A year after giving up 59 goals and sometimes conceding in ways that any professional coach or manager would find laughable, things had to change on the D.C. United back line. Players like Ethan White, Dejan Jakovic, and James Riley were dispatched or left the club via various means, and the front office completely revamped the defense in an attempt to have United not repeat 2013, which was one of the worst seasons by any club in the history of Major League Soccer.
Nine games into United’s 19th MLS season, the defense is still a work in progress and there are things that can be corrected. While there may have been a couple glimpses of last year on a few of the goals allowed, United’s defense is doing a much better job considering the attack hasn’t necessarily been solid at keeping the ball and taking pressure off the defense when United is level or on the lead in a match (especially of late).
In all, seven new defenders dot the first-team roster, though not all were brought in necessarily to contribute this year (first-round SuperDraft pick Steve Birnbaum, for example). But United’s first-choice back four now includes a quartet of players who weren’t in black-and-red last season – Cristian Fernandez, Bobby Boswell (in his second stint with United), Jeff Parke, and Sean Franklin. Franklin has missed time of late due to injury and 2013 holdover Chris Korb has stood in for him. Boswell and Franklin were acquired in the MLS Re-Entry Draft, while Parke came to D.C. in a trade with Philadelphia. Fernandez joined United in February after last playing at Spanish club Almeria.
All four range in age from 28 to 32 years old, meaning there’s a good bit of experience at work now, though this is Fernandez’s first MLS season. Boswell debuted with United and was in D.C. from 2005-2007, before spending six years in Houston. Parke is in his 10th MLS season and with his fourth team (New York, Seattle, Philadelphia). Franklin played for the Los Angeles Galaxy for six years, winning two MLS Cups, a taste of historical success this United roster badly needed.
The group has been criticized at times this season for being too slow to react to quick counter-attacks, and teams with a lot of speed in the midfield and up front are going to give United trouble. But marking has mostly been better this season and outside of games against Columbus (the opener which United lost, 3-0) and two weeks ago at Portland (United lost on a late goal, 3-2), United has only allowed five goals in its seven other matches this season. D.C. already has winning shutouts over its three northeast rivals (New York, New England, and Philadelphia), as well.
United is yet to play the league’s two highest-scoring teams (Seattle and Real Salt Lake), but FC Dallas has 20 goals on the season and United beat them, 4-1. New York has 18 goals (four scored in a 5-4 loss to Chicago last week) and United shut the Red Bulls out. There are definite signs of progress, even if some mistakes are still creeping in. It hasn’t always been pretty and there have been times where the defense hasn’t been effective, but there’s been improvement over last year.
That figured to be the case given the veteran presence United brought in. The key for the next quarter of the season or so will be to see if that improvement continues and how durable the first-choice defenders remain given the significant amount of miles they have already put in during their professional careers.
Ed Morgans is the D.C. United Page Editor for District Sports Page. For in-game analysis and story notifications, follow him on Twitter @writered21.