United defense needs to adapt

Onalfo's new scheme, player injuries has D.C. scrambling

D.C.
United’s defense faced a bevy of challenges this spring. A unit that
surrendered 44 goals in league play last season – fifth-worst in Major League
Soccer – was always destined for some remodeling, but incorporating a new
coach, new formation, new starting goalkeeper and a host of other fresh faces
posed a tall task for all involved.

Attack is
typically the name of the game around RFK Stadium, as United and their fans
have pledged allegiance to an offensive-minded approach since the early days of
MLS. However, upon taking the top job in December head coach Curt Onalfo saw
little point in emphasizing those cavalier traditions without building a
stronger foundation at the back.

“Priority number one is to shore up the defense and make sure
that we give up less goals than we have in the past, and at the same time
continue to create the chances that we’ve always created,” Onalfo said in January.

So Onalfo
and his staff have focused on girding the back line from day one, and long
weeks of training-ground toil seem to have paid off as the club approaches
First Kick 2010 with optimism regarding its new-look defense.

Longtime
right back Bryan Namoff remains sidelined indefinitely due to post-concussion
symptoms, and left back/center back Marc Burch is out for months due to a foot
injury. Clyde Simms, the holding midfielder who provides a critical shield for
the back four, underwent minor knee surgery a month ago and only resumed full
training activities last week.

But under
the watchful eye of veteran goalkeeper Troy Perkins, younger players like
Rodney Wallace, Dejan Jakovic and Devon McTavish have picked up the slack thus
far.

The four-man
shape Onalfo has adopted “gives us room on the field to spread the opponents
and hopefully get in behind them,” according to Wallace.

United’s
preseason results have been encouraging: with the exception of their 3-2
friendly win over Mexican side Santos Laguna, D.C.’s defense been breached just
twice thus far in 2010.

“Technically
we’ve been very sharp and defensively, we’ve been very good throughout the
entire season,” said assistant coach Kris Kelderman. “If you look back at all
the games that we’ve played from the very beginning of preseason until now, I
believe we’ve only given up two goals: one was an own goal and one was a
penalty kick.”

Coaches and
players alike cited Perkins’ influence as a major factor. The onetime D.C.
netminder has returned from Europe to provide vocal leadership and organization
for a defense that was often punished for confusion and hesitancy a year ago.
Meanwhile, Jakovic, who started his campaign a bit early thanks to a Canadian
national team call-up over the winter, seems to have picked up right where he
left off after a promising MLS debut campaign in 2009.

“There’s a
lot of new faces, but so far I think everyone’s been working really hard in
preseason and slowly as the games go on, we’re starting to gel more and more as
we figure out the starting 11,” Jakovic said. “With the 4-4-2, it’s just a
different style of play that we play now, we’ve got the wingbacks going forward
and everyone seems able to know their roles so far.”

For
Saturday’s season opener in Kansas City, Jakovic seems likely to be paired with
newcomer Juan Manuel Pena in the center. The Bolivian veteran has impressed in
his trial stint with United after capping a long career in the Spanish Primera
League. Wallace and McTavish have pole position on the outside back spots and
will be given limited license to move into the attack, but clean sheets will take
precedence over raids forward.

“First
things first, especially introducing a new system, we want to make sure that
players are organized and understand their roles,” Kelderman said. “And it just
makes sense to start in the back first and move forward.”