Last month, things were looking bleak for the D.C. United back line. The team had surrendered 12 goals in a five-game stretch, key injuries to three defenders had robbed the rearguard of its depth and the club's ongoing search for an experienced foreigner to play in the central role had proved fruitless.
But fast forward a few weeks, and the outlook has dramatically changed. In two reassuring performances against Kansas City and Columbus, the defense has yielded only one goal and looks much more composed both on and off the ball.
Right back Brandon Prideaux's return from a hamstring injury has been a major boon, though the veteran insists that United owes its upturn to a renewed commitment from all 11 players on the field.
"We've had a lot of conversations about getting back to everybody defending well," Prideaux said. "It's always a team thing -- it starts with the forwards putting pressure on their defenders, and then the midfield doing their job, and us in the back kind of cleaning it up."
Bobby Boswell, United's rookie central defender, has steadily grown more comfortable in that vital role, but D.C.'s improved defensive communication has been a team effort, both on and off the field.
"We looked over some game tape each (week), and worked on what areas we struggled," said Bryan Namoff, who made his first appearance of the season against Columbus after being sidelined by a broken rib. "There were definitely times when we struggled as far as communication at the back and different shape concerns.
"So we go through plays throughout the week, and we find general weaknesses and we plan and communicate from the coaches to the players. It's kind of an open forum for us, (so) that we can discuss things and learn how to problem-solve."
The nature of Namoff's injury forced him to rest completely, so it will take some time for him to fully restore his cardiovascular levels, as well as his touch and tactical awareness. But his return promises to intensify the competition for starting spots, which is a cornerstone of coach Peter Nowak's practice philosophy.
"It's great to finally get back, and to train with the team every day," said Namoff. "I think each and every day I get fitter and fitter, and I'm looking to get minutes again on the weekend."
United's back line can also thank their goalkeeper, Nick Rimando, for last week's 3-1 defeat of the Crew at RFK Stadium. Columbus uncorked 16 shots, but Rimando's eight saves ensured a flattering scoreline for the home side.
"I wouldn't say we're perfect right now," said Prideaux. "We gave up a lot of shots against Columbus. We still have a lot to work on, but we are getting better results and that's the most important thing."
Traveling to Foxborough, Mass., this weekend, the Black-and-Red will have their hands full with a prolific Revolution attack that has propelled New England to the top of the Eastern Conference.
"There's four players in particular that are dangerous," said Prideaux. "Ralston, Dempsey, Noonan and Twellman up top. Twellman's the kind of the guy that poaches in the box, an opportunistic type of player. Noonan's real dangerous, and Ralston and Dempsey have scored some goals. We'll have to keep an eye on them."
Nowak may scale back from last week's aggressive lineup, which featured dual attacking midfielders in Christian Gomez and Freddy Adu. If so, look for Brian Carroll to return to a starting spot in the middle of the park, perhaps paired with Clyde Simms in the holding role.
"I expect us to have a little bit different lineup than what we had on the weekend," said Prideaux. "I'm not sure about it, but I would assume that we play a little bit more defensive-minded. Whenever you go on the road, you play a bit different, so I would expect us to sit back and counterattack on them."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.