DC United defense tightens, attack sputters in draw with Red Bulls

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DC United has brought good vibes back to Audi Field through a high-profile hiring and several signings of late. A famous figure (Wayne Rooney) is pacing the sideline, a Premier League striker (Christian Benteke) is on his way, and a potential starting goalkeeper (David Ochoa) is nearing his debut.

The trick now is converting moves into momentum, even if the MLS playoffs are almost out of reach.

Saturday’s 0-0 draw with the New York Red Bulls yielded United’s first defensive shutout in three months but no high-quality scoring chances before an announced 16,258 at Buzzard Point.

Eyeing incremental steps as his squad takes shape, Rooney saluted the defensive performance.

“For us to move forward, we have to be better defensively,” he said. “It’s a real positive.”

New York finished with 13 shots but only one on goal; DC defenders blocked seven attempts and protected goalkeeper Rafael Romo from any real danger.

After conceding early goals in six of the previous eight matches, United was sharp. Even with a makeshift back line that included second-year attacker Kimarni Smith at left back, DC executed well-timed tackles and worked well together.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a zero,” said captain Steven Birnbaum, a center back. “It’s been weighing on us, and it’s been weighing on me.”

After a promising start, though, the attack never got going. The Red Bulls (10-7-7) had conceded 13 goals in the previous three matches, including a US Open Cup semifinal rout in Orlando, but were barely fazed by the hosts. United (6-13-4) also faced a vulnerable opponent Wednesday in Charlotte but didn’t manage to scoreand it has now gone without a goal in four of the past seven outings.

United had four shots Saturday, two on goal. Rooney cited the lack of creativity in the final third of the field, but DC’s issues are also tied to evolving chemistry.

Of the six new acquisitions, three started Saturday: striker Miguel Berry, midfielder Ravel Morrison and winger Martín Rodríguez. Benteke and defensive midfielder Victor Palsson are awaiting work visas, and Ochoa is working on fitness.

As he waits for a full cast, Rooney is implementing his system, imploring faster play and elevating work rate.

“I see some improvement,” rookie midfielder Sofiane Djeffal said. “Mentality-wise, it’s way better. We have 11, 15, 20 fighters. … We’re learning a new shape. We’re learning a new way to play.”

The first half was marked by more injury stoppages than scoring opportunities. United lost rookie midfielder Jackson Hopkins to a knee ailment in the 41st minute. He was replaced by Taxi Fountas, the team’s top scorer who initially was being saved for the second half after leaving Wednesday’s match at halftime with groin tightness.

The first genuine threat came in the 62nd minute, when New York’s Patryk Klimala sent an angled bid a whisker wide of the far corner.

With his team unable to generate chances, Rooney made three changes in the 77th minute. Still, United sputtered.

“We’re trying to put a really good squad together,” Rooney said. “We’ve brought some really good players in. Once we get them all in and fit and on the pitch, I think we will have a very good team. And then we want to move forward. We’re not just focusing on this season. We’re focusing on next season and beyond.”

Here’s what else to know about United’s draw:

Hines-Ike seeks second opinion

United has yet to announce a diagnosis and prognosis for defender Brendan Hines-Ike, who injured a foot Wednesday. He will seek a second opinion, but in all likelihood he will miss the rest of the season. Hines-Ike started 20 matches. …

Forwards Michael Estrada (four goals and four assists) and Nigel Robertha (one and three) were left off the game-day roster for the fourth consecutive match. Neither is injured.

Estrada, an Ecuadorian on loan from Toluca in Mexico, turned down a proposed trade, people familiar with his status said. Should he find a suitor abroad, one person said, he and United would terminate his contract. He needs playing time to solidify his case for making Ecuador’s World Cup roster. …

Fullback Chris Odoi-Atsem, who started the previous two matches, was not available after entering the health and safety protocols.

Benteke eyeing Aug. 20 debut

Benteke, who signed with United this week from Crystal Palace, could make his MLS debut Aug. 20 against the visiting Philadelphia Union, team officials said.

The striker is scheduled to visit the DC area this coming week to begin orienting himself with new teammates and the coaching staff and find housing.

Saturday marked the 99th meeting (regular season and playoffs) between MLS founding members and decided the annual Atlantic Cup, awarded to the winner of the regular season series. The Red Bulls won the crown.

With Fountas sidelined by back spasms, the Red Bulls won the first regular season clash, 4-1on May 28 in Harrison, NJ The teams also met in the US Open Cup on May 10, with the Red Bulls winning, 3-0in Washington.

Congested calendar continues

United ended a stretch of three matches in seven days Saturday and will now have a week to prepare for three in eight days: at New England next Saturday, at MLS Cup favorite Los Angeles FC on Aug. 16 and at home four days later vs. cup contender Philadelphia.

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