IMAGE | Centerbacks

Year in Review | Examining D.C. United’s center backs

There were times throughout the season when D.C. United coach Ben Olsen made mention of his staff needing to step outside its collective comfort zone to address certain problems, be them injury related or tactical quandaries or both. The challenging circumstances United faced — from the broken jaw of left back Joseph Mora, to the integration of new players at the end of the transfer window, to the intermittent presence of striker Wayne Rooney down the stretch — presented the coaches with unique hurdles to jump.

“I think this year, in some ways, our staff and myself did a really good job,” Olsen said during his season-ending media session in late October. “In some ways we’ve branched out. Again, you guys don’t see the day to day and some of the stuff under the water that we dealt with. Again, we managed that, we adapted and I thought our staff did a really, really good job this year.”

One of those challenges involved dancing between formations for significant portions of the year as United moved from a four-man defensive line to a five-man defensive line and back, depending on the month, the injury report and the opposition. There were stretches in which the continuity coaches crave proved hard to find.

But eventually Olsen and his staff made another choice, the right choice, by committing themselves to one formation and one alignment for a closing stretch in which the Black-and-Red needed points to assure themselves of a second consecutive playoff berth. They lashed themselves to a 4-2-3-1 formation with a healthy version of Mora, their two most-experienced center backs and a converted midfielder at right back to offer the most defensive cover and match the strength of this year’s team.

While Olsen’s decision may not have produced the most aesthetically pleasing performances, there’s no denying its efficacy as a catalyst for the five-game unbeaten streak, and his two stalwarts at center back were often the driving factors. In Steven Birnbaum and Frederic Brillant, the Black-and-Red had one of the best defensive partnerships in MLS.

“Fred and Steve had good a season as any center back in this league,” Olsen said. “Nobody talks about them.”

Their success as a duo could entice United to enter 2020 with the same two faces at center back, though it’s far too soon to make predictions about the starting lineup. Instead, we’ll use this time to reflect on the 2019 roster before general manager Dave Kasper unveils a new one in the coming months.

This is the fifth in a series of stories analyzing the Black-and-Red position by position.

Next up, the center backs.

Steven Birnbaum

At 28 years old, Birnbaum enjoyed perhaps the best season of his MLS career as one of United’s most dependable ironmen. He started all 34 games for the second consecutive season and played 90 minutes 33 times throughout the year. The lone exception was a 1-1 draw with the San Jose Earthquakes in which a clash of heads forced Birnbaum off the field after 62 minutes. Were it not for that bloody collision on June 1, he surely would have logged every minute of the season. And even with that early departure, Birnbaum still finished the year with the sixth-most minutes in MLS. Birnbaum’s defensive prowess both on the ground and through the air were paramount to United’s success in 2019. He ranked fourth in MLS in clearances per game at 5.2 and was one of only 14 players in the league to average at least 1 blocked shot per game. His total of 190 aerials won was not only the highest total in MLS, it was 24 more than that of second-place finisher Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Birnbaum also led the league in headed clearances with 110, some 13 more than the next-closest player, which happened to be his partner, Brillant. United also made use of Birnbaum’s aerial ability on the offensive end of the field. He was a primary target for striker Wayne Rooney on set pieces as both a knock-down artist and a player capable of heading shots goalward himself. Birnbaum headed home the team’s first goal in a 2-1 win over Orlando City SC on a set piece from Rooney for his only goal of the season. There was also a distinct leadership component to Birnbaum’s on-field responsibilities. He served as the team’s vice-captain behind Rooney and wore the armband whenever the Englishman was not on the field, which happened quite frequently during the second half of the year. Birnbaum carried himself with supreme professionalism on the practice field and during games.

Frédéric Brillant

Even as he turned 34 in June, Brillant proved himself to be one of the team’s most indispensable players. He appeared in all 34 games during the regular season and made 33 starts alongside Birnbaum to form arguably the league’s best center back pairing. His 2,961 minutes played were the highest of his four-year MLS tenure and equaled the heaviest season of his career, in 2011-12, as a member of KV Oostende in the Belgian second division. Brillant ranked second in MLS in clearances with 6.2 per game and seventh in blocks with 1.1 per game, a smidgeon ahead of Birnbaum in both categories. Like Birnbaum, he was at his best when challenging for balls in the air. Brillant finished second in the league in headed clearances and ranked 10th in aerials won. His passing success rate of 81.9 percent led all Black-and-Red defenders and ranked 20th in the league among defenders with at least 2,500 minutes played. Brillant also enjoyed one of the best offensive seasons of his career with 2 goals and 2 assists. It was the first time he scored more than 1 goal in a season since he played for KV Oostende in 2014-15, by which point the club had risen to the Belgian first division, and only the third time he’s accomplished that feat in first-tier football. Brillant’s total of four combined goals and assists was his strongest output in a top-flight league. He flashed a nose for goal by finding himself around the ball during scrums in the opposing penalty area and benefited from Rooney’s superb service. He also displayed a remarkable work ethic in training despite being the oldest player on the squad.

Donovan Pines

Kasper signed Pines to a homegrown contract in January after the former Maryland product decided to skip his final collegiate season to turn professional. Pines appeared in 10 games and made nine starts while logging 785 minutes in a fairly typical rookie campaign: some ups, some downs and plenty of learning experiences for the future. Olsen inserted Pines into the starting lineup during two stretches of the season when United employed three center backs in a five-man back line. Pines made four starts from April 13 through May 4 with United winning three games and losing once during those matches. He returned to the starting lineup again for five consecutive games from July 12 to Aug. 4 with United winning once, drawing twice and losing twice before Olsen returned to his traditional 4-2-3-1 formation. Though there were certainly bumps and bruises along the way — at times Pines turned the ball over in dangerous areas and admitted to struggling with confidence — it was easy to see why Olsen and the staff are excited about his potential, especially when comparing his production to that of fellow center backs Birnbaum and Brillant, two of the better players in the league at their position. Consider the following statistics per 90 minutes of game action:

  • Tackles — Pines 1.8, Brillant 1.7, Birnbaum 0.6
  • Interceptions — Pines 1.9, Birnbaum 1.2, Brillant 0.9
  • Clearances — Pines 6.6, Brillant 6.3, Birnbaum 5.2
  • Passes blocked — Pines 0.5, Brillant 0.4, Birnbaum 0.2
  • Headed clearances — Pines 4.24, Birnbaum 3.14, Brillant 2.83

The hope is that Pines, who won’t turn 22 until March, continues to develop his foot skills and consistency to become a starting-caliber player alongside Birnbaum in the years to come. He worked diligently on his range of passing and passing accuracy with members of the coaching staff several times a week to augment his lack of playing time from August through the end of the year. He made six appearances with USL affiliate Loudoun United to keep his sharpness during the second half of the season.

Jalen Robinson

The homegrown player made a career-high 10 appearances for the Black-and-Red this season with five starts sprinkled throughout the year. As the fourth center back on the roster, Robinson found minutes difficult to come by and wound up playing right back on occasion in practice and during games. He went long stretches without seeing the field, though, and seven of his 10 appearances came on or before June 1. A knee injury suffered against the New York Red Bulls on Aug. 21 put an unofficial end to Robinson’s season, though he did return to training prior to the playoffs.

Prior stories

Part 1 — Strikers

Part 2 — Central midfielders

Part 3 — Wingers

Part 4 — Fullbacks