D.C. United's defense faced a bevy of challenges this spring. A unit that surrendered 44 goals in league play last season – fifth-worst in Major League Soccer – was always destined for some remodeling, but incorporating a new coach, new formation, new starting goalkeeper and a host of other fresh faces posed a tall task for all involved, and the transition process was further complicated by a rash of injuries to key veterans.
Attack is typically the name of the game around RFK Stadium, as United and their fans have pledged allegiance to an offensive-minded approach since the early days of MLS. However, upon taking the top job in December head coach Curt Onalfo saw little point in emphasizing those cavalier traditions without building a stronger foundation at the back.
"Priority number one is to shore up the defense and make sure that we give up less goals than we have in the past, and at the same time continue to create the chances that we've always created," explained the former United defender in January.
So Onalfo and his staff have focused on girding the back line from day one, and long weeks of training-ground toil seem to have paid off as the club approaches First Kick 2010 with optimism regarding its new-look rearguard.
Longtime right back Bryan Namoff remains sidelined indefinitely due to post-concussion symptoms, left back/center back Marc Burch is out for months due to a foot injury and Clyde Simms, the holding midfielder who provides a critical shield for the back four, underwent minor knee surgery a month ago and only resumed full training activities last week.
But under the watchful eye of veteran goalkeeper Troy Perkins, younger players like Rodney Wallace, Dejan Jakovic and Devon McTavish have picked up the slack thus far, slotting into the more orthodox four-man shape Onalfo has adopted – "it gives us room on the field to spread the opponents and hopefully get in behind them," said Wallace – in place of last year's 3-5-2 formation.
United's preseason results have been encouraging: with the exception of their 3-2 friendly win over Mexican side Santos Laguna, D.C.'s defense been breached just twice thus far in 2010.
"Technically we've been very sharp and defensively, we've been very good throughout the entire season," noted assistant coach Kris Kelderman. "If you look back at all the game that we've played from the very beginning of preseason until now, I believe we've only given up two goals: one was an own goal and one was a penalty kick. So we're very encouraged by the progress we've made defensively as a unit, and we're very excited about the way we've been playing as far as possession, being sharp on the ball and attacking whenever possible."
Coaches and players alike cited Perkins' influence as a major factor. The onetime D.C. netminder has returned from Europe to provide vocal leadership and organization for a defense that was often punished for confusion and hesitancy a year ago. Meanwhile, Jakovic, who started his campaign a bit early thanks to a Canadian national team callup over the winter, seems to have picked up right where he left off after a promising MLS debut campaign in 2009.
"There's a lot of new faces, but so far I think everyone's been working really hard in preseason and slowly as the games go on, we're starting to gel more and more as we figure out the starting XI," said the young center back. "With the 4-4-2, it's just a different style of play that we play now, we've got the wingbacks going forward and everyone seems able to know their roles so far."
For Saturday's season opener in Kansas City, Jakovic seems likely to be paired with newcomer Juan Manuel Pena in the center, the Bolivian veteran having impressed in his trial stint with United after capping a long career in the Spanish Primera League. Wallace and McTavish have pole position on the outside back spots and will be given limited license to move into the attack, though in the short term clean sheets will take precedence over raids forward.
"First things first, especially introducing a new system, we want to make sure that players are organized and understand their roles," said Kelderman, "and it just makes sense to start in the back first and move forward."