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Stejskal: Russell Canouse stepping up in influential role for DC United

Luciano Acosta and Wayne Rooney are deservedly drawing plenty of headlines, but the pair of high-profile attackers aren’t the only players powering D.C. United’s second-half surge.

Holding midfielder Russell Canouse, who, like Rooney, made his season debut in a substitute appearance on July 14, has added plenty to the Black-and-Red since he returned from a knee injury that kept him sidelined for the first four months of the season. The 23-year-old has looked good in his 15 league appearances, helping shore up D.C.’s defense as Rooney and Acosta have injected life into the attack.

The team’s hot streak and his solid individual play are validating Canouse’s decision to leave Germany to join D.C. last August. Signing with a dreadful United team in 2017 instead of opting for a second loan from German Bundesliga club Hoffenheim to second-division side VfL Bochum, where he played 20 times in the 2016-17 season, was a bit of a risk, but his gamble has paid off with regular minutes for a re-energized organization.

“This is what I hoped for when I signed,” Canouse told MLSsoccer.com over the phone on Wednesday. “You want to be involved in a team that wins and you want to create a winning mentality. I’ve been a part of teams in Germany, the youth teams in Hoffenheim I’ve been involved in, teams that have that winning mentality and I feel like we’ve started to create that here at D.C. Hopefully we can continue it out through the last weeks of the year.”

If United’s steady climb up the standings does continue over their final five games, Canouse will likely play a big role. In the 12 matches since he made his first start of the season on July 23, D.C. are 7-2-3 with 26 goals for and only 14 goals against. Those numbers are a huge improvement for the Black-and-Red, who were 3-9-5 with 27 goals for and 34 goals against in 17 matches before Canouse entered the XI. They’re also in line with D.C.’s splits with and without Canouse in 2017, when they went 4-5-1 with a negative-4 goal differential in his 10 starts compared to 5-15-4 with a minus-25 goal in their other 24 matches.

And while Canouse himself gave the bulk of the credit for D.C.’s turnaround to Rooney and Acosta, there’s no denying that the former U.S. youth international has been a big influence. He’s not the most athletic holding midfielder in the league, but he’s adept at reading the game, understands where and how he should funnel opposing attacks, rarely gets pulled out of position and is a solid tackler and clean distributor. His presence has taken significant pressure off United’s back four, which, as the numbers show, has been much more effective since he moved into the lineup.

“I try to pride myself on being tough in the middle defensively,” he said. “I try to force the play wide a lot so the back four and the goalkeeper aren’t sustaining a lot of pressure throughout the 90 minutes, and I think that’s helped close down the middle a lot. I try to organize the play as well when we don’t have the ball. I think that’s a key asset that a lot of people don’t realize when they’re watching a game, but it’s just really important – the act of defending, the marking, connecting the lines so that when the ball turns over our team is there to win it again and build that next possession.”

Canouse is in a good place now, but the Lancaster, Pennsylvania native hasn’t had an easy road since he left the New York Red Bulls academy to join Hoffenheim’s youth setup at age 15 in 2011.

He never quite broke through for the German club, making just one Bundesliga appearance before being sent on loan to Bochum in 2016. His experience in the second division was solid, but he wanted more of a full-time role. So he headed to D.C. last August.

He did enough down the stretch with United to earn an invite to U.S. men’s national team camp in January, where a solid performance ratcheted up his personal expectations for 2018. Those plans were derailed by a knee injury suffered early in D.C.’s preseason that lingered longer than hoped and eventually shelved him for half the season.

Those struggles have made his solid play over the last two months feel even sweeter, however. And now that he feels like his career is back on an upward trajectory, Canouse is shooting for big things with D.C., who could move out of seventh place and into playoff position in the East as soon as this weekend.

“If we can get that sixth-place spot, I feel we can beat anyone,” he said. “We’ve showed it in the previous results against Atlanta and New York – we can get results against them and we can play good soccer against them. If we can sneak in, get a couple results here these last five games and get that sixth spot, I wouldn’t count us out for winning it all.”

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