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D.C. United’s curious case of the No. 9: Part 1

Today we discuss D.C. United’s quest to fill the No. 9 role and break down Michael Estrada’s game.

MLS: D.C. United at Orlando City SC Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s note: Data current as of the afternoon of July 12, 2022, before the start of MLS Regular Season Week 20.

With less than 40 minutes to play in the 2021 MLS Regular Season, it seemed as though a D.C. United player would win the Golden Boot for the first time in a decade.

Having scored twice in five minutes to give his team a 3-1 lead in Toronto, Ola Kamara had set a personal record for goals scored in a season (19) and, in doing so, nudged ahead of Valentín “Taty” Castellanos in the Golden Boot race.

Unfortunately for Kamara, Castellanos would have the final say, as his goal in the 53rd minute of New York City FC’s match in Philadelphia put him level on goals scored with Kamara, but ahead in the Golden Boot race due to the assist tiebreaker.

Castellanos went on to lead NYCFC to its first MLS Cup and, in doing so, a spot in the 2022 CONCACAF Champions League, while garnering interest from abroad.

Kamara’s future, meanwhile, was unclear.

For a player who finished the season as the league’s joint-top scorer, that might have seemed strange, yet there was a feeling within the D.C. United community that the club needed more from its No. 9 if it was to take the next step. Many pointed to the penalty kicks that comprised around half of Kamara’s goal tally, arguing that he offers little from open play.

As a result, it wasn’t much of a surprise when Steven Goff of the Washington Post reported in January that D.C. was “actively pursuing a trade” for Kamara. A month later, the club signed Michael Estrada on a season-long loan with an option to buy, believing that he could offer what Kamara does not.

Halfway through the 2022 campaign, D.C. United has looked more dangerous when Estrada is on the field, particularly since the arrival of Taxiarchis “Taxi” Fountas. The underlying numbers seem to support that:

Since Fountas became eligible to play, the Black-and-Red have averaged 1.62 expected goals (xG) per 90 minutes played with Estrada on the field, and 0.80 without him.

These values were calculated game-by-game using’s xG charts, so there is a possibility of error. For instance, I have no way of telling whether Estrada’s substitution in the 67th minute of D.C.’s game against the Houston Dynamo occurred before or after Fountas’ shot at the 66:51 mark, so I marked it under “xG w/o Estrada.”

Additionally, the difference between D.C. United’s xG with and without Estrada since the arrival of Fountas is understated by the inclusion of the game against Austin, in which Fountas played 32 minutes, only one of which was alongside Estrada.

Finally, “with Estrada” does not necessarily mean “without Kamara,” as they have shared the field at times. That said, “without Estrada” often means “with Kamara” given that they are the only true No. 9s on the roster.

With that in mind, here are Fountas’ xG when playing with and without Estrada:

The numbers seem to support the eye test’s suggestion that Fountas and D.C. United as a whole are more potent going forward when Estrada is on the field. However, as it languishes near the bottom of the league in goals scored, the club has returned to the market for a No. 9. Earlier this summer, club executives spoke with French striker Thomas Henry, who ultimately decided that he wanted to continue his career in Europe. The latest reports suggest that D.C.’s new coach, Wayne Rooney, is in search of new talent. Free agent Luis Suarez’s name has come up alongside other candidates to join Rooney in the nation’s capital. The Uruguayan stating that he has “five or six” offers from teams in the United States.

As D.C. United moves forward in its search for a striker, I’d like to borrow a line from the club’s data scientist, Blake Parry, “data does not answer questions, it leads us to ask better questions.”

In this case, we can ask, “What has caused the xG split with and without Estrada?” and, “How can this information aid the search for a No. 9?”

To answer these questions, we must understand Estrada and Kamara’s games, and how they align with the team’s personnel and tactics.

Understanding Estrada’s game

Estrada is, in all definitions of the term, a traditional, hold-up striker. He likes dropping off the front line, receiving the ball with his back to goal, turning, and slipping his teammates into space.

For a team like D.C. United that wants to play in transition, that’s a valuable skill set. Speaking ahead of his team’s game against the New York Red Bulls in May, interim head coach Chad Ashton alluded to Estrada’s importance, saying, “Anytime you can have real physicality with their center backs, win a battle or two, you can create a transition moment.”

While that’s especially true when playing the Red Bulls due to their high line, we’ve seen it unfold against other teams, too:

Watch as Estrada checks to the ball, pulling reigning two-time MLS Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman with him. He fends off Zimmerman, turns, and carries the ball forward, baiting the center back into overcommitting before laying it off to Nigel Robertha. That leaves Nashville SC with fewer numbers in the center of the box, from where Fountas scores.

That goal occurred three minutes after Estrada replaced Kamara in the 56th minute. Kamara had been no match for the physicality of Nashville’s center backs, unable to serve as an outlet when his team was forced into a shell. When Nashville decided to take its foot off the pedal and absorb pressure, Kamara was unable to drop in and help create for his teammates. In general, the Norwegian lacks what Estrada offers in possession.

With his willingness to move into the channels, hold the ball up and link play, Estrada compliments Fountas. Fountas is a “pass and move” type of player in that he buzzes around the field, looking to combine with his teammates in order to get into shooting positions.

From those positions, Fountas is a menace. One of D.C. United’s issues, however, is that no other player on the roster is a consistent goal-scoring threat. Kamara’s effectiveness has dwindled as the season has progressed (more on that in Part 2), and Estrada, for as much as he offers in other areas, is not goal-dangerous.

For a No. 9, that’s a concern and one that the club will look to ease this transfer window.

Make sure you come back tomorrow for Part 2!

Tomorrow, we’ll break down Ola Kamara’s game and dig into how Estrada and Kamara’s styles of play align with D.C. United’s personnel and tactics.