Setting the Stage for May: Good News is Raining on D.C. United

Ron Schwane-USA TODAY Sports

So, this is what it feels like to have fun looking back at the past month's MLS action and ahead to the upcoming month's. It's good news for D.C. United (with the exception of attendance), so let's dive right in.

For the first time in the history of our "Setting the Stage" series, we have good news for D.C. United fans.  Actually, it's not just good news, it's exceptional news.  While it certainly doesn't guarantee anything going forward, D.C. United's performance entering into May's Major League Soccer action earned them a monthly distinction fans of the Black-and-Red haven't seen in a long time.  And, gird yourself for the busiest month of MLS soccer we've seen lo these many years, and to top it off we get the World Cup in June!

1.  Worst to First in One Month (aka April's MLS Results). How in the world did D.C. United go from MLS's worst team in March to its best team in April?  Answer this question and you can become Chivas USA's next owner/GM/coach. To help with your analysis, just click on any of the column headings to sort the table in different ways.

D.C. United, however, did indeed perform best in the league during April, tying with the Seattle Sounders for most outright points (10 points, 3-0-1) and most points per game (2.5 ppg).  Although both United and the Sounders will get credit for being the best in April, if we were applying MLS's latest tiebreakers (1. wins, 2. goal differential, 3. goals), the hometown side would beat out the newcomers from the Northwest on goal differential for the month.  Speaking of stats, D.C. United had the best goal differential for the month, the third best goal total, and the second best goals against total.  At the bottom of April's table is D.C. United's roommate in the basement for much of last season, Chivas USA.  We've settled our portion of the electrical and cable bills, Chivas, so you might want to change the locks after we're done moving out.

2.  What's Up with Cascadia?  (aka MLS Supporters' Shield Standings). I don't know what it means, but the vaunted Cascadia triumvirate finds itself in first place (Seattle), exactly in the middle (Vancouver Whitecaps), and in last place (Portland Timbers) in the Supporters' Shield Standings entering May.

Another interesting factoid from the current Supporters' Shield table:  D.C. United is only three points off the "potential points" leader (LA Galaxy), while Portland and the Philadelphia Union are already 12 points behind LA in the total points they can achieve if they were to theoretically win the rest of their games.

Let's also look at the Supporters' Shield table while adding in total team salary as reported by the MLS Players' Union and the salary dollars per point each team has spent entering May. In fact, let's sort the table with the highest spending teams on top.

A few insights are apparent:

- D.C. United has returned to being the middle team (#10 out of 19) in terms of MLS total guaranteed salary (as it was in 2012 before dropping to #14 in 2013).

- Look at some of the teams below D.C. United in total salary:  Portland Timbers, Real Salt Lake, Sporting Kansas City, and Houston Dynamo.  In many ways, these are considered to be four of the best managed teams in MLS.  They all also have great (if not ideal) stadium situations, and yet they are bottom-half teams in terms of salary.  Is there any reason to really believe D.C. United will substantially open its checkbook relative to the rest of the league when (not if) the new Buzzard Point stadium gets built?  Under any circumstance, is there a scenario under which D.C. United overtakes more than a handful of teams in front of it in terms of total team salary? My point is I think D.C. United will have to be smart going forward because I don't see them joining the top-flight of spending teams even with a new stadium.

In the graphic below (which shows each teams' position in the Supporters' Shield standings at the end of each weekend's games), pick out the D.C. United line and watch it skyrocket through the standings during the month of April (and, see how New England and New York have followed in formation--D.C. United's wins over these two clubs are looking better and better).  Similarly, look at how far Houston and Chivas have fallen early in the year.

3.  "All season, you kind of add up goals.  Playoff teams have a certain number of goals." (aka Inside the Supporters' Shield Standings). This quote comes from Ben Olsen.  I find it interesting since I would have thought the coach would have mentioned goal differential in such a quote.  But, hey, you learn something new everyday, so let's see how goals are correlating to total points earned across the first two months of the MLS season.

In the graphic above, the size of the box is based on the total number of points earned, while the color corresponds to the number of goals scored (the highest scoring teams are in dark green, and the lowest scoring teams are in dark red).  And what do you know, the two teams which have scored the most goals, Seattle and Dallas with 18 goals each, are at the top of the table.  Toronto, however, is tied for fewest goals scored with San Jose (6 goals each), but somehow the Reds are managing to hang on to 11th place in the Supporters' Shield standings (San Jose is 15th).

4.  Hey, guys!  We're in a playoff spot!  (aka Current Eastern Conference Standings). For the first time since the end of the 2012 regular season, D.C. United finds itself in a playoff position at the end of a regular season month of play. Click on the buttons below the graphic to see each conference's standings.

A couple thoughts come to mind:

- If the playoffs started now, the Eastern Conference would be represented by the Columbus Crew, Sporting, D.C. United, New England Revolution, and New York Red Bulls.  Oh, yeah, the race is tight as well.  Columbus started hot but has come back to the pack.  Expect the East to stay tight all year.

- The Western Conference playoff teams right now would be Seattle, FC Dallas, RSL, Colorado Rapids, and Vancouver Whitecaps.  Unlike the East, the Western race is top heavy.  Seattle, Dallas, and RSL have all started well (they are in fact the top three teams in the league entering May), and LA has games in hand and can still join the top-tier group with some good results in their next few games.

5.  We few, we happy few!  (aka D.C. United and MLS Attendance). D.C. United is five home matches into the season (and tied for the most home matches to date with Dallas), and the home attendance picture is not good.  As shown in the graphic below, D.C. United average home attendance in 2014 is down to 11,469, almost 2,200 less fans per game than in 2013 when average home attendance was 13,646.  Said differently, attendance is down almost 16% so far this year, and ~11,000 fewer paying fans have seen D.C. United play this year across the first five home matches.  Assuming each of these missing fans would have paid $25 to attend the game, the club has received ~$275,000 less in ticket revenue this year from the first five home games as compared to last year.  Below, attendance for the first five home matches in 2013 is charted with the red line, while home attendance for each home game of 2014 is charted with the black line. And, before you mistake this year's Home Game 5 having better attendance than last year's as a sign of progress, the 2013 game was on a Wednesday night (May 8, 2013), a 0-4 loss to Houston played in 61F rainy weather.

Regular site commenter Croftonpost reminded us last month D.C. United's Jun. 7th match against Columbus at FedEx Field, part of a doubleheader with the Spanish National Team, will give D.C. United a significant attendance boost this season.   He's right, and D.C. United is smart for scheduling this game if it helps their home attendance numbers. While there is no hiding the fact attendance is likely to be way down at RFK Stadium throughout the year, we will use whatever attendance figures MLS officially reports for the FedEx Field match as part of our on-going coverage of D.C. United attendance issues--just as we do with every other team in the league.

The charts below show D.C. United's 2014 average attendance to date in comparison to the other teams in the league.  The chart on the left shows relative attendance in terms of the area of the circles (hover over each circle to see how a given team's average attendance has changed over the last four years), while the table on the right is the raw numbers for 2014's average home attendance to date. Entering May, the Black-and-Red are third from the bottom in attendance, with only San Jose playing at Buck Shaw Stadium (but with a new stadium coming next season) and Chivas USA below them.

6.  Get ready for crazy amounts of soccer!  (aka May's MLS Eastern Conference Schedule). If you like soccer, May is your month.  MLS will play 53 matches during the month (including Jun. 1st which is part of a May soccer weekend) across 16 match days, as compared to playing 37 matches in April and 34 in March.  MLS is wedging so many games into May ahead of the World Cup slowdown, teams like Sporting and LA will double the number of games they've played all season in May (and for Sporting this means they are playing seven times during the month!  Poor Sporting, I'm sure they won't miss Graham Zusi or Matt Besler.).

The Eastern Conference's schedule for the first half of May is:

3/4 May 7 May 10/11 May 14 May 17/18 May
Columbus Crew @ Sporting @ Houston Vancouver @ Portland
Sporting Kansas City Columbus @ Montreal Philadelphia @ Chicago
D.C. United @ Portland @ Philadelphia Montreal
New England Revolution @ Toronto Seattle @ Philadelphia
New York Red Bulls @ Dallas Chicago @ Toronto
Toronto FC New England New York
Houston Dynamo @ Chivas Columbus RSL LA
Philadelphia Union @ Seattle DC @ Sporting New England
Montreal Impact Sporting @ DC
Chicago Fire RSL @ New York Sporting

The Eastern Conference schedule for the rest of May (including Jun. 1st) is:

21 May 23/24/25 May 27 May 31 May 1 June
Columbus Crew Chicago @ Toronto
Sporting Kansas City Toronto New York @ DC
D.C. United Houston @ New England Sporting
New England Revolution DC @ Montreal
New York Red Bulls Portland @ Sporting
Toronto FC @ Sporting Columbus
Houston Dynamo @ DC @ San Jose @ Colorado
Philadelphia Union @ LA @ Chivas
Montreal Impact @ Colorado New England
Chicago Fire @ Columbus LA

A few observations from the May schedule:

- The two Canadian teams in the East only play four league games because they will join the rest of Canada in celebrating the glory of the Amway Canadian Championship when they enter the semifinal round in May.  Both Toronto and defending champions Montreal have already slogged through 7 rounds nothing to be on the precipice of a CONCACAF Champions League berth.  Did you recall Montreal won a major trophy last year?  I kid, I kid.

- Sporting plays seven times during the month, but at least they get four of those games at home.  They close the month at D.C. United in what is shaping up as a big Eastern Conference showdown if both teams can continue getting results even as World Cup players depart during May.

- Speaking of World Cup players, the American camp will form on May 14th, so Eddie Johnson only has two games left with D.C. United before we lose him for up to two months.  It's also evident Sporting will be without some of their top players due to national team call ups when D.C. United hosts them at the end of the month (kind of like those glorious days in middle school when the three best athletes were away at the state all-star game, allowing you to finally dominate in the after-school pick up game).

- Houston also plays seven games in May, but they are on the road for four of them.  They've been in poor form of late, but other than the first game at Chivas USA, there's not a game which looks easy for the Dynamo during the month.  Things could get much worse for the Orange unless they get better (and deeper) fast.

Below is our MLS Schedule Map to plan your May roadtrip to see as many of the matches as possible.  You can also select dates from earlier in the season to see results and match information (just hover over a match).

7.  If I'm dreaming, please don't wake me up!  (aka What to expect from D.C. United). First, a shoutout to a site regular, DCU_Exile, for breaking down D.C. United's May schedule for us:

March:
Games: 3
Points: 1
PPG: 0.33
Record: 0-2-1

April:
Games: 4
Points: 10
PPG: 2.5
Record: 3-0-1

Big improvement in April, especially with back-to-back matchups against Columbus and FC Dallas, both of whom were leading the tables entering those weekends. DCU certainly exceeded everyone's expectations. That said, May is going to be a longer and tougher month. Here's a few things for you to chew on for DCU's schedule in the month of May:

6 games (2 more than April)
3 at home (H), 3 away (A)
Portland (A), Philadelphia (A), Montreal (H), Houston (H), New England (A), Kansas City (H)
5 Saturday matches; 1 Wednesday match (Home against Houston)
Toughest stretch: 3 matches in 8 days-Montreal, Houston, New England

My additional two cents:  Portland is the most desperate team in MLS right now, and the fact they are dead last in the league entering May will have both the team and Timbers Army fit to be tied in knots.  Be careful, D.C. United.  There's an opportunity for the Black-and-Red to start the month off right by grabbing a result in the Rose City, but they will have to be very smart about it.  Also, by the end of May, only three months into the eight-month MLS Season, D.C. United will have already played 8 of its 17 home matches.  Meaning, the good guys will have a lot of road trips over the rest of the season.  D.C. United has done well getting to where they are now over the first two months of the season, but they will have to start getting results on the road if this form is going to be sustained beyond May.

8.  Monthly attempt to see who reads all the way to the bottom (aka Monthly Poll Question). On April's poll question, 10% of you said D.C. United needed to earn 12 points to be "on track".  The remaining 90%, however, picked numbers which were 10 points or less.  So, using this totally unscientific result, the vast majority of us think D.C. United is currently "on track" this season.  Hooray for us!

With six games in May, there are too many possible point permutations to ask how many points D.C. United needs to earn this month to remain "on track."  Instead, we'll ask the same question in terms of how many wins the hometown team needs in May.

What do you expect in May?  How affected will D.C. United (and other teams) be by the loss of national team players in mid-month?

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