STOKE – For any young team going through the process of maturing, there are going to be milestones that detail the highs and lows of a season of transition. For DC United, two of the biggest milestone moments have come against the arch-rival New York Red Bulls, with the latest coming in a surprising 1-0 victory on Saturday.
Almost three months ago, DC suffered a 4-0 home loss to the Red Bulls, a humbling result that left the young United side stunned. The scene in the team's RFK Stadium locker room was a somber one. Dejected, embarrassed and frustrated, DC United's youngsters stayed quiet in a locker room that resembled a funeral.
Last Saturday, the scene in the visiting locker room at Red Bull Arena was the exact opposite. Music blared, dance moves were shown off, laughs were shared and post-game plans were made. The celebration was well-earned after delivering a disciplined performance in shutting down the best attack in the league, the same attack that had embarrassed them less than three months earlier.
"It shows how far we've come," said D.C. United goalkeeper Bill Hamid. "That (loss to New York) was toward the beginning of the season, but since then we've had a lot of soul-searching, built a lot of team chemistry, and put in a lot of hard work, and it shows how far we've come."
"Any time you lose 4-0, especially at home, it hurts," said rookie defender Perry Kitchen said. "I don't think we rebounded after that, we lost to Houston in another pretty bad game, but ever since then we've found out who we are."
With two rookie starters (Kitchen and Ethan White) in the back-line coupled with Hamid, the youngest starting goalkeeper in MLS, DC was always going to have some growing pains, but the group started to come together after those consecutive blowout losses, losing just once in the 10 matches since then.
As much as DC has improved by gaining experience, the team has also pulled off a pair of brilliant trades that have given the team two valuable veterans in positions of need. Dwayne De Rosario gives DC the kind of midfield playmaker the club hasn't had in years. Against New York, he showed that he is still capable of delivering the kind of magical moments that have become the trademark of his career.
HARRISON, NJ - JULY 09: Perry Kitchen #23 of D.C. United is held by Joel Lindpere #20 of the New York Red Bulls as he attempts to play the ball during the game at Red Bull Arena on July 09, 2011 in Harrison, New Jersey. (Andy Marlin/Getty Images)
As much as De Rosario's acquisition stole the headlines, an arguably more important acquisition is the trade that brought veteran defender Brandon McDonald to DC from San Jose. McDonald is a physical presence, a tough defender, and a smart centerback capable of directing a defense that sorely needed a vocal presence in the back.
"I've said all along that this is going to be a process, and we still have a long way to go," said DC head coach Ben Olsen. "McDonald's given us some nice bite in the back, some leadership. Ethan's coming along. He continues to learn on the job, and Perry is filling in at right back and Danny Woolard has been very steady for us."
As much as an attack featuring weapons like De Rosario, Charlie Davies, Chris Pontius and Andy Najar is playoff worthy, just how far DC goes will depend on the continued improvement and maturation of its young defense. DC United is currently in a four-way tie for the 10th and final MLS playoff spot.
"The challenge for us is to consistently do that and have the effort we had (vs. New York) each week, and that's a tough thing to do when you have young guys," said Olsen. "Some of the additions in Dwayne and Brandon, they'll keep these guys focused."
After enduring some early-season struggles, D.C. United's defense is coming together, which bodes well for a strong second half of the season, and more positive milestones for young team growing up very quickly.
MLS Player of the Week
Seattle striker Fredy Montero was the top player in MLS this past weekend after scoring a pair of equalizers to help the Sounders fight back for a 3-2 win against arch-rival Portland on Sunday. Montero beat out LA star David Beckham and Chivas USA midfielder Nick LaBrocca, among others, for the honors.
MLS Rookie of the Week
DC United defender Ethan White played an outstanding 90 minutes in central defense to help DC shut down New York's high-powered offense. The University of Maryland product and DC Homegrown Player has solidified his place in United's starting lineup.
MLS Team of the Week
The Seattle Sounders faced a tough set of matches, with a road trip to face the Los Angeles Galaxy before a visit to the Rose City to take on arch-rival Portland Timbers. The Sounders responded by earning a valuable road point in a 0-0 tie with the Galaxy before rallying back from deficits twice to earn a 3-2 win at Jeld-Wen Field. The week helped Seattle move past FC Dallas into second place in the West, four points behind the Galaxy.