By the time D.C. United’s season expired at BMO Field in Toronto, coach Ben Olsen had identified a pair of fullbacks that was effective if not ideal
On the left side, where injuries plagued United most of the spring, Joseph Mora entrenched himself as a delightful two-way option capable of blending solid defensive work with excellent service into the penalty area. And on the right side, where Olsen made the bold decision to bench starter Leonardo Jara with five games remaining in the regular season, defensive midfielder Russell Canouse ingratiated himself to the coaches with one sturdy performance after the next, all for the betterment of the team.
“Russell adapted well to the right back, and Mora got back after a jaw injury to really help us,” Olsen said during his final media session of the year. “And I thought (Mora) was rounding into form even toward the end of the season. It took him that long because it was such a heavy injury.”
The consistency of Mora and Canouse from late August through October masked some of the musical chairs United was forced to play at both fullback spots earlier in the year. Everyone from Mora and Canouse to Jara, Jalen Robinson, Chris Odoi-Atsem, Marquinhos Pedroso, Paul Arriola and Lucas Rodriguez took their turn at fullback or wingback at some point during the 2019 season as injuries and suspensions struck.
In that respect, the fullback positions were a group effort in support of the ever-present center backs Steven Birnbaum and Frederic Brillant, who anchored the back line amid numerous changes in personnel. There’s no question Olsen and his staff would enjoy a bit more continuity next season, especially if that means fewer injuries to their starting defenders.
But it’s far too early for predictions about what the lineup will look like in 2020, so for now we reflect on this year’s roster before general manager Dave Kasper unveils a new one in the coming months. This is the fourth in a series of stories analyzing the Black-and-Red position by position.
Next up, the fullbacks.
In 2018, Mora became an immediate starter during his first season with the club and maintained his status as Olsen’s preferred left back whenever healthy. Mora was limited to 18 starts and 20 appearances this season after suffering a broken jaw March 31. The injury required surgery and sidelined him for 13 games before his return on June 26. Still, the on-field recovery from such a serious injury took far longer, and Olsen believed Mora was finally rounding into form during the five-game unbeaten streak to close the season. At his best, Mora presented a stout defensive presence on the left side coupled with the pace and willingness to join the attack. And when Canouse replaced Jara at right back during the final six weeks of the season — bringing with him a more cautious approach to the position — Mora became the primary source of width and service for the Black-and-Red. He ranked tied for 15th among MLS defenders with 22 crosses from Aug. 11 through the end of the regular season, which was his best stretch of 2019, and also ranked eighth in crossing accuracy (22.7%) among defenders with at least 20 crosses during that same period. For the season, Mora finished with 0.6 successful crosses per 90 minutes to double the rate of Jara (0.3) and edge the utility defender, Robinson, according to WhoScored. Mora tied with Birnbaum for the most interceptions per 90 minutes among starting defenders (1.2) and led all Black-and-Red defenders in crosses blocked per 90 minutes with 0.5, well above Jara’s mark of 0.3 on the opposite side of the formation. Though Mora pushed forward consistently for United, especially from August through October, his offensive contributions were limited to crosses. He attempted only seven shots all season with zero on target and produced an expected assist (xA) total of just 1.3, tied for the 11th-lowest mark among MLS fullbacks with at least 1,500 minutes played, according to American Soccer Analysis. The next step in Mora’s progression should be strengthening his attacking presence down the wing.
An attack-minded fullback, Jara joined United on a season-long loan from Argentinian powerhouse Boca Juniors, a club for which he made more than 70 appearances from 2015 through last season. Olsen penciled Jara into the starting right back position for the vast majority of the season until changing tactics following a 3-1 loss to the Philadelphia Union on Aug. 24, after which Jara barely played. Nonetheless, Jara finished the year with 30 appearances and 25 starts to log the most league minutes (2,291) of his professional career. Though he played as a fullback, there were times when Jara felt more like a winger in a defender’s body (6 feet, 180 pounds), someone who enjoyed the offensive side of the game more than getting stuck in defensively. Jara’s technical ability with his preferred right foot was impressive, and there were times during the year when United accommodated their shape to suit his crossing abilities. He finished tied for third in MLS for assists by a defender with 5 and tied for fourth among defenders with 34 total shots, though exactly half of them were off target. He also ranked ninth among MLS fullbacks in expected goals (xG) for players with at least 2,000 minutes this season and tied for second in player shot percentage, a metric tracked by American Soccer Analysis indicating Jara launched a shot on 4.5% of possessions in which he touched the ball — a fairly staggering figure. The downside to Jara’s attacking disposition was a tendency to get caught out defensively and endanger United’s back line. He was dispossessed at a rate of 1.2 times per 90 minutes to lead all Black-and-Red defenders, according to WhoScored, and was dribbled past 2.3 times per 90 minutes, which was more than anyone else on the team regardless of position. Olsen eventually shifted Jara to the bench in favor of Canouse, who was more attentive to the defensive responsibilities and offered steady positioning game in and game out. From that point forward, Jara floated between fullback and central midfield in training.
With Mora injured and United in desperate need of a left back, Kasper signed the left-footed Pedroso off waivers on May 3 following just two appearances for FC Dallas early in the year. The Brazilian-born Pedroso started 13 games for Dallas toward the end of last season after joining MLS in the wake of loan appearances in Hungary, Turkey and Brazil. Olsen inserted Pedroso into the lineup immediately and gave him three starts between May 12 and May 25, with United posting one win, one loss and one draw during that stretch. But Pedroso’s marking was spotty, especially on the back post, and he quickly returned to the bench once Mora was medically cleared. He logged just 45 minutes from May 26 through the end of the season but always gave strong efforts during training.
The former Maryland product was diagnosed with Stage II Hodgkin’s lymphoma last October and underwent several rounds of chemotherapy to treat a 7.5-centimeter mass in his chest. When the tumor was successfully eradicated, Odoi-Atsem began working his way toward a potential return for the Black-and-Red, dedicating the winter and spring to rehab and recovery. By May, Odoi-Atsem earned a start for United and logged 68 minutes in a 3-3 draw with the Chicago Fire. He played 28 minutes two days later as a substitute against the San Jose Earthquakes. The remainder of the season saw Odoi-Atsem bounce between the Black-and-Red and USL affiliate Loudoun United. He made one additional appearance for Olsen during a 5-1 loss to the Philadelphia Union in August and supplemented that action with six appearances for Loudoun toward the end of the year. He chipped in 3 assists in two starts for Loudoun while looking dangerous down the right flank. If healthy, Odoi-Atsem should be squarely in the mix for a first-team spot in 2020 and beyond.
A starter last season, Fisher missed all of 2019 while recovering from a serious knee injury suffered Sept. 29, 2018, against the Montreal Impact. Fisher underwent surgery for damage to his ACL, MCL, PCL and medial meniscus with the understanding that his rehab process would be lengthy, cautious and with an eye toward the future rather than the present. He became a mainstay along the sideline during United’s training sessions while working with various members of the medical staff, and by the end of the year Fisher had received clearance for participation in certain drills. As with Odoi-Atsem, the Black-and-Red would love to see Fisher competing for playing time next season.
Part 1 — Strikers
Part 2 — Central midfielders
Part 3 — Wingers