Steve fred 4-26-18

Aerial duels key for United against the Union

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.

D.C. United will arrive in Philadelphia riding high after their first win of the season and a productive bye week. The match at Talen Energy Stadium will be a key chance for the Black-and-Red to build momentum for their extensive road trip prior to their arrival at Audi Field on July 14.

A win against Philadelphia is not a foregone conclusion, though, and the Union will also be looking to to put an end to their own winless streak. In particular, United’s defense will have to handle a dedicated attack from the air.

The Union have scored three goals this season, all of which came off crosses. Through the season’s first five matches, the Union have attempted a total of 114 crosses, making United's defensive play in the air of added importance come Saturday.

Though the Union have talked about moving away from a reliance on crosses into the box, the ability to win aerial duels will be crucial for the Black-and-Red if they hope to leave Philadelphia with three points, and their recent history shows they are up to the task.

“We had a concept that we put in this preseason that we needed to have first contact in the box,” defender Steven Birnbaum said. “If we do that we feel confident that we won’t let in a lot of goals.”

In United’s 1-0 win against Columbus Crew SC at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, both Birnbaum and defensive partner Frédéric Brillant combined for 24 clearances, many of which came within the penalty area after United went down to 10 men following Paul Arriola’s red card.

Communication was key for the duo, especially when they were forced to bunker down.

“That’s the biggest thing for us,” Birnbaum said. “I feel like me and Fred [Brillant] are on the same page right now and have a good understanding of where the other is going to be so we can hunt and dictate how we’re going to win the ball.”

The gritty performance was a high-point for the duo so far in the young season, though Birnbaum didn’t reflect on it for too long, preferring to look ahead.

“We’re going to have to draw upon that a lot this year. I’m proud of the guys for that game but that’s in the past now,” Birnbaum said. “We know now we have the grit to do that but we need to have a little more finesse in some areas.”

Philadelphia presents a unique challenge because of the speed they feature up front from players like David Accam. The Union’s attack also continues to revolve primarily around CJ Sapong, who is not far removed from a 16-goal season in 2017.

And while the Union have preferred to attack from the air so far this season, United can’t afford to overlook Philadelphia's other offensive outlets.

“Defensively we have have to be sound because they have a lot of fast guys up top, so we have to make sure we keep them in front of us and force everything wide,” Birnbaum said. “I think the best thing we can do to catch our breath is keep the ball. We have to do a better job this game of maintaining possession.”

With the opportunity to gain crucial momentum on the table, Birnbaum and United have their work cut out for them, but are ready to continue progressing in Philadelphia.