D.C. United: Shooters, Providers and What?

As you might have seen from our twitter stream, I kind of wrote an article on DC United last night. Then I scrapped it. Then, Alex Olshansky dropped this brilliant mess concerning Michael Bradley, and I was like “that’s basically what I was doing… on a team level!” So it kind of nudged me to at least put forth an effort to finish it…only not really.

What I did was basically compiled stats for four “core” attacking players on three different clubs. Two of those clubs (Sporting KC and Houston Dynamo) have shown consistent success the last two years, while D.C. United…well, you know, they have kind of stunk the place up.

The rest I submit to you without further inane commentary.

 

D.C. United

DC-Four

SH=shots, KP=Key Passes
SH/KP = Shots/key passes ratio
ShCPG =Shots created per 90 minutes played
%ofTeam= the total percentage of the teams shots that the individual created

 

 

 

Houston Dynamo

Hou-Four

SH=shots, KP=Key Passes
SH/KP = Shots/key passes ratio
ShCPG =Shots created per 90 minutes played
%ofTeam= the total percentage of the teams shots that the individual created

 

 

 

Sporting Kansas City

SportingKC-Four

SH=shots, KP=Key Passes
SH/KP = Shots/key passes ratio
ShCPG =Shots created per 90 minutes played
%ofTeam= the total percentage of the teams shots that the individual created

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How it Happened: Week Three

In the three games I watched this week, five goals were scored. Two were from penalty kicks, and two were off corner kicks. Needless to say, offenses around the league are in early-season form, i.e. not exactly clicking in front of the net. On the bright side, there was a decent amount of combination play leading to chances….it’s just that whole putting them away thing that MLS teams are still working on. Onto the main attraction:

Chicago Fire 1 – 1 New York Red Bulls

Stat that told the story for New York: 350 completed passes; 68% of which were on the left side of the field*

nyrb3

It’s hardly inspiring for the Supporters’ Shield holders to sneak away from Chicago with a draw, but I actually thought they played pretty well on Sunday. Like I said above about the league as a whole, quality was missing on the final ball/shot, but New York fans shouldn’t be too worried about the team’s winless start. In this one there was quite a bit of good linking-up, particularly on the left flank. Given that midfielder Matt Watson was starting in a pinch as a nominal right back for the Fire, it seemed like a concerted effort from RBNY to expose a weakness on that side of the field. Between Roy Miller, Jonny Steele and Thierry Henry, there were some encouraging sequences down that side in particular; unfortunately for New York it didn’t lead to any actual goals.

*This stat/image is blatantly stolen from the Twitter account of MLS Fantasy Insider Ben Jata, @Ben_Jata. After seeing it this weekend, I was unable to think of anything better to include, so thanks, Ben!

Stat that told the story for Chicago: 24 total shots + key passes, only 2 of which were from Mike Magee

I’m not sure if this one is a good stat for Chicago fans or a bad one, but Mike Magee was conspicuously absent from a lot of the action this weekend (unless you count yelling incessantly and childishly at the ref as your definition of ‘action’). But seriously: last year Chicago had 377 shots the entire season, and Magee either took or assisted on 116 of them (31%)*. Oh, and he only played 22 of their 34 games. The fact that he was involved in only 2 of the team’s 24 shots (both of his shots were blocked, for what it’s worth) could certainly be viewed as concerning for Chicago fans expecting another MVP-caliber season out of Magee. But on the other hand, it’s easy to chalk up the struggles to the fact that this was his first game of the season after a maybe-contract-hold-out related hiatus. Also, the fact that Chicago managed to create 22 shots without Magee’s direct influence (or Patrick Nyarko and Dilly Duka, both also out this weekend) has to be a good sign for a team that was often a one-man show last season: youngsters Harrison Shipp and Benji Joya in particular both seem capable of lightening the load.

*Numbers from Squawka.

 

Toronto FC 1 – 0 DC United

Stat that told the story for Toronto: 38% possession, 3 points won

tfc3

TFC captain Michael Bradley made headlines this week saying something along the lines of how possession was an overrated stat, and his team certainly appears to be trying to prove his point so far this season. The Reds didn’t see a ton of the ball in their home opener, instead preferring to let DC knock the ball around with minimal penetration in the final third. And then when Toronto did win the ball, well, check out the Opta image that led to the game’s lone goal for Jermain Defoe (or watch the video). It started with a hopeful ball from keeper Julio Cesar. The second ball was recovered by Steven Caldwell, who fed Jonathan Osorio. Osorio found his midfield partner Bradley, who lofted a brilliant 7-iron to fellow DP Gilberto. The Brazilian’s shot was saved but stabbed home by the sequence’s final Designated Player, Defoe. Balls like that one were played multiple times throughout the game by both Bradley and Osorio, as TFC has shown no aversion to going vertical quickly upon winning the ball. And with passes like that, speedy wingers, and quality strikers, it’s certainly a strategy that may continue to pay off.

Stat that told the story for DC: 1/21 completed crosses

This stat goes along a bit with what I wrote about Toronto above: they made themselves hard to penetrate in the final third, leading to plenty of incomplete crosses. Some of this high number of aimless crosses also comes from the fact that DC was chasing an equalizer and just lumping balls into the box late in the match. Still, less than 5% on completing crosses is a bit of a red flag when you look at the stat sheet. Particularly when your biggest attacking threat is Eddie Johnson, who tends to be at his best when attacking balls in the air. You’d think Ben Olsen would expect a better crossing percentage. To be fair to United though, I thought they were much better in this game than they were on opening day against Columbus. They looked about 4 times more organized than two weeks ago, and about 786 times more organized than last season, and their possession and link-up play showed signs of improvement too. Still a ways to go, but at least things are trending upward for the Black and Red.

 

Colorado Rapids 2 – 0 Portland Timbers

Stat that told the story for Portland: 1 Donovan Ricketts karate kick

por3

I admit that I’m cheating here and not using a stat or an Opta Chalkboard image. But the above grainy screenshot of my TV that I took is too hilarious and impactful not to include. Colorado and Portland played a game on Saturday that some might call turgid, or testy, or any number of adjectives that are really stand-ins for the word boring. The most interesting parts of most of the game were Ricketts’ adventures in goal, which ranged from dropping floated long balls to tipping shots straight in the air to himself. In the 71st minute it appeared Ricketts had had enough and essentially dropped the mic. Flying out of his net, he leapt into the air with both feet, apparently hoping that if he looked crazy enough the ref would look away in horror instead of red carding him for the obvious kick to Deshorn Brown‘s chest. The Rapids converted the penalty and then added another one a few minutes later, and that was all she wrote.

Stat that told the story for Colorado: 59 total interceptions/recoveries/tackles won; 27 in the game’s first 30 minutes

Alright, I was silly with the Portland section so I feel like I need to do a little serious analysis for this paragraph. The truth is that this game was fairly sloppy on both sides, which is particularly surprising considering how technically proficient Portland was for most of last season. But cold weather combined with early season chemistry issues makes teams play sloppily sometimes, and it didn’t help that Colorado came out and looked very good to start this game. Their defensive shape was very compact when the Timbers had the ball, and the Rapids were very proficient in closing down passing lanes and taking possession back. The momentum swung back to Portland’s side and back a couple of times throughout the match, but Colorado’s strong start set the tone that Donovan Ricketts helped carry to the final whistle.

 

Agree with my assessments? Think I’m an idiot? I always enjoy feedback. Contact me on twitter @MLSAtheist or by email at MLSAtheist@gmail.com

Season Preview: D.C. United

Few teams had more turnover in the offseason than DC United. With a slew of injuries last season, the worst record in MLS , and a deal for a new stadium on the verge of breaking down, things can only get better for United in 2014.

Fresh off of an appearance in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, and with another year of experience for young players like Perry Kitchen and Nick DeLeon, 2013 was supposed to be a return to contention for the club with more trophies than any other MLS team. Instead, they finished a full 10 (!) points behind Chivas USA for last in MLS. While their third US Open Cup trophy helped alleviate some of the pain (a consolation many supporters from other clubs would covet), the team has brought in some bigger names – including an entirely new defensive line – which they hope will turn things around in 2014.

2-25-2014 9-11-08 AM

Player Added
Position From Player Lost Position To
Davy Arnaud M Traded from Montreal Carlos Ruiz F Being Old (Option Declined)
Sean Franklin D
Re-entry Stage 1 (LA Galaxy)
Lionard Pajoy F Option Declined
Bobby Boswell D Re-entry Stage 1 (Houston) Marcelo Saragosa M Option Declined
Jalen Robinson D Homegrown Dwayne De Rosario M Option Declined
Nana Attakora D Re-entry Stage 2 (San Jose) Syamsir Alam M Option Declined
Jeff Parke D Traded from Philadelphia John Thorrington M Option Declined
Steve Birnbaum D
SuperDraft (California)
Daniel Woolard D Option Declined
Christian Francois D Waiver draft (Maryland) Dennis Ipichino D Out of Contract
Christain Fernandez D Free transfer (Almeria) Dejan Jakovic D Transferred to Shimizu S-Pulse
Conor Doyle F Tranfer from Derby County Ethan White D Traded to Philadelphia
Eddie Johnson F Trade from Seattle Casey Townsend F Waived
Fabian Espindola F Re-entry stage 2 (New York)

DCRosterRoster Churn: 55.48% of minutes returning (2nd fewest returning minutes in MLS)

It was an offseason of additions and addition by subtractions for United, which will need to see significant improvement if Coach and United legend Ben Olsen is to keep his job. United’s multiple offseason moves culminated with DCUINFOwinning the sweepstakes for US national team striker Eddie Johnson, a player everyone expects to outpace DC’s 2013 leading goal scorer “Own Goal” (seriously, though). Despite a -37 goal differential last year, our shot location data suggests that they were a bit unlucky to finish so low. Having EJ paired with MLS veteran Fabian Espindola, DC’s strikers should score many more goals than the three Linonard Pajoy and an over-the-hill Carlos Ruiz combined for last year.

The loss of Dwayne De Rosario will be felt in the midfield, but even the 2011 MVP lost his starting spot late last season. Stepping in will be former Impact captain Davy Arnaud, who will bring leadership to an otherwise young midfield. United will really hope for a healthy season from likes of Nick DeLeon and Chris Pontius who were both hampered by injuries last year, and will look to continue the progress of Canadian international Kyle Porter. Perry Kitchen returns as the backbone of a young midfield that remains mostly unchanged from 2013, but is poised to be more productive in 2014.

While Klinsmann favorite Bill Hamid remains in goal, United is likely to see a 100% turnover in their defensive backline from a year ago, having brought in proven MLS defenders Sean Franklin, Bobby Boswell, and Jeff Parke, as well as Christian Fernandez, a 28 year old who comes from Almeria in Spain. By drafting Steve Birnbaum #2 overall in the SuperDraft, they also added depth and potential for the future.

Franklin will provide them an attacking option up the right flank that they haven’t had since Andy Najar left the team to join Anderlecht in Belgium. Boswell and Parke will combine to bring 19 years of MLS experience to the central defense, which should give Hamid a stronger confidence in the leadership and organization in front of him. Fernandez has spent time in La Liga and Spain’s Segunda Division, and looks to bring bring a similar attacking style to the left back position, having scored 6 goals in 36 appearances for Almeria over the last two seasons. Finally, Birnbaum looks to be one of their players of the future, and will fill in for Boswell and Parke in the center of defense during a packed schedule that will include the CONCACAF Champions League in 2014.

DC has taken the anti-Toronto FC route, investing across the roster rather than adding big-name DPs at a few positions. While none of their backline is cheap – United picked up Franklin in the re-entry draft because the Galaxy deemed his salary too high, and Parke isn’t a bargain either – United was able to take three of their five highest paid players off the books with the subtractions of DeRo, Jakovic, and Pajoy (who was making an inexplicable $205k per year). They have invested heavily in more experienced, and simply better defenders. With no Designated Players currently on the roster, United have managed to endure more roster turnover than nearly every other team in MLS this offseason without breaking the bank.

All these significant changes make this a year of questions for United; after dominating MLS 1.0 for years, they played a middling role in more recent seasons, a short slump that seemed on the verge of ending in 2012. Was 2013 a regression to the mean, or an outlier as the club turns itself around? Will this be the year Perry Kitchen finally turns into an MLS star, or will he remain atop the list of players on the verge of a breakout season?  With a stadium deal being called into question, can they find a new home? Will Ben Olsen save his job, or make the ownership group look stupid for keeping him this long? Can the team begin to turn around record-low attendance numbers, or can they give their supporters something to cheer about?

At ASA we like to look prior data to help us understand what may happen for teams in the future, but the case of DC is a difficult one for us; no team is likely to look or play more differently than United next season. Because of their unpredictability, and because they have nowhere to go but up, the potential for DC’s season might be greater than any other team in the league this year. Will we see them do what the Timbers did last season, improving by over 20 points between seasons and going from conference doormat to MLS Cup contender? Or will they go the route of Chivas USA, and remain at the bottom of the table as the epitome of incompetence.

DC United hopes this will be a transformative season that returns them to the elite of the Eastern Conference. Crucial additions to the attacking and defensive corps have the potential to turn things around, and coach Ben Olsen’s job is riding on it. Supporters are cautiously optimistic, but the public (as evidenced by our ASA poll numbers) remains skeptical. The 2014 season is an important one for United, both on and off the field. We will soon see if one of the most storied clubs in MLS history can turn their form on the pitch around, and if their important stadium plans can get back on track.

Crowd Sourcing Placement: 8th place in Eastern Conference; 263 of 404 (65.1%) voters felt that D.C. United would not make the playoffs in 2014. 

D.C. United and Waiting Until Next Year

“Wait until next year” is about to become the mantra for 9 clubs as the MLS playoffs will be kicking off soon. It will leave those clubs behind, along with two more after the play-in round between the 4 & 5 seeds from the East and West, respectively. DC United, despite their US Open Cup victory, are the first of these nine to consider life after the season. With their lack of success this season, much of the discussion following their Open Cup win has been about how good they can be next year, regardless of what they did this season.

This seems like a good question, but I decided to open it up a bit. How good have teams been following a season with a bottom-3 finish in the table?

Last3FinishOne thing that easily catches one’s eye is that there are some repeats on here, which brings sustainability into question, but that’s a question for another day. What is important to me now is how massive 8 points is when you are talking about a table that is rich in parity. Bottom dwellers tended to perform about 8 points better in the tables the following season. Right now, 8 points separates the Chicago Fire from being out of the playoffs with a bottom-three finish in the Eastern Conference and a second-place finish. 8 points means a lot!

While 8 points isn’t enough to completely change the fortunes DCU this off-season, it’s reasonable to expect a better-than-8-point improvement, due to some obvious roster turnover, health being restored to key figures in their best XI, and some added cap flexibility. You can point back to the 2009 New York Red Bulls or even the 2010 Philadelphia Union who both made substantial changes to put them in the playoff picture.

Bottom line: if you think that D.C. United will be terrible next year because they were terrible this year, then you are wrong and getting ahead of yourself.