When the final whistle blew on Sunday night, sealing D.C. United’s 2-0 win over the New England Revolution, it closed a three-game homestand where the Black-and-Red earned nine points while scoring nine goals.
Led by captain Wayne Rooney and midfielder Luciano Acosta, the United attack was practically unstoppable. But while the high-flying attack deservedly took the headlines, the Black-and-Red defense held the line, conceding only three goals during the three-game stretch and recording United’s first clean sheet since April; and over the course of United’s five-game unbeaten streak, the Black-and-Red surrendered only five goals.
The defensive performance brought United’s goal differential back to level and helped them jump back into the midst of a tight Eastern Conference playoff race, and it was thanks in part to a key tactical switch.
During the homestand, the Black-and-Red ran a 4-2-3-1 formation, straying from the 4-1-4-1 that was a mainstay through the first half of the season. The change in formation allowed defensive midfielders Russell Canouse and Júnior Moreno to pair up and provide an extra line of defense in front of United’s back four. The pair frustrated opponents by clogging up passing lanes and relentlessly tracking down ball carriers.
Canouse and Moreno's presence in the midfield was a welcome sight considering both battled with injuries through the first half of the season, and their return added some defensive grit to the team.
Since returning from injury, Canouse has been a ruthless defender, winning 52.94% of his tackles and recording 10 interceptions. Canouse doesn’t shy away from getting in opposing players’ faces, and has enough skill with the ball at his feet to move it up in the attack and cycle possession.
The same can be said for Moreno who has recorded 18 tackles and 13 clearances so far this season, along with two assists in his last four games. The impressive performance earned the 25-year-old midfielder a call up to the Venezuelan national team.
The pair can quickly move the ball forward as well, with Canouse and Moreno completing 90.45% and 85.43% of their passes in the opposing half respectively.
“We’re defending better as a team,” United head coach Ben Olsen said. “Putting Russell and Júnior in the center is going to help our defense in a big way.”
United goalkeeper Bill Hamid agreed, noting that the pair has helped ease his transition back on field after returning to the Black-and-Red following a stint in Europe with Danish club FC Midtjylland.
“I have four quality defenders back with me and protection with Canouse and Moreno,” Hamid said “I think we’ve played really well. It was big to get a clean sheet. Today was very clinical, and the chemistry is at a high.”
Both players have lifted the defensive standard of the team of late and will play a key role in shutting down the New York Red Bulls attack led by leading goal scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips. And with a playoff spot on the line against a hated rival, it's a challenge they're looking forward to taking on.