Charlie Davies is leading the league in goals scored, but only one of his four has come from open play. United will need to create more goals from the run of play if they're going to find success in 2011.
To my mind, there are three classic ways to score goals from the run of play in this kooky little game of ours. Sure, there are innumerable combinations and methods and systems and formations and tactics... but when you distill it all down to the essence of putting the ball in the net, there are really only three ways to get there: going over, around, or through the defense (but not necessarily in that order).
First, you get the ball to your guy in space behind the defense, putting an attacker 1v1 with the keeper (or effectively so). You can do this with very direct play or with high pressure when the other side tries to build from the back, but they have the same effect, putting only the keeper between you and a tally. We'll call this going around the D, as the offense is circumventing the entire defense by just going by it.
The second way is to go over the defense by sending in crosses into the box. Together with the first method, this strategy has been the essence of Brit-ball for ages: put a big lad in the box and just put it in the mixer. Whether the ball goes in off a head or a foot, the concept that underlies going over the defense requires the ball to get to the wings before being sent across the field for a goalscorer to latch onto. (I call this one over because generally, the crosses really aren't going to be on the ground, and besides, I'm a slave to the hook.)
The third way is all the rage in stylish circles: going through the defense by opening them up with short passes. When you hear an announcer talk about "unlocking" a defense, it's a good bet that the other team is trying this method to find net. The highest form of this, of course, is the tiki-taka game Barcelona and Spain have perfected. Real Salt Lake are the current champions of this style within MLS, and Alfonso Saborio is no small part of the reason why.
So, why the Goalscoring Manifesto? Well, heading into tonight's game in Toronto, DC United have only scored thrice from the run of play in four games. The Black-and-Red need to do better to find the net when the ball is anywhere other than 12 yards out. After the jump, I'll look at what United can do to better get over, around, and through defenses to find some joy.
Going Around the Defense: Finding Space Behind the Defense
Going around the defense created United's first two goals of the season - those of Josh Wolff and Charlie Davies in the season opener against Columbus - and none in the three games since. Both goals were the result of long balls up the flank from the fullbacks (aided by opposing defenders' losing their footing), but that need not be the case.
The key to this tactic, generally, is speed. Speed like Charlie Davies possesses. And like Andy Najar has, and Chris Pontius. Really anybody who can beat a defender in a footrace and win the ball going at goal - on the counter, or otherwise. What happens next could be a shot, a pass to an open teammate, or (more frustratingly common for United) pulling the ball back and waiting for teammates to join the attack, but in any event, the defense is now out of position, and (assuming the ball isn't pulled back too far or for too long) the offense has the advantage.
It seems likely that one or both of Pontius and Najar will be starting on the wings, and even moreso that CD9 will be leading the line up top. Each of the three should look to make runs in behind defenders - the trick is getting them the ball.
Going Over the Defense: Puttin' it in the Mixah!
Frankly, this has never really been an area in which United has particularly excelled on offense (or on defense for that matter - see LA's goal last weekend). Nonetheless, United's third goal of the year, Santino Quaranta's classy finish at Colorado, came off an early back-post cross from Chris Korb, who has looked to be quite adept at crossing - and most facets of the fullback game - in his short time playing for the Capital Club. His counterpart on the left, Marc Burch, tends to be less consistent with his crosses.
Though a well placed cross could find even the 61-inch-tall Joao Plata (as it did in TFC's game against the Galaxy Wednesday), this tactic is really enhanced by bulk in the box, as an aerial cross is generally more likely to find its way unblocked to a friendly player than a cross on the ground. Unfortunately, United's apparent first choice forward pairing of Charlie Davies and Josh Wolff is not all that prolific in the air. Midfielder/forward Chris Pontius has demonstrated some proficiency, but prefers the wing to striker, so is not in a position to receive crosses as often (though I am salivating at the prospect of back post runs from him onto balls from Korb).
Ultimately, while United would certainly do well to have their eyes open for crossing opportunities - especially given their lack of success from other approaches, this isn't - and shouldn't be - the team's primary mode of attack.
Going Through the Defense: Passing the Ball Into the Net
The irony is not lost on me that United's professed desire to play the possession game has yielded a grand total of zero goals from the run of play. (Admittedly, it has created two of the Black-and-Red's three penalties won.) Ever since the departure of Gomez 1.0, DC have regularly run out of ideas once they enter the final third. Branko Boskovic, as he demonstrated last weekend with his clever ball to find Davies in the 18 with only Omar Gonzalez between him and the 'keeper, might yet prove to be the answer, but one man isn't enough. United have frankly been static in possession for the last few years; too often, players stand and wait for a ball to come to them, rather than making hard runs to create space for themselves and their teammates. Constant, intelligent movement - of both players and the ball - is necessary for this sort of tactic to work. United definitely has the personnel to make this work, it's only a matter of if they'll put in the work and obtain the understanding to do so.
I admit, this is a bit of an oversimplification of The Way Things Work, but I think it can be useful to simplify. Thus far in 2011, United have generally done well enough at keeping possession, but they've been ineffective at generating chances. Some of this may be on the fact that DC's most dangerous striker and most creative midfielder have spent the majority of the season on the bench, a combined one start between them. But a lot of it is on the fact that they aren't attacking the goal in any kind of effective way. Hopefully that will change in Toronto.