they were severely exploited. So regardless, something had to change.

“Focus,” said center back Dejan Jakovic abruptly about the primary change. “Defensively we are a lot sharper. We aren’t making any mistakes in the back and we are concentrating for 90-minutes, not just the back four, we are just playing well defensively.”

United coach Ben Olsen responded with an odd combination in the back that so far has been effective. Along with Woolard, rookie Perry Kitchen was shifted to outside right with another rookie, Ethan White, playing alongside Jakovic in the middle.

“Both of them think like backs a little bit more than the other guys we’ve had in there and neither one attacked a lot and maybe we can get a little more involved in the attack and getting them higher up the field,” United assistant coach Chad Ashton said about Woolard and Kitchen.

“But we said we wanted to be better defensively and not give up goals and you could see that’s what those two brought to the game. They are not giving up chances. They are doing the little things of when you are a weak side back of tucking in and organizing from the weak side. If we can add a little attack to it from those guys now, we’ll start to get them on both sides of the ball,” Ashton continued.

Kitchen last played right back in 2009 with the U.S. Under-17 National Team but seemed fairly comfortable with his movement and decision making.

“I wasn’t trying to do too much,” said the engaging rookie from Akron. “I was just worrying about defense first and trying to get forward when I could. We know the work that it took to give up the one goal so we have to keep that same mentality. It wasn’t just the backs and the goalie, we kept a tight shape and everybody was defending.”

Despite the better results, their inability effectively and consistently to defend set pieces is a clear issue. In response, Olsen and his staff resorted to their version of the “Herbie” during a training session the previous week.

“The set pieces are a problem. It was like from the movie Miracle where you are saying ‘again’ and ‘again’ and ‘again’ and we just kept going until guys won their battles,” said Ashton, referring to a tactic used by 1980 U..S Olympic Hockey Coach Herb Brooks, after a listless tie 4-4 tie with Norway in a tune up game leading up to the Olympics.

Brooks lined his team up on the goal line and they skated; line-to-line and back multiple times, with a whistle and the chilling sound of “again” as the only sounds other than their skate blades cutting the ice. They skated so many times that the rink workers turned the lights off and left.

“It’s a pride thing; it’s a mentality and I think we are getting better at it but we need to do better not only on defensive set pieces but offensive set pieces as well as just saying that we are going to win our individual battles,” said Ashton.

Jakovic corroborated the incident. “We were giving up a lot of chances on set pieces. Defensively and offensively obviously it wasn’t good enough. One training session where we might have worked on set pieces and Benny was just yelling at everybody until we got it right. It has to do with concentration and we are man marking so everyone has to stay with their man.”