Ben Olsen - D.C. United - speaks at a press conference
USA Today Sports

Winning ugly? DC United ride defense-first approach into MLS Cup Playoffs

WASHINGTON – D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen admits that when his team pivoted to a more defensive mindset two thirds through the season, it was a decision predicated on simply making the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs.

They would worry about making a deep run in the competition, which begins with Saturday’s first-round match at Toronto FC (6 pm ET | TUDN, TSN4, TVAS2), once they got there.

“You have to size up, at a certain point, where things weren’t going to plan,” Olsen said this week, remembering a stretch when D.C. had two wins in 13 games while conceding 20 of their 38 goals in 2019 league play. “And then you had to size up how we were going to go about first and foremost making the playoffs.”

Transfer-deadline acquisition Felipe assumed a holding midfield role three days after his arrival. Olsen shifted Russell Canouse from a No. 6 role out to right back, supplanting the more offensively-minded Leo Jara, and benched Luciano Acosta in favor of Paul Arriola in attacking midfield. Ulises Segura assumed Arriola’s spot on the right flank.

After some fits and starts, that group gelled to close the regular season with five clean sheets – tying an MLS record – while solidifying a fifth-place finish in the Eastern Conference.

Although D.C. were also held scoreless in their last two games, including a befuddling 0-0 draw against nine-man FC Cincinnati with a home playoff game on the line on Decision Day presented by AT&T, the Black-and-Red are content to dance with who brung them, tactically speaking.

“If you look throughout the years, the teams that made MLS Cup are the teams that are the most organized team defensively. [It’s] how tough you are, how consistent you can be throughout the playoffs,” Felipe said. “We have players that can make plays and players that can make a difference. But the key is to be solid defensively.”

Since the MLS regular season was lengthened to 34 games, only the 2012 LA Galaxy have won an MLS Cup after conceding more than 45 goals during the regular season. Then again, only the 2015 Portland Timbers hoisted the trophy after scoring fewer than the 42 United have scored on the other end this year. Caleb Porter’s squad scored 41 goals that season.

But D.C. finally have another deadline acquisition healthy and fit for the first time in forward Ola Kamara, after a hamstring injury limited him for much of the last month. And while the benching of Acosta and Jara may make D.C. less dynamic over the opening 60 minutes, it also gives them bench weapons.

“We’ve got five goals in the last five games, and quite a few opportunities that didn’t go in, high-percentage looks,” Olsen insisted. “I’m not going to get caught up in, ‘the offensive end is sputtering.’ We’ve been able to score goals and still create enough chances in each game to still win and still be a solid defensive team.”

There’s a couple added wrinkles against Toronto. Reds forward Jozy Altidore may be a gametime decision after a hamstring injury forced him out of international duty for the US men's national team. And D.C. center back Steve Birnbaum has been away from the team while his wife was expecting the couple’s first child this week.

Regardless, goalkeeper Bill Hamid believes he and the group in front of him can take some confidence from their previous trip to BMO Field, a 0-0 draw on May 15.

“I think Toronto is a good team, but we went there earlier this year and got a solid result,” Hamid said after the regular-season finale. “Although we gave them a lot of possession, I think it’s a place we can go, if we have the same discipline and the same mindset, we can definitely pull off a win in Toronto.”