For the Black-and-Red, defense is critical. With standout center backs Steven Birnbaum and Frédéric Brillant, MLS veteran goalkeepers Steve Clark and David Ousted, and United’s 2017 Defensive Player of the Year Kofi Opare at the heart of the back line, the Black-and-Red are well-versed in defending. Leidos—the presenting partner of D.C. United—provides systems, solutions, and services covering air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace for Defense and Intelligence customers worldwide. Sponsored by Leidos, this weekly feature delves into some of the defensive storylines for United.
For a moment, the game was literally on the line when United defender Frédéric Brillant saw the ball rolling toward the goal line after a scramble during United’s season-opener against Orlando City.
With United up by a goal and Orlando down a man due to a red card, the moment was a potential turning point for the Lions that Brillant avoided when he swooped in and swept the ball away from danger.
Though Orlando would eventually score a stoppage time equalizer, the game was a good first test for the defensive pairing of Brillant and Steven Birnbaum. Aside from Orlando's late score, the pair felt there were a lot of positives to take from what was a fast-paced, box-to-box match.
“Obviously it felt like a little bit of a stinger when you have that advantage and you want to come out with a win, but I think it was a good first step forward,” Birnbaum said. “The guys really worked hard and I thought our defensive structure was good so we just have to keep building upon that going into this weekend against Atlanta, it’s going to be big.”
Birnbaum acknowledged that Orlando had caught the back line slipping late in the game, but overall he felt their defensive structure held, limiting Orlando’s chances to find clean shots. Despite conceding late, the team feels there was plenty of good from the opener that they can carry into Sunday's big matchup against Atlanta.
“The back four was very good on the whole [in Orlando],” Head Coach Ben Olsen said. “Orlando certainly caught us at one or two moments we could’ve been sharper at, but as far as protecting the shape behind, they did a good job, and as far as defending the box and getting first contact, very good.”
“We’re still working on them to squeeze the space a little bit more and be a touch more aggressive, in particular in the second half when we were up a man, but again all of this is a process and we’ll just keep grinding here every day at training and making each other better.”
For Birnbaum and Brillant, that means constant communication to keep the back four in order, and in the early going, the pair have formed promising defensive chemistry.
“I thought all of us communicated well throughout the whole game in Orlando and we’re really working on that every training,” Birnbaum said. “[We] keep getting better and we’ll get a feel for each other each training, and I think as time progresses our chemistry will get better.”
The task will not get any easier as United prepare to face an Atlanta team looking to get back on track after a 4-0 loss to the Houston Dynamo in Week 1. Dating back to last April, United have gone 3-0 against the expansion side and were one of the few teams to damper what was an excellent inaugural season for the club.
The teams' matchup history will mean Atlanta will come out on Sunday looking for a little revenge in front of their home crowd, and Birnbaum and co. will be forced to bunker down and control the match before Atlanta can build momentum from their home field advantage.
“It’s about being really attentive to detail. We’re really trying to hone in on that this year and be focused 90+ minutes and I think if we do that we’ll be in a good position each game,” Birnbaum said. “Obviously our goal as a back line is to not let any goals in and if we do that we’ll be in each game.”