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D.C. United Statistical Analysis: The Quarter Pole

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How does the team look nine games into 2018? It’s not all bad.

MLS: D.C. United at San Jose Earthquakes Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

After nine matches, the Black-and-Red find themselves at the bottom of the Eastern Conference with eight points, and nine points out of a playoff spot. Because of the league’s odd scheduling, DCU has played the fewest matches (tied with Seattle), and as many as four fewer matches (Columbus and Vancouver) than anyone else, which means their pace of 0.89 points per game is better than Montreal (0.75), Colorado (0.80), and San Jose (0.82), while being equal to Seattle. And coming off the back of a win in San Jose, there is a glimmer of hope that the team can put together some results before opening Audi Field in July, and offset what has been a generally dire start. With that in mind, now that D.C. has reached the quarter pole in this MLS season, it’s a good time to look at the team’s performance statistically thus far.

The Good

(yes, there is some good)

Steve Birnbaum and Frederic Brillant

United’s center back pairing has been very good in the air this season. If you’ve read this site over the past years, you know that Birnbaum specifically has been dominant in this category, and Brillant is close to his equal. Birnbaum is second among defenders in aerials won per 90 minutes, with 4.33 (39 in 810 minutes), behind Montreal’s Maxime Chanot (4.41), and ahead of the Red Bulls’ Tim Parker (4.25). Brillant is eighth among defenders with 3.33 per 90, (30 in 810 minutes). Together, they’ve helped the team to be the second best in MLS in terms of aerials won per game, with 18.7, trailing the Red Bulls’ 20.6.

Chris Durkin’s Interceptions

Drawing praise for appearing to play older than his age, it’s clear that there’s nowhere to go but up for the 18-year-old Chris Durkin. He’s shown great passing range, but his reading of the game is perhaps unnoticed because interceptions don’t make for good GIFs. Among midfielders with 450 minutes or more, his 2.20 interceptions per 90 minutes is ninth in the league, ahead of similarly young midfielders like NYC’s Yangel Herrera (12th) and Portland’s Cristhian Paredes (14th).

Luciano Acosta’s Possession

Famous for being simultaneously eager to take players on while too frequently losing possession, Luciano Acosta has improved in both categories this year. His 3.06 successful take-ons per 90 minutes is good for eighth among midfielders with 450 minutes or more, just behind LAFC’s Carlos Vela (3.18). Acosta has also improved upon his rate of successful take-ons, completing 54.05% of them, up from 50.63% last season, and 47.37% in 2016. Meanwhile, he’s reduced his rate of possession lost due to unsuccessful first touches. with his 2.42 per 90 (15 in 557 minutes) his lowest rate since joining the team.

The Notable

Darren Mattocks

In his first year in D.C., Darren Mattocks is enjoying somewhat of a renaissance. He’s shooting more often (2.6 p/90) than he has since 2014 (2.7), and his four goals in 585 minutes is already equal to last year’s total in fewer than half of the minutes (1178). He needs three more goals to equal his largest output over a season, seven in his rookie year of 2012, and at his current pace it’s hard to imagine that he won’t get there. While his improvement has been a positive, he needs to do more to help this team win. Fortunately for him, there’s nobody on the roster who’s pushing him for time.

Zoltan Stieber

Averaging 2.74 key passes per 90 minutes in 2017, Stieber led the team ahead of since-departed Lloyd Sam (2.31), and Luciano Acosta (1.97). This season he leads the team with 2.18 per 90 minutes, ahead of Acosta’s 1.94, Paul Arriola’s 1.51, and better than twice Yamil Asad’s 0.77. It should come as no surprise that Stieber, after going three games without a start between March 17th and April 28th, returned to the starting lineup in time for United to go on their streak of seven goals in three matches, two of which came via Stieber assists.

The Bad

The Offense in General

United’s recent scoring outburst of sorts has seen them score more goals in their last three matches (7) than they had in their previous six matches (6). That surge has seen them rise to 12th in the league in goals per game (1.44), ahead of defending MLS Cup champion Toronto (1.40, 13th), Gyasi Zardes-led Columbus (1.38, 14th), and the Los Angeles Zlatans Galaxy (1.36, 15th). Still, when looking at the whole season thus far, the offense looks abysmal. DCU ranks last in the league in shots per game (9.9), and key passes per game (6.7). If Ben Olsen’s plan going into the season was to increase scoring chances by improving the midfielders through whom the scoring chances would come, then that plan hasn’t worked.

United’s 89 shots make them the only team in MLS with fewer than 100 shots. In fact they’re the only team with fewer than 110 shots (Chicago has 110). Yes, they have played the joint-fewest games in the league, but at their current rate of 9.9 shots per game, they will not reach 100 shots until early in their 11th game. This is particularly troubling because United has been getting results when they do shoot. They’re the seventh most accurate shooting team in the league, finding the target with 38.20% of their shots, and they’re fourth in turning shots into goals, with 14.61% of their shots finding the net. Perhaps some improvement is on the horizon, as they’ve amassed 14 shots in each of their last two matches.

Patrick Mullins

The steady regression of Patrick Mullins has been incredibly detrimental to this team. He arrived with a bang, scoring eight goals in 1138 minutes in 2016 (0.63 p/90), a number which fell to five in 1076 minutes (0.42 p/90) last season, and zero in 215 minutes thus far this year. What’s worse is that he has exactly one shot in those 215 minutes. That’s essentially zero production at all for someone who once was thought to be an up-and-coming forward.

The Goalkeeping?

I panned the decision to replace the departing Bill Hamid with Steve Clark last season, and I welcomed the acquisition of David Ousted as competition, but after nine matches, it isn’t really clear who the best goalkeeper is. Clark had perhaps the game of his life in the 1-0 win over Columbus in Annapolis, MD., making five saves to seal three points for 10-man United. However, in his other two starts he’s allowed six goals on 17 shots in two games, each of them a 3-2 loss. Ousted has been the goalkeeper for the other five points that DCU has earned this year, including the most recent win in San Jose. He’s allowing 1.83 goals per game compared to Clark’s 2.00, but his save percentage of 58.6% is considerably worse than Clark’s 72.7%. As I frequently say, not every shot is the same, so comparing goalkeeper numbers doesn’t tell the whole story. I still feel more comfortable when Ousted is in the goal, but neither he nor Clark has distinguished himself thus far.

The Assessment

Despite early troubles, United has cobbled together a run of decent offensive performances, while the defense tries to keep it together. The emergence of Chris Durkin in deep midfield has made Junior Moreno’s automatic return to the starting lineup once healthy an uncertaintly. With Paul Arriola now manning a central midfield position, that’s enabled all of Acosta, Stieber, and Asad to play at once, and that, above all other things, may explain the team’s recent run. If the team’s seemingly imminent acquisition of Wayne Rooney bears fruit, there is room for optimism that United can do enough to move up the table toward a playoff spot.