Depleted on defense, United look to regroup

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When D.C. United kicked off at the San Jose Earthquakes on Wednesday, the visitors were riding high, owners of a seven-game unbeaten stretch and the team’s first winning streak in nearly three years.

Ninety minutes and five goals allowed later, that sense of optimism had faded to an extent, overshadowed by feelings of doubt concerning the team’s patchwork back line.

“We struggled with our shape and got stretched out at times,” defender Robbie Russell said. “A lot of guys were getting caught between, a little late with tackles, and we didn’t show enough fight to make up for it. We’ve got a back line that has been rotating a lot of positions lately, and it showed a little bit.”

It’s a conundrum United (4-3-3) will look to solve sooner rather than later, as they return to the field Saturday at Toronto FC (0-7-0). The match comes just three days after the Western Conference-leading Earthquakes, in their 5-3 win, exposed a D.C. defense that was playing without injured center backs Emiliano Dudar (hamstring), Dejan Jakovic (ankle) and Ethan White (knee).

The versatile Perry Kitchen initially dropped to central defense to fill the void alongside Brandon McDonald, with veteran Marcelo Saragosa assuming Kitchen’s typical starting spot in midfield. But after United allowed three first-half goals, coach Ben Olsen slid Kitchen to defensive midfield, bumping Russell inside and slotting substitute Andy Najar — normally an attack-minded winger — into Russell’s usual right back position.

On the ball, United found more of a rhythm, following up Dwayne De Rosario’s first-half goal with strikes from Daniel Woolard and Hamdi Salihi. But their efforts went for naught as San Jose kept piling on at the other end, taking advantage of erratic pressure and lackluster marking.

“I think we missed a center back,” Olsen said. “And that’s not against Perry or Robbie. But they’re not center backs. … The defense would have been much better if we had an addition or two. It’s not an excuse - it’s just reality.”

With Dudar and White out and Jakovic listed as questionable, United against Toronto will have to make due with a short-handed defense once more. Since Kitchen likely will remain in midfield, Russell and Woolard are the leading candidates to partner with McDonald in central defense. Such an alignment would open a spot at fullback for Najar or Chris Korb, who logged 14 minutes off the bench against San Jose.

Olsen also may be contemplating a change in goal, where second-year player Joe Willis has been the starter since filling in admirably while Bill Hamid was on U.S. under-23 national team duty in March.

While Toronto is winless, its past five losses have been by one goal. In March, the club did record a two-game aggregate triumph over the defending MLS Cup champion Los Angeles Galaxy in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals.

“It’s a test of the team’s character if we can rebound with our performance,” Russell said of Saturday’s match.

For all the defensive personnel issues United are dealing with, they know claiming results under less-than-ideal circumstances is something the team will need to do if it intends on ending its four-year playoff drought.

“When we get healthy, we’re still going to be OK,” Olsen said. “But we’ve got to survive. There are a lot of teams with players out at key positions. You’ve just got to make it work.”

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