Nick DeLeon - Drew Moor - DC United v. Toronto FC - 2018-10-17
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DC United's defense locks in with potential playoff travel ahead

WASHINGTON – Suddenly, D.C. United have become one of the tougher teams to score against in MLS at the absolute right time.

As United prepare to try and clinch a playoff berth in Sunday’s penultimate game of the season against New York City FC (3 pm ET | TV & streaming info), it’s their defense that has been most consistent of late.

The Black-and-Red have kept three clean sheets during a four-match winning streak, after preserving only two in the first 28 games of their MLS campaign. In the process, they’ve climbed above the playoff line despite some less dynamic offensive performances.

“We’re compact, not only the back four, but all the team,” Frederic Brillant told MLSsoccer.com after Wednesday’s 1-0 win over Toronto FC. “We defend really well, since right now, maybe the last eight, seven games since we’ve played at home. And you know, there is something special here. Because it is our home, and there is a very good crowd behind us.”

That increased cohesion across the entire starting XI that Brillant references owes partly to the defensive positioning of Wayne Rooney at striker -- an underrated aspect of the former England and Manchester United star’s repertoire. It also hinges on the emergence of Russell Canouse and Junior Moreno in holding midfield, and with players like Paul Arriola and Jalen Robinson stepping in to play right back at times when no other options were healthy.

Those traits may all prove crucial if D.C. is not only to make the postseason, but pull off a Knockout Round playoff victory in a hostile environment.

“It’s important to be able to win games in different ways in this league if you’re going to be able to go somewhere,” D.C. coach Ben Olsen said.

As recently healthy right back Nick DeLeon cautioned, though, those traits also have to travel.

“We’ve definitely been good here at home,” he said following his first start and 90-minute outing since May. “But I think a big test for us will be putting on these performances on the road.”

If United do secure a postseason spot, they are near-certain to face an away Knockout Round match. Sunday’s opponent is one potential foe, a fact not lost on Brillant, who spent the previous two seasons on NYCFC’s backline.

“It’s possible, but each game, it’s game after game,” he said. “So right now we’re going to be focused on this game, and let’s see what happens after.”

After falling out of favor, injuries have seen Brillant return to D.C.’s starting backline for the past five matches, including those three clean sheets. And while he understands the massive stakes of Sunday’s reunion with his former club, there’s no animosity on his part.

“It’s a good feeling, because I will see a lot of friends,” he said. “I spent two years in New York, and it was a very nice two years. It was a great experience with a good group and a good club.”