Stability or shake-up? D.C. United defense entering 2017 with new options

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Veterans Sean Franklin and Nick DeLeon will be getting looks at new positions in a D.C. United back line that had been defined by continuity.

WASHINGTON — As D.C. United surged up the standings in the second half of 2016, defensive continuity and an attacking overhaul made for an effective combination.

While United's front six often was comprised of players in their first seasons with the club, D.C. stalwarts held down the fort in the back. Since the second half of 2014, coach Ben Olsen has leaned on the same first-choice defense: goalkeeper Bill Hamid, right back Sean Franklin, center backs Steve Birnbaum and Bobby Boswell, and left back Taylor Kemp.

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But as United gathered for preseason this week, it became clear the status quo was in jeopardy.

"There's some good problems there as a coach in that you're going to have a lot of quality pieces over the next two months to fight for playing time," Olsen said. "It's going to be a headache at times because everybody wants to play, but I'd rather have it that way than not have enough options."

The most consequential change could be a new role for Franklin. A two-time All-Star, the 31-year-old has been a stalwart at right back for the LA Galaxy and United over the past eight MLS seasons.

Franklin's consistency on the flank makes it easy to forget he claimed Rookie of the Year honors in 2008 while filling in at center back for the Galaxy. With 264 MLS appearances under his belt, Franklin has talked to the United brass about a move to central defense that would limit the mileage on his legs.

Although Franklin is somewhat undersized as a center back, Olsen believes the 5-foot-10 veteran has the strength and aerial prowess to again succeed at that position.

"The last couple years I've been dealing with injuries toward the end of the season," Franklin said. "So we talked about managing my minutes and kind of managing where I play on the field and try to extend my career now that I'm getting a little bit older."

Felipe Martins Nick DeLeon New York Red Bulls D.C. United MLS 03222015

Franklin's potential shift has been made possible by the emergence of Nick DeLeon as a viable option at fullback. Previously used in a variety of midfield roles, the 26-year-old thrived in four starts at right back while Franklin dealt with a calf injury down the stretch in 2016.

DeLeon did endure some growing pains in a playoff defeat to the Montreal Impact, but his bulldozing runs on the overlap last fall made him an enticing alternative.

"I know it's been a little bit of a frustrating process probably for Nick, not to really nail down a position at this point in his career," said Olsen, who noted DeLeon also could provide depth behind Kemp at left back. "But he's played a lot of games, and sometimes versatility can hurt you and sometimes it can help you."

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Factor in the acquisition of Chris Odoi-Atsem — United's first-round pick out of Maryland — and Olsen suddenly has a plethora of options at right back.

The depth chart in central defense isn't exactly thin, either. U.S. national team regular Birnbaum has one slot locked down, meaning any challenger — from Franklin to reserves Kofi Opare and Jalen Robinson — likely would need to unseat Boswell to claim a starting center back role.

One of the most durable players in MLS history, Boswell has only sat out more than four regular season matches once in his 12 seasons — and that came back in 2007.

"I've been a lot of places, played for a lot of coaches, and their job is to coach and my job is to show up and work hard and try to help the team get better, and I feel like everywhere I've been I've done that," Boswell said. "I have no plans on slowing down, and I don't even want those guys getting reps in practice over me."

Although recent knee surgery is keeping Hamid on the sidelines to kick off preseason, the 2014 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year plans to return to training by mid-February. Calling the timing of the setback a "blessing in disguise," Hamid expects to be between the posts when United kicks off the 2017 season against Sporting Kansas City on March 4.

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The back line in front of Hamid, on the other hand, is less certain. But for all of the potential changes, the faces remain the same.

"That's been a part of our identity — having a sound defensive effort, keeping the scoreline low and building off of that," Hamid said. "I'm happy that those guys are coming back, I'm happy that I have those guys in front of me — they make my job that much easier."

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