Defense United in quest for MLS Cup

By Brian Westfall, Soccer Editor

MLS Features Washington, D.C. (Sports Network) - D.C. United goalie Troy Perkins started to move to his left before he realized the ball was bending the other way.

Perkins couldn't change direction in time, instead dropping his hands to his hips as he stood in front of the goal with a look of disbelief on his face.

International star David Beckham scored off of one of his trademark free kicks - his first goal with Los Angeles - fooling Perkins with a curving shot that appeared headed inside right post but ended up in the netting on the left.

"He caught me," Perkins said.

Beckham's the only one able to do that lately.

Perkins has posted three straight shutouts in Major League Soccer - he allowed Beckham's goal in the SuperLiga, a tournament with MLS and Mexican teams.

Although D.C. wasn't exactly struggling before its recent streak of shutouts, the play of Perkins and the defense has helped United transform from a solid team into a contender for the MLS Cup.

Troy Perkins
The play of Troy Perkins and the defense has helped United transform into a contender for the MLS Cup.
"We figured some things out. We're starting to jell in the back. And we're starting to do the little things for each other instead of expecting someone else to do it," said Perkins, who had eight shutouts last season.

After allowing seven goals in its first three games of the season - all losses - D.C. went unbeaten in its next seven and 7-3-3 in its next 13. One of those losses was to Real Salt Lake with backup Jay Nolly in the net.

Without the offense, that impressive stretch wouldn't have been possible. D.C. had two or more goals seven times during that span, including a pair of four- goal games.

So D.C. had to tinker with its defense, and made its first move by trading Facundo Erpen to Colorado in late June for veteran Greg Vanney.

In Vanney's first start, D.C. posted just its second shutout of the season. But then United returned to its old ways, going winless in three straight and even blowing a three-goal lead in an eventual 3-3 tie with FC Dallas.

United's Luciano Emilio can't be relied upon to score 30 goals, even if he does have a league-high 14 so far this season.

With a two-week break after losing to Red Bull New York on July 22, D.C. took advantage to improve its defense. Finally, everything started to click on Aug. 5 at New England.

United shut out the Revolution, the highest-scoring team in MLS. Then it shut out Los Angeles in Beckham's league debut.

Although D.C. dropped the SuperLiga game to L.A. in the middle of last week, it continued its streak in league play by blanking Columbus on Saturday.

Part of the success can be attributed to the improved play of Perkins, who had just two shutouts in the first four months of the season.

Credit also goes to defenders Bobby Boswell, Marc Burch, Devon McTavish, Bryan Namoff and Vanney, who have mixed and matched well throughout the season.

It's also taken a little help from everyone else. That includes Emilio, other forwards and the midfielders as well.

"It starts up at the top, everyone's (working) harder in the midfield, and it just bleeds down to us," McTavish said. "We're getting comfortable with each other. We're still making mistakes - luckily they're not capitalizing on it - but it's just better all around."

So good that D.C., which is second in the Eastern Conference, hasn't allowed a goal in its last 341 minutes of MLS play.

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