Get to Know
By RJ Rolsen
For the 2022 season DC United’s defense was a complete and utter mess. While DC couldn’t score, they had no trouble allowing goals. The defense was disorganized, had trouble with set pieces, counter attacks, and crosses from the wings; basically they were the worst defense in all the league. At Center-Back DC United only added one player, while the team completely overhauled its Fullback situation.
Going through the defensive players, it becomes apparent that Head Coach Wayne Rooney has an expectation that a lot of improvement can come from players already on the roster. Injuries really plagued the Center-Backs, and inconsistencies marred the fullbacks. Rooney seems to be banking on an easier game plan and hopes for better health to improve the center of the defense, while bringing in higher quality fullbacks will improve the overall defense.
Time will tell whether this strategy works.
For the beginning of the 2023 season, DC United’s Defenders are:
Steve Birnbaum: The Captain for the team returns with the hope of having a healthier and more productive season. He comes into 2023 healthier than the last few seasons. The 32 year old Center-Back has been up and down his whole career with DC United, mostly because of injuries. When healthy and focused, Birnbaum can be one of the best defenders in MLS. He is strong against passes in the air, and has the ability to play with both feet, so can play Left Center Back.
The last two seasons have been tough on Birnbaum as he’s consistently picked up injuries which have caused him to miss time, and left nagging problems throughout the rest of the season. This has kept him from playing to his potential. There have also always been questions about Birnbaum’s ability to organize the back line. It’s been suggested that he does better when another player can take those responsibilities and let him focus on his own defensive positioning. A lot of DC United’s success hinges on whether Steve Birnbaum can regain his form and be the leader of both the defense and the team that DC United needs.
Derrick Williams: The newest Center-Back , Derrick Williams was traded for by DC United from LA Galaxy. The Irish International has an American Passport so doesn’t take an international slot, which makes his addition more palpable. One interesting fact is that DC United was initially interested in Williams when he was still playing in the English Championship League with Bristol Rovers, and they reached out to bring him to MLS. The LA Galaxy also wanted to bring Williams in, and were willing to offer GAM for his rights, so DC United traded the Center-Back before he had ever played a game for the team.
Now, with DC United looking for an upgrade to their defense, the team again traded with LA Galaxy and brought Williams in to give them a solid left-footed presence in the back line. It might be surmised that Rooney remembers the performances that Williams had while he played for Bristol Rovers, because there Williams was an above average Center-Back, with the ability to cover ground, put in hard challenges, and advance the ball with accurate long passes. These were not always in evidence in Los Angeles. It will be interesting to see if Rooney can get more from Williams; if he can, DC United’s defense will take huge steps forward.
Unfortunately, DC Supporters will have to wait, as Williams is currently injured and will not be available the first few weeks of the season.
DC United Academy alum, Donovan Pines, strikes an imposing figure on the field, standing 6’5”, yet at times his height seems to be a detriment as he can look lumbering and uncoordinated. A graduate of Maryland University, Pines came into the team with a lot of high fan expectations, and his initial games showed continued improvement. Then the 2021 season saw his development begin to plateau, and 2023 saw a dip in form. It has been speculated that he might not be MLS caliber, and instead would be better served in the USL. It could be argued that in 2022 Pines was the worst player on the worst team in MLS.
The questions about Donovan Pines are; was his development paused by the change of styles that Losada introduced? Was the dip caused by Chad Ashton’s attempt to keep Losada’s 3-Back formation and pressing style, though without the intensity? Were the changes that Rooney introduced too late in a bad season? The answers to these questions go a long way in determining Pine’s future both with DC United and in the MLS.
This is therefore a make or break year for Pines.
There are moments when his great length helps him cover ground, and dominate in the air, and DC look like they have a solid foundation to build their defense. Other times he looks as coordinated as a baby giraffe, lost on the pitch. It’s obvious that Pines needs to play with confidence, which was found wanting in 2022. Now, with the stability that Rooney is introducing to the team, and a shift to a four back system, which should better suit Pine’s skills, it will be interesting to see if he can play with confidence again. If he can, DC United’s defense will be markedly better in 2023.
Brendan Hines-Ike: The American Center-Back was one of the first signings by Hernan Losada, and made a name for himself right away when he scored in the 2–1 win over NYFC. Brendan Hines-Ike was the perfect Center-Back for Losada’s system as he was quite comfortable on the ball and liked to drive forward on the dribble. He also showed he can hit the progressive passes to his teammates between the lines.
Unfortunately for DC United, The 28-year-old’s time with DC United has been marred by injuries. In his first season he only managed 12 starts in 13 appearances before his season was cut short due to a hip injury, which ended his season. Then in his second season he played just under 1,700 minutes, starting 20 games before suffering a season-ending foot injury. This same foot injury has kept Brendan Hines-Ike out of the preseason, and will delay his start to the 2023 season. He recently had a screw removed from his injured foot, and is 3-5 weeks away from returning to training.
If and when Brendan Hines-Ike gets healthy could be a big boost for DC United. He is an aggressive defender who will fit with what head coach Wayne Rooney is looking for in defense. He will clog up the middle, track attackers, and advance the ball forward quickly when it’s won. In his first games Brendan showed a great ability to read the game well and to start the team’s attack out of the back with his range of passing.
Matai Akinmboni: DC United’s newest young homegrown defender, Akinmboni has maybe the highest upside of any player to come through DC United’s Academy in years. Standing 6’3” at the tender age of 16, the young man already is a bit stronger in frame than he was last season when he became the second youngest player in DC United history to start a game.
Akinmboni’s limited playing experience was a mixed bag. He took part in a clean sheet effort in a match at Real Salt Lake, and a five-goal drubbing at home versus FC Cincinnati. All in all though, Akinmboni was a 15 year old, now a 26 year old who was getting valuable experience playing with the first team.
The young left-footed Center-Back is quite athletic, having played primarily as a central defender but also as a Left-Back for the Academy and at Loudoun United. The young man has shown an ability to cover large amounts of ground quite quickly, and is already showing strong passing ability, which will fit Wayne Rooney’s strategy of moving the ball forward and into the attack.
Due to a rash of injuries, Akinmboni will definitely be getting minutes early in the season, and is likely to start the first game of the season. The question concerning Akinmboni will be is he comfortable in his positioning. In the match versus Cincinnati last season, Akinmboni was caught out on a couple of occasions. Also, feeling the pressure, the young Center-Back accidentally produced an own goal. It will be interesting to see if the off-season and preseason have helped increase Akinmboni’s knowledge of the position, and increased his strength to withstand the rigors of MLS play.
Hayden Sargis: A young Center-Back project that DC United acquired prior to the 2022 season from USL Championship team Sacramento Republic. So far the expectations for the young man have not been met. He did not see the field for any MLS games, and only played for DC during the US Open Cup. He played for Loudoun United early in the season, but after an injury saw his minutes harder to come by, and was loaned to Phoenix Rising FC, where he finished the season strong.
Sargis has all the tools to be a strong Center-Back, and because of injuries to other players he will get the chance to prove he belongs in MLS. Look for him to put in hard challenges, and track the ball in the air. Now it’s important for Sargis to improve his positioning and concentration in tracking opponents.
Andy Najar: When healthy, maybe DC United’s most talented player; when healthy that is. The Honduran player is a fan favorite, being the second player ever, after Bill Hamid, to sign with DC United directly from their Academy, and he was the original homegrown player to move to Europe, when that was still quite rare, when Najar transferred to the Belgian Pro League champions Anderlecht.
Najar has all the talent in the world, but just hasn’t been able to stay healthy. He might be one of the best on the ball dribblers in the league. He will most likely play at the Right-Back, but can also play in the midfield and as a forward. It will be interesting if he is used as a starter or as a super-sub.
If Najar can keep his health, and play within himself, Najar could be a really strong defender, and allow DC United to advance the ball into scoring opportunities, which should improve DC’s offense. It’s all on Najar to put his unique attributes to good use and be the defender he’s capable of being.
Ruan: Brazilian right back Ruan Gregório Teixeira, known simply as Ruan, was traded for by DC United in a Super Draft day trade with Orlando City. DC United gave up the second overall pick of the draft for the speedy Right-Back. Originally brought to MLS on loan in 2019, Ruan made 28 appearances for Orlando across all its competitions. The fullback’s speed and hustle made him a fan favorite, and he was recognized as an outstanding Right-Back, and after the season Orlando announced his permanent transfer. Most often the first choice Right-Back for Orlando, Ruan has played in 118 games for Orlando City, scoring four goals and recording 12 assists across all competitions.
Comments by Wayne Rooney suggest it’s Ruan’s speed that made him attractive to DC United, as Rooney looks to push wide attacks by his fullbacks. And he can run, often posting in the top two or three players at sustained speed. This speed has allowed Ruan to be a complete Right-Back, both defensively and in the offense.
In addition having played in Orlando for a few seasons, Ruan is already assimilated to the league, which should help as the team is bringing in a number of international players, and he has a personality that lends itself to being a leader in the locker room.
Mohanad (Mo) Jeahze: The second big international signing for DC United this winter happened when the team signed Iraq National Team defender Mohanad Jeahze from Hammarby IF of the Swedish first division. A highly regarded defender who had garnered interest from European clubs such a Celtic in the Scottish Premier League.
Mo Jeahze is expected to be inserted directly into the starting lineup, as he ticks all of the qualities Wayne Rooney has in his fullbacks. Rooney wants his fullbacks to have high energy levels, strong technical ability, and be able to provide excellent service in the final third of the pitch. In his time with Hammarby IF, Mo showed these traits in abundance, tallying up 4 goals and 16 assists in 53 matches over two seasons.
The 25 year old player is seen as a tenacious defender, who will rival Ruan for fastest player on the pitch, and has the mentality to progress the ball quickly into the attack. There can always be a time of transition into MLS, where players need to adjust to the schedule and distance of MLS competitions; DC United is hoping that Mo adjusts quickly, as his abilities could greatly improve both the team’s defense and attack.
Jacob Greene: Another young homegrown defender who has been on a pathway to pros via DC United Academy, and then their USL Championship affiliate, Loudoun United FC, Jacob Greene has yet to play for the first team, but the odds are good that changes in 2023.
The 19 year old offers flexibility as he can play both Left and Right-Back, though his preferred position is on the left. With the injury to Martín Rodríguez most likely necessitating Pedro Santos playing higher up the pitch, and Andy Najar’s flexibility in also being played in the midfield, Greene could give cover for both fullback positions. Young, athletic, and fast, he is exactly the type of player Wayne Rooney wants in his fullbacks. Now it remains to be seen whether the 72 matches he played for Loudoun United have prepared him for MLS.
Gaoussou Samaké: The young defender from the Ivory Coast was added to the DC United roster ahead of the 2022 season, after having been on loan with Loudoun United the season before. So far, however, he has seen only limited time with the first team in that first season, instead getting most of his minutes continuing to play for the team’s USL Championship affiliate, Loudoun United FC.
Samaké is an intriguing player, because he has all the qualities that Wayne Rooney wants, athleticism, pace, and ability on the ball to move it into the attacking third. Originally, one of the things holding him back was his lack of ability to speak English, but he has worked really hard on this, and now has no problem communicating with his teammates.
Now it’s important for the 25 year old to show consistency in the final third, and in his discipline as a defender. Samaké has all the tools to be a great player in MLS, and the flexibility to play multiple positions. If he can take the next step in his development and reach his potential, DC United could really shock some people this year.