We’re approaching the halfway mark of the 2021 MLS season, and now is a good a time as any to take a look at how D.C. United’s new head coach, Hernan Losada, has affected the club’s performance statistically. Having played 15 games, DCU is just below the thin black line, two points behind seventh-place Montreal and the final playoff spot, but the team’s on-field performance many areas has them playing better than their place in the standings.
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Expected goals (or xG as it is often abbreviated) is a way to measure a shot’s quality based on multiple variables that gives some context not otherwise present in raw shot totals. Not every shot is the same, and xG can be used to indicate which teams generate better shots. Last season, D.C. United finished second-to-last in npxG (non-penalty xG, which omits penalties), at 0.82 per game, just barely ahead of last-place Atlanta’s 0.81. In 2021, United’s npxG is 1.42, a significant improvement which sees them in eighth place in the league. What has led to this?
Last season’s United was dead last in terms of shot-creating actions (SCA, which are all the things that lead to a shot - passes, dribbles, drawn fouls, etc) per game. The average of 14.22 SCA had them looking up at everyone else, and this season they’re eighth, with 21.07. Who’s responsible for this? Of the top 50 players in SCA per 90 minutes in the league thus far, five are D.C. United players — Julian Gressel (15th, 4.29), Paul Arriola (37th, 3.61), Adrien Perez (38th, 3.57), Yamil Asad (42nd, 3.54), Edison Flores (49th, 3.33). Last season DCU had just one player in the top 50 — Flores, who was 20th with 4.04. It seems clear that the attacking talent on this team is capable of good things when they’re unshackled, as Losada’s system has allowed them to be.
I expected to see D.C. at the top of the league when it comes to pressures (which cover when a player is receiving, carrying, or passing the ball), but their 172.9 pressures per game are only good for eighth in the league, and a good way off pressing maniacs the Red Bulls (206.7) and LAFC (198.7). Where United shines is their success in pressing, with 32.2% of their pressures resulting in a turnover, second in the league behind the Red Bulls’ 32.9% rate. 2020 D.C. was second-to-last in pressing success, with a number of 27.6%. While not even five percentage points separate the 2020 number from this year, the contrast is evident in the raw numbers. In all of 2020, the team had 974 successful pressures. In 15 games this year, they already have 834. At their current rate (55.6 successful pressures per game), they’ll pass last year’s number in their 18th game. A byproduct of the pressing is that the D.C. defense concedes the second lowest percentage of completed passes (76.7%) in the league.
Limiting Shots Allowed
DCU’s 1.20 goals allowed per game is 11th in MLS, and not particularly special by itself. Looking deeper, they’re tied for second (with LAFC and NYC) in the league in npxG allowed per game, with a paltry total of 0.93. This means that the chances conceded by the team are either few in number or low in quality. In the case of this team, it’s mostly the former. Losada’s defense is allowing the second fewest shots per game (8.93, behind NYC’s 8.07,) and the fewest shots on target per game (2.87, better than Seattle’s 2.94.)
Kevin Paredes: Tackling Machine
Among players with 450 or more minutes played this season (five full games), Kevin Paredes has the most successful tackles per 90 minutes in the league, with 3.64. That’s all. I just wanted you to read that and take it in.
We may not yet be at the halfway point of the 2021 season, but I think it’s fair to say that D.C. United is playing like a team that should find itself in the playoffs this fall. Despite the injuries to attackers and defenders alike, they are performing at a much higher level than the standings indicate. Paul Arriola and Donovan Pines will be back soon from the Gold Cup, and Edison Flores will be healthy again before too long. It’s going to be fun to watch this team when it’s closer to whole again.