D.C. United’s desperate times called for a risky decision, and so in the days preparing for Saturday’s match at Montreal, Coach Ben Olsen turned to a defensive midfielder just back from injury to play on the back line.
Russell Canouse had not played right back since he was employed in Germany three years ago. And because of a collapsed lung, he had been inactive the previous five matches.
But with United’s season turning sour and the playoffs no longer a sure thing, Canouse embraced the new position and helped end a three-game losing streak.
He went the distance in the 3-0 victory over the Impact, allaying concerns with a steady performance as United (11-10-9, 42 points) created a five-point gap over Montreal (11-15-4) and overtook the New York Red Bulls for fourth place in the congested Easter Conference.
“Russ was as good as anyone on the field,” Olsen said Sunday. “He is just a guy you want on the field because of his mentality. He has a high concentration level. He has the physicality. He has got the qualities to have success at the position.”
Leonardo Jara is United’s primary right back, but his defensive liabilities have prompted Olsen, at times, to use attacker Paul Arriola and reserve defender Jalen Robinson. D.C. has also used a three-man back line in which center backs have been asked to provide cover on the right side.
Arriola is best in the attack, and Robinson is sidelined with a knee injury. Last year’s primary choice, Oniel Fisher, has missed the entire season recuperating from a knee injury.
Olsen did not want to mess with the new partnership in defensive midfield — Junior Moreno and Felipe Martins — but also wanted to get Canouse into the lineup.
“We did not have a lot of time to work on it,” Olsen said of preparing Canouse for the new role. “We trained him there all week and decided it was worth putting him in there.”
“Yeah, absolutely,” Olsen said. “He hasn’t been there in a very long time, and the training sessions leading up to the game, he was okay. I wouldn’t say he had a stellar week at right back, but again, he is a guy you want on the field and a guy other players want on the field.”
Olsen would not publicly declare Canouse, 24, the starter down the stretch, but he clearly is in the mix with Jara.
“I wouldn’t want to say, ‘Yes, he is our starting right back,’ but I thought he did really well,” Olsen said. And because Moreno and Martins are forging a strong bond in defensive midfield, “sometimes it’s about getting the best group on the field. If that means adapting or playing someone a little out of position but still within their comfort zone, sometimes it’s worth it.”
Canouse will have two weeks to prepare for another possible start in the back: United does not play another regular season match until Sept. 15 at Portland.
This Wednesday, Olsen will use a mix of regulars, reserves and second-division players from Loudoun United for a friendly against Mexican club Puebla at Audi Field. Captain Wayne Rooney, who needs competitive minutes after missing four of the last eight matches, will start and play much of the game, Olsen said.
Sidelined for the past two games by a red-card suspension, Rooney was given permission to spend time with his family in England for the past several days. He is scheduled to return to practice Tuesday, play Wednesday, then, while his teammates are off for four days, the English striker is slated to continue training with the staff.
Saturday’s victory enhanced United’s playoff outlook after consecutive setbacks in an eight-day span to Vancouver, the Red Bulls and first-place Philadelphia. The Union and New York City FC have clinched berths in the seven-team field, and Atlanta is close.
If the playoffs started now, United would host the Red Bulls in a one-game knockout, with the winner advancing to face Philadelphia in a conference semifinal.
After visiting Portland, United will host Seattle on Sept. 22, play at the Red Bulls on Sept. 29 and welcome league-worst Cincinnati on Oct. 6.
Contributor - Steven Goff