The disappointment of 2011 long in their rear-view mirror, D.C. United's players returned to Washington this week feeling optimistic about the coming season. That being said, the defensive issues that kept United out of the playoffs a year ago are front and center as D.C. continues preseason preparations.
"Most important is just the shape right now. Everybody being on the same page defensively," reigning MLS MVP Dwayne De Rosario said Friday afternoon. "Ben Olsen has addressed that, and he's definitely working with the whole team so that we are all on the same page come game time."
Particularly frustrating last year was United's propensity for allowing late goals. During their final six games of 2011, the Black and Red surrendered seven second-half goals while going 0-5-1. Rookies Ethan White and Chris Korb were probably relied upon more than Olsen would have liked as injuries crippled D.C.'s back line.
In response, United spent much of the off-season acquiring veteran defensive help. Robbie Russell (Real Salt Lake) and Emiliano Dudar (BSC Young Boys - Switzerland) were brought in with expectations of contributing right away. Dejan Jakovic, who missed the final two months of 2011 with a hamstring injury, is finally healthy, meaning D.C.'s starting defense could look quite different from the one that closed out last season.
"All the pieces are there. It's just about execution and getting us all on the same page," Russell told reporters Friday. "That's something that we'll be working on a lot because there are so many new pieces on the team."
"The ultimate goal is zeros, you know, not letting in goals. That's what we hope to accomplish."
Russell joins the team from Real Salt Lake, where he played a pivotal role in the club's 2009 MLS Cup championship run. With a Champions League resume, the 6-foot-2 defender should fill a key spot in United's lineup, finally giving Olsen a true right back.
However, it is Dudar's inclusion in the side that could have the biggest payoff for D.C. The 6-4 Argentine's towering presence has obvious advantages, yet it's Dudar's ability to distribute out of the back that his teammates are quickly falling in love with.
"Initially you see the size; he's an imposing guy back there," forward Josh Wolff said. "The most impressive thing I saw was his composure on the ball. His distribution. He's stinging balls with his left foot and right foot and putting the other team's backs on notice."
"Emiliano is real strong," goalie Bill Hamid said. "He's a big, big defender who can launch the ball."
Hamid himself figures to be the most critical piece to United's defensive puzzle. Fresh off his national team debut, the 21-year-old's confidence is at an all-time high, and so are Hamid's expectations for whoever ends up in his new back four.
"Everything I've learned with the national team, I want to bring back here," Hamid said. "Hopefully, it can rub off on some of the players and we can make ourselves a confident group."