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Early Returns: Chad Ashton’s D.C. United vs. Ben Olsen’s

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Looking at the data to explain what’s different for United since the coaching change

SOCCER: OCT 24 MLS - DC United at Atlanta United FC Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We’re just four matches into Chad Ashton’s managerial stint, and while we don’t know whether he’ll ultimately shed that interim tag, in just a short amount of time it’s clear that he’s made a difference in D.C. United’s on-field production. Despite losing his first game as manager, Ashton’s four-game haul of seven points is two points better than any four-game run that Ben Olsen’s United had this season. And while we have but a small sample size of Ashton results, the ways in which the team has improved under his command, beyond scoring 37% of this season’s goals in 20% of the games, have already become clear.

All stats from data provided by fbref.com

Pressure in the Midfield

Yes, Chad Ashton’s D.C. United has put together a streak of three consecutive two-goal games, while the team has three other such games all season long, but the biggest change the team has undergone is when they don’t have the ball.

It seems Ashton has emphasized contesting in the middle third of the pitch. Under Ben Olsen, the team was attempting a tackle in the midfield 4.94 times per match, a number which Ashton’s team has nearly doubled, with 9.50 attempted tackles per match. Going further, Olsen’s team was attempting such a tackle once every 64.08 opposition touches, while Ashton’s team is doing it nearly twice as frequently, once every 32.05 opposition touches. I don’t have opposition touch numbers for the whole league to calculate the touches-per-tackle rate, but Olsen’s 4.94 midfield tackles per match would be last in MLS, and Ashton’s 9.50 would be first.

Beyond just tackles, Ashton’s side are pressuring the opposition, defined as applying pressure to an opposition player who is receiving, passing, or carrying the ball, in the midfield a lot more. While Olsen’s DCU pressured the opposition marginally more per match than Ashton’s in both the attacking and defending thirds, the midfield has seen Ashton’s side press 70.75 times per game, exactly 13 times more than Olsen’s average. Compared to the rest of the league, Olsen’s 57.75 would be 18th best, while 70.75 would be 4th best, behind Philadelphia, the Red Bulls, and Minnesota.

It may seem like a small thing, but setting a higher line of confrontation can make a big difference over the course of a game. Consider the 2-1 win at Cincinnati, in which pressure from the pair of Chris Odoi-Atsem and Moses Nyeman forced a midfield turnover that yielded an immediate counter attack and resulted in Odoi-Atsem scoring the game winner. You don’t get that if you’re defending deep.

Small Gains in Dangerous Areas

Under Ben Olsen, D.C. was accruing 118 touches in the attacking third per match, which is the 24th best rate in the league, only better than Vancouver (103.50) and Cincinnati (108.70). Chad Ashton’s improvement has the team at 130.50 per game, which would only take the team above Nashville (129.47) into 23rd. Touches in the opposing penalty area under Ashton have gone up more significantly, with the team tallying 21.50 such touches per match, considerably better than Olsen’s 13.81. You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that 13.81 would be last in the league, while Ashton’s 21.50 would be 19th. It’s not as if the sacking of Ben Olsen took the shackles off of the attack, and they’re suddenly a juggernaut. There’s still a lot of room for improvement.

Fewer Passes, but Better Passes

On average, Chad Ashton’s DCU is attempting fewer passes (451.50 to 470.25) and completing fewer passes (349.50 to 370.56) per game than Ben Olsen’s DCU, but Ashton’s team is passing more dangerously. Under Ashton, the team’s key passes (passes that lead directly to a shot) have risen from 5.69 per game under Olsen to 8.75. Olsen’s number would be the worst in the league, behind Vancouver’s 5.85, while Ashton’s would have the team 15th, 0.01 ahead of both Real Salt Lake and Portland. Under Ashton, the team is passing more frequently into the attacking third, with 29.25 such passes per game, compared to 22.81 under Olsen. Olsen’s number would be 24th in the league, while Ashton’s would be 16th.

Conclusion

It’s undeniable that a change at the top was required, even before the 4-1 loss to New York City that immediately preceded Ben Olsen’s departure. D.C. United’s succeeding on-field results have legitimized the decision, even if they fail to make the playoffs at the end of this regular season. Ashton has made this team play more freely defensively, and more dangerously in the attack, but there is still a considerable way to go on both sides of the ball. They’ve surrendered six goals in four matches, or 1.50 per game, which is not as poor a rate as the Los Angeles Galaxy (2.00 per game) or San Jose Earthquakes (dead last at 2.25), but it would be tied for 14th best with Inter Miami. Ashton is doing things better than his predecessor, which is the minimum that you hope for from the next coach, but I would stop before suggesting that he’s the long term answer for DCU.