If you listen in to a D.C. United training session it wouldn’t take long for you to hear the distinctive voice of new Black-and-Red defender Frédéric Brillant from the back line.
One of his commonly used phrases is “take your time,” as the back four control the ball and look for a forward pass. Brillant, along with fellow defenders Kofi Opare, Taylor Kemp, Steve Birnbaum, Nick DeLeon, and Jalen Robinson, has spent the first week of training camp in Clearwater, Fla., focused on building chemistry and creating a more cohesive defensive unit.
“It’s very important because we didn’t play together last year and it’s crucial for us to be compact and work for each other,” Brillant said of building the back line's bonds.
Brillant can frequently be heard encouraging his teammates to take their time so they can assess their options moving forward, find the right pass, and maintain disciplined shape. Then, when the back four are facing a man-on situation, Brillant and Opare vocalize where they are positioned and where the opponent is to better control their space to defend against a run.
That communication in the back line is key, and building an in-sync connection is just as crucial as the physical work during training camp.
“We’ve been working on how we adjust to each other’s movement, and how we assess different situations on the field,” Opare said following the first week of camp. “We want to put guys in the right position to prevent the opposing team from finding the goal easily.”
Following last season's defensive inconsistencies, United's coaching staff has put heavy emphasis on fortifying the play of the back four this preseason. During training sessions, Black-and-Red coaches have been challenging defenders to step up their game by repeatedly practicing good habits, controlling space, and forcing their opponents to play the ball into tighter spots and force passes into more crowded areas.
While the defensive instructions are nothing new, the new faces in camp create an added need to instill proper tendencies and build defensive rapport early on.
“It’s not so much a new system, but correcting the way we defend,” Opare said of the back line's focus on the fundamentals. “Last year we were a little too easy to expose, too many gaps all around the field which led to goals. In the past few days the focus has been on eliminating those gaps in terms of our spacing as a team, not just our back four.”
In recent years, MLS has seen an influx of forwards with speed to burn, with veterans like New York City's David Villa and newcomers like Atlanta United's Josef Martinez. With looming threats up front across the league, Brillant emphasized the need, now more than ever, to control the space in front of goal.
“It’s very important to control the depth, especially in this league because there are a lot of good players up front,” Brillant said. “There are a lot of fast attackers and we have to be careful and ready. I think if you watch the MLS last year a lot of goals were conceded by not being ready, and I think if we control the space and depth well we will concede less.”
Opare echoed Brillant's sentiments and noted that preseason was the perfect time to get in tune with his partners in the back by getting a feel for their tendencies as individuals.
“Anytime you have new guys around, the quicker you can understand each other’s movements and each other’s positional sense, the easier it is for the whole group,” Opare said. “Obviously, individual players have different attributes, some players are more aggressive while others are quicker, so finding that right balance and knowing your teammates and their movement is crucial. Preseason is a good way to understand and get to know the new players' movements.”
While both Brillant and Opare continuously use their voices to lead from the back and maintain organization, they also rely on vocal direction from their goalkeeper, who can easily scan the entire field and sense danger early.
“Obviously with Steve Clark and David Ousted behind us we have two very experienced keepers,” Opare said. “They're communicating to the guys around you and putting them in positions to succeed. Our responsibility is to relay those messages to the rest of the guys on the field.”
And when that message is received, it means the Black-and-Red are able to relieve defensive pressure and send their attack forward, thanks to the help of the back line's guidance.