The arrival of Wayne Rooney, the rise of Luciano Acosta, and the homecoming of Bill Hamid may have stolen the headlines surrounding the Black-and-Red's 2018 turnaround, but quietly, one player's return to health completely revitalized United's core and playoff hopes: defensive midfielder Russell Canouse.
Canouse was sidelined with injury from the beginning of the 2018 campaign until the opening of Audi Field, when, on July 14, he made his first appearance of the season, subbing in to the stadium's inaugural match in the 89th minute. The defensive midfielder continued to play limited minutes until he returned to the starting lineup against Colorado on July 28. From that point on, Canouse started every remaining match of the season and helped strengthen and better connect the spine of United's lineup, allowing them to emerge as one of the most dangerous teams in the second half of 2018.
Canouse may not stuff the scoresheet as much as some of United's other players, but his influence on both sides of the ball was invaluable to to the team's success. After the midfielder returned from injury, the Black-and-Red coaching staff were able to shift from a 4-1-4-1 formation to a 4-2-3-1, most often pairing Canouse and Júnior Moreno in the defensive midfield to significantly strengthen United's core. The shift paid off, as Canouse's workhorse play made United's spotty defensive solid, and United's promising attack even better.
A scrappy, gritty defender, Canouse was a major roadblock to opposing attacks. The 23-year-old repeatedly showed his ability to read the game, break up passing lanes, cut off the counterattack, and regain and maintain possession for United. Canouse finished the year with 115 duels won (fifth-most on team), 33 aerials won (fourth-most on team), 57 tackles (fourth-most on team), and 39 interceptions (fourth-most on team), leading the way for the Black-and-Red in a number of key defensive categories despite missing half of the season.
"He is physical, relentless, and a fighter," head coach Ben Olsen said of Canouse earlier in the season. "He does so many little things that go unnoticed, and he's been such a big part of this turnaround."
On offense, Canouse helped control the game for the Black-and-Red. The defensive midfielder's total composure on the ball allowed United to cut down on turnovers and avoid chasing the ball, ultimately resulting in more wins. The 23-year-old always seemed to find the key outlet pass, and his impressive passing accuracy sustained more possession and created more opportunities in front of goal. Canouse's 89% passing accuracy on the year, and 86% passing accuracy in the opposing half, were the best percentages of any D.C. players who played at least 90 minutes this season. Canouse also earned 92% passing accuracy in United's own half, good for third-best on the team.
A quiet utility man, Canouse got his moment in the limelight when he scored his first career MLS goal against Dallas on October 13. With the match level at 0-0 late in the second half, the Black-and-Red were pushing hard for a go-ahead goal to help them continue their run at the postseason. In the 86th minute, Rooney took a free kick that sailed into Dallas' box, and Canouse struck a volley off the crossbar. The midfielder got a second chance at goal, though, as a loose ball found it's way back to Canouse, who headed it just past the scrambling defense for the game-winner.
Canouse earned four MLS Team of the Week selections during the year, and received United's Heineken Man of the Match honors three times.
The 2018 season was supposed to be Canouse's first full MLS campaign, and while injury delayed the start of his season, the 23-year-old managed to come back with a bang, logging a strong three months of play and showing how much his presence can lift the entirety of the starting XI. Now Canouse will work to stay healthy this offseason in the hopes that he can feature throughout all of 2019. And if Canouse stays in good health and good form heading into next year, the defensive midfielder has the ability to take the league, and perhaps the U.S. Men's National Team, by storm.