Paced by the influence of newcomer Charlie Davies, D.C. United's attack appears poised to make the club's goal-scoring futility of last season a distant memory. With nine tallies in six games, D.C. is on track to eclipse its entire 2010 scoring output well before this campaign's midpoint.
If United (2-3-1) is going to truly change its fortunes from a year ago and make a playoff push, however, there are still matters to be resolved on the defensive side.
Entering Friday night's match at the Houston Dynamo (2-1-3), D.C. has conceded 12 goals, tied for the second-most in the league. During an embarrassing 4-0 loss at home to rival New York last week, the United back line looked particularly vulnerable.
"All around, we need to be better defensively," rookie Perry Kitchen said. "[Opponents] have played through us too easily. That's what we've talked about. We just need to be harder and kind of nastier, with more of an edge."
The defensive troubles could largely be attributed to a lack of cohesion. As players have dealt with a combination of injury, illness, suspension and national team duty, coach Ben Olsen already has started five different back-line combinations.
At the defense's core, first-choice center backs Dejan Jakovic and Kitchen have only had the opportunity to play together twice. The obstacle has impeded their progress as a partnership, but Jakovic is quick to point out the young season leaves plenty of time for a rapport to develop in full.
"It's just going to grow with games," Jakovic said. "And there are a lot of games to be played. Obviously, he's a rookie and he's young, but I feel very comfortable with him beside me."
Kitchen, the U.S. under-20 national team captain and No. 3 overall pick in January's SuperDraft, is one of three rookies among United's defensive corps seeing significant minutes this season.
Chris Korb, a second-round selection and Kitchen's teammate at Akron, has made five starts in place of injured right back Jed Zayner. And Ethan White, a former Maryland Terrapin who signed with D.C. as a product of the United youth academy, filled in at center back when Kitchen was out with the flu earlier this month.
Although United management repeatedly stated a desire to acquire a veteran defensive leader this past offseason, the club ultimately decided to bank on its youth and not make such a move, leaving 26-year-old left back Marc Burch as the oldest defender on the roster.
Of course, lacking experience in the back can come with growing pains. Against New York, the Red Bulls' first two goals came when lethal striker Thierry Henry was conspicuously left unmarked in front of goal. And D.C. had no answer for the overlapping runs of New York right back Jan Gunnar Solli, who found plenty of space to operate on the flank while notching three assists.
"It's the details," Zayner said. "We're in a professional environment now and guys punish you, especially guys like Henry, when you're not thinking of the littlest details."
United's beleaguered defense could receive a welcome boost Friday in the return of Zayner. He hasn't played since straining his hamstring in the season opener but will be available for selection against Houston, assistant coach Chad Ashton said.
With Zayner back in the fold, Ashton promptly pointed out one key characteristic the team's 2010 defender of the year brings to the table: "stability."
"He's obviously a guy who knows the players in the league, who knows tendencies of teams," Ashton said. "He's not seeing them for the first time. That's a tough adjustment for a rookie - every player you see, you're seeing them for the first time and you're trying to figure them out."
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