It initially seemed like a hopeful lob up the field. But as Dax McCarty’s long ball sailed toward D.C. United’s box, the danger became apparent. Bobby Boswell wasn’t going to get there. Neither was defensive partner Steve Birnbaum.
United coach Ben Olsen put it best. “It was a little bit of the old fly ball: ‘You got it, I got it.’”
Instead, the pass fell to Bradley Wright-Phillips — the New York Red Bulls striker who tied the MLS single-season scoring record last year. United goalkeeper Bill Hamid was picking the ball out of his net moments later, with New York on its way to a 2-0 triumph on Sunday.
“Sometimes you learn more from losses than you do from wins, and it’s how you react to those losses and those situations,” Boswell said. “We’ve talked out the first goal Sunday, and we acknowledged, Bill included, that we all could have done something differently.”
There have been few struggles for the Boswell-Birnbaum duo since the center backs were first partnered together in June. Boswell, a 32-year-old veteran, was the runner-up in 2014 MLS Defender of the Year voting. Birnbaum, 24, was a finalist for Rookie of the Year who made his U.S. national team debut in January.
In 21 games last year with both players in the lineup, United conceded just 23 goals. A Goalkeeper of the Year campaign from Hamid certainly helped, but much of the credit rightfully went to Boswell and Birnbaum.
Yet a season after United tied for the stingiest defense in MLS, there has been early reason for concern surrounding the unchanged back line.
It began in the CONCACAF Champions League, with United dropping a 5-2 result to Costa Rican club Alajuelense to kick off the season. After United opened MLS play with a shutout of Montreal, the defensive hiccups returned at Red Bull Arena on Sunday.
“The attacks in this league are getting pretty good, and they’ll punish you for the mistakes you’re making,” Olsen said. “We got away with a lot of that stuff last year — Bill bailed us out. But defensively, I still like our group. Analyzing the back four and Bill, I’m still very, very confident with them.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Boswell, who stressed the importance of not getting too wrapped up in the score sheet. Sometimes mistakes get punished, sometimes they don’t. There isn’t necessarily a sense of panic in the D.C. locker room because the team has conceded some soft goals.
“We’re watching video of every game,” Boswell said. “Goals are sometimes obvious indicators to the outside, but there are little things we watch all the time and try to work on. Whether it’s communication or positioning, there is always room for improvement. It never stops for us, whether we give up four or five goals in a game or whether we keep a shutout.”
Identifying those errors and correcting them is a part of the process for Boswell and Birnbaum, who have played every minute of every MLS match together since injuries sidelined veteran Jeff Parke last spring. (Parke was let go in December.)
While Birnbaum says he constantly draws upon Boswell’s experience, the 11-year veteran downplays his own influence.
“I ask him a ton of questions,” Birnbaum said. “I’ll ask him midplay what I should have done better. ‘Could I have helped you there?’ We go back and forth.”
Added Boswell: “Steve’s got everything you need in a center back. He doesn’t need too much from me. His communication is improving. … He’s got all the tools. He makes me look better, and I’m trying to do the same for him.”
United faces its next test on Saturday when the MLS Cup champion LA Galaxy visit RFK Stadium. With Landon Donovan retired and star forwards Robbie Keane and Gyasi Zardes on national team duty, a sharp Galaxy attack has been dulled.
For Boswell and Birnbaum, along with right back Sean Franklin and left back Taylor Kemp, it’s a bit of good fortune as the D.C. defense looks to recapture its 2014 form.
“We’ve got winners on the team,” Birnbaum said. “We’ve got veteran guys. We’ve got guys in the back line that step up and cover each other’s backs. We’re just going to work on it, and hopefully it gets better.”