Photo: Courtesy of D.C. United

D.C. United Forges a Distinct Identity

“Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades” is an axiom my seventh grade science teacher once taught me. It was basically a grim way of saying, “Close don’t cut it,” and it’s a refrain that D.C. United may hear in 2019.

After a demoralizing loss in penalty kicks to Columbus Crew SC left D.C. United short of the MLS Cup semifinals in 2018, one has to consider whether or not to look at the season on the whole as a success.

“Our run ended a little bit short, but that’s playoffs,” midfielder Russell Canouse says. “You lose in penalty kicks – it’s frustrating. I felt, and I know everyone else felt, that we could’ve went to the MLS Cup last year. It just didn’t feel right when the season ended against Columbus that early. I don’t think anyone was thinking that was going to be our exit.”

Canouse’s faith in his team has plenty of merit. The club went undefeated in its final 10 games, lifting them to a winning regular season record and securing them a fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference. Even in the playoff loss, the team seemed to pull yet another rabbit out of their hat when they tied the game at 2-2 in the 116th minute to force the fateful penalties.

Granted, a favorable string of home games at the end of the year – 16 of the final 21 games were played at Audi Field – likely provided an unusual advantage amid the stunning comeback. But one could argue that over the course of the season, D.C. United’s absurd, lopsided schedule represented a negative sum.

“Being able to open up at home with a similar core group that we had to finish last season is going to be great for us,” says center back Steve Birnbaum, highlighting a welcome return to normalcy in the team’s schedule. “We have that confidence or swagger leading into the season because we know we have the pieces to succeed.”

Canouse is an important one of those pieces, and his ability to stay on the pitch will be vital. In 2018, he only appeared in 20 games because of a knee injury. This followed an abbreviated 2017 season in which he only appeared in the second half as a late-season addition from Germany.

“2017 was obviously a little flawed,” Canouse says. “I came in in August. There were only 10 games left to play and I started all 10. The ideal situation would be to play all 34 games.”

His presence will be even more magnified after his experience with the U.S. National team during its training camp this winter. A full season from Canouse could pay dividends for D.C. United while boosting his chances of being considered for a spot on the 2022 U.S. Men’s World Cup team.

But to make a run at the MLS Cup, it will take a concerted team effort. Part of unifying a team and optimizing its skills is to administer a sound strategy; following a season that ended in heartbreak, changes to the club’s strategy were inevitable.

“We’re going to play a little bit more out of the back this year,” Birnbaum says. “I think we want to be a more possession-based team. We did that toward the tail end of the season last year. We’re building upon that, and kind of creating a new style of play.”

He adds that box defending, a strength of the team in 2018, will be crucial to repeat this season.

“I think that’s a major factor in creating shutouts and making us hard to score on,” Birnbaum continues. “That’s one of the things that I try and focus on a lot throughout the year. We have a motto: to be the first contact to the ball in the box. The most important thing for us is getting the ball out of the box and away from danger.”

Though Birnbaum’s comments suggest a more defensive approach, Canouse expects an aggressive identity to characterize the group’s play on the field.

“Play a little more aggressive out of the back,” he says. “But also manage it the same way.”

Birnbaum says the game management aspect of D.C. United’s strategy looks promising.

“The preseason has been encouraging so far,” Birnbaum says. “When we played against Cincinnati, we kind of dictated the game. We’re controlling the game with our possession, which is encouraging for us because it makes us not have to defend as much, and that makes my job easier.”

Although possession will be a heavy emphasis, the job could be made even easier by the attacking unit’s resurgence, which again features the legendary Wayne Rooney, who led the team with 12 goals last year despite only starting 18 games. D.C. United finished the season sixth in the league in goals scored with 60, and they were efficient with their attempts. The team attempted the fourth fewest shots of any team in MLS with 396. That’s the sort of quality that will attract fans to every game and fill Audi Field during its first full season.

“I think they can expect some exciting soccer from us,” Birnbaum says of the fans. “I think that we’ve got a lot of guys who can do a lot of creative stuff. Our front, attacking guys are really special.”

If the team as a whole can prove to be on target too, they might not have to settle for a game of horseshoes come late November.

D.C. United opens its 2019 season on Sunday, March 3 at 6 p.m. against Atlanta United FC. For ticket information, visit www.dcunited.com.

Audi Field: 100 Potomac Ave. SW, DC; 202-587-5000; www.audifielddc.com

Joel Goldberg

Joel Goldberg is a proud Philadelphia area native, and has lived in DC off and on since starting college at George Washington University in 2008. In addition to reporting for outlets such as NPR and National Geographic Magazine, he has dabbled in literary and science fiction. He has performed readings at fellow On Tap writer Courtney Sexton's The Inner Loop, a literary series in DC. His work seeks to emphasize the human element of storytelling by examining people's behaviors, personalities, experiences and beliefs. Personally, he believes that his love for dogs and neglected 90s rock is unmatched.