During the unpleasant string of games in late September and October that saw D.C. United fall out of the MLS Cup Playoffs race – missing the postseason for the fourth consecutive year – perhaps the biggest culprit was the systematic breakdown of the defense.
Four months later, the wound is still raw. But United coach Ben Olsen doesn’t skirt the issue.
“Offensively, we had a pretty good year last year,” Olsen told MLSsoccer.com by phone on Friday from Charleston, S.C. “But we didn’t lock things up like we wanted to, in particular down the stretch. That’s concerning. That’s something we wanted to fix in the offseason. We tried to bolster the back line up and wanted some competition at central defense.”
The Black-and-Red’s defenders allowed 11 goals in the season’s final six games and were hampered by injuries, most notably to starting center back Dejan Jakovic, who played only 15 matches last year.
As United begin a run of three games in eight days at the Carolina Challenge Cup in Charleston, Olsen will have a prime opportunity to assess just how well his new back line will play together, and what it will take to integrate the new pieces.
Two of D.C.’s biggest – literally – offseason additions are a pair of defenders, 6-foot-2 MLS veteran Robbie Russell and 6-4 Argentine Emiliano Dudar (pictured above). Coupled with steadily improving 26-year-old Brandon McDonald and a healthy Jakovic, United now have no shortage of center backs.
Last season, D.C. were particularly susceptible to headers and crosses, but with the added size provided by Russell and Dudar, the back line likely will be much more intimidating.
The 32-year-old Russell also has taken a leadership role in the locker room.
“He’s a winner,” Olsen said of Russell. “He’s experienced. He’s been a real voice already on this team. The one change in this group [from last year] is they’re a little bit more seasoned. It’s more of a professional atmosphere.”
Attacker Chris Pontius, who has been with D.C. since 2009, has already noticed Russell’s impact on the team’s mentality entering the 2012 campaign.
“Robbie’s been playing for quite a bit of time and has quite a lot of experience,” Pontius told MLSsoccer.com. “I think we needed him to come in and be ‘that guy.’ He’s great with it. He’s a player you can learn a lot from and can talk to about anything.”
The next step toward solidifying the defense will come when United take on the Chicago Fire on Saturday at 5 pm ET in the first match of the Carolina Challenge Cup.
“We wanted to get deeper during the offseason, get more experienced,” Olsen said. “We’ve gotten a lot accomplished and I think the message is clear that we need to be a better defensive team.”