Two months ago D.C. United trudged off the field at Robertson Stadium in Houston following a 4-1 thrashing at the hands of the Houston Dynamo, battered, frustrated and searching for a defensive identity.
In a nine-day span, United’s patchwork defense had conceded 11 goals in three matches — eight goals in MLS competition — while the team slipped to 2-4-1 on the season. The only things piling up faster than opposing goals were the injuries to United’s ravaged midfield and defense.
But in the ensuing weeks a back line comprising rookies and reserves has found its footing, and so too has United.
Heading into Saturday’s Eastern Conference clash at RFK Stadium, D.C. has shaved a goal per game off its goals-allowed average (2.3 to 1.3) during its last seven regular season matches and finds itself one point behind the Dynamo for fourth place in the conference.
One constant in that defensive resurgence is unheralded left back Daniel Woolard, who was inserted into the starting lineup following United’s loss to Houston and has started every game since.
Signed in January to add defensive depth to the roster, Woolard has added much-needed stability on the left side. He also has provided consistent play to aid the development of rookie center backs Perry Kitchen and Ethan White. Along with 26-year-old Jed Zayner — who returned last week from a left hamstring strain — Woolard, 27, has quickly become an elder statesman along a fortified defensive foursome.
“He’s got some experience and he plays that position very well for us,” United Coach Ben Olsen said. “He’s been pretty darn solid and that’s what we needed after that time — guys that want to defend first and make sure nothing comes down on their watch. He still has a ways to go but we’ve been very pleased with him.”
It’s been a tumultuous journey to a starting spot in MLS for the native of Bedford, Tex. A 2007 MLS supplemental draft selection by the Chicago Fire, Woolard started six games over three seasons.
He was a late cut by United last preseason, then suffered a concussion while training in the USL Premier Development League. Woolard joined the Carolina RailHawks of the now-defunct United States Soccer Federation second division last September. He helped the team to a first-place finish in its division and a spot in the league finals.
When veteran defender Marc Burch suffered a hamstring injury before United’s May 4 game against Seattle, Woolard got the start and hasn’t budged from the left back position.
“It was a tough stretch, dealing with a bunch of injuries and some disappointment,” Woolard said. “I took my mind off soccer for a while, which was good. Coming back refreshed with Carolina and having that great run with them, that helped me come into this preseason hungry and ready to play and fight again.
“To take the positives out of a bad injury and being released, I think that re-energized me and my love for the sport. Now I’ve got that passion back.”
Woolard’s energy and commitment to the “defense first” mentality Olsen preaches continue to earn him playing time alongside the 19-year-old Kitchen and 20-year-old White. Together, the trio has started seven straight MLS matches and their confidence continues to grow.
“Being young and not having much experience actually pumps us up and makes us feel like we have something to prove,” White said. “Guys think they’re going to come in and knock us around because we’re young guys, but it just makes us work that much harder to show we can play with them.”
While United’s young back line continues to excel, the Dynamo have a standout rookie of their own in first-year forward Will Bruin, who netted a hat trick in Houston’s win earlier in the season. Houston has won four straight against United, which is searching for its first victory on home turf since May 4.
“We can say that we’ve all kind of tightened things up and made things better from that point, but again, there’s been some hiccups,” Olsen said. “There’s been less of them but we need to start taking care of some home games. I think the guys realize the task and hopefully we’ll get it done.”