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D.C. United’s curious case of the No. 9: Part 2

Today we break down Ola Kamara’s game and how he and Michael Estrada align with D.C. United’s personnel and tactics

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at D.C. United Geoff Burke-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.

Welcome back for part 2! Today we’ll be digging into Ola Kamara’s game and seeing just how he and Michael Estrada align with D.C. United’s personnel and tactics.

Understanding Kamara’s game

When Ola Kamara joined the Columbus Crew in February 2016, he was an unknown quantity to many within the league. His numbers in the inferior Norwegian top flight, though decent, didn’t jump off the page, leading many to believe that he’d ride the bench behind Kei Kamara, who was coming off a career year.

Over the course of the ensuing years, however, we learned to trust Gregg Berhalter, particularly when it came to center forwards. First Kei Kamara, then Ola Kamara, and later Gyasi Zardes all enjoyed at least one 15+ goal year under Berhalter, a feat which Kei has never repeated in his 16-year career. Ola and Zardes, meanwhile, have only hit that mark once outside of Columbus.

Though no one will mistake them for the same type of No. 9 – Kei has made a career dunking on defenders, while Zardes thrives at the back post – they’re all traditional Crew strikers in that they live in the 18-yard box:

MLS regular season goals:

  • Kei Kamara: 126, only five of which have come from outside the box
  • Ola Kamara: 80, only four of which have come from outside the box
  • Gyasi Zardes: 89, only five of which have come from outside the box

To condense the numbers: the trio has scored a combined 295 goals in MLS regular season play, all but 14 of which have come from inside the box.

Everything that Berhalter’s Crew did was designed to generate tap-ins for its No. 9. His team used the ball to draw the opponent upfield before releasing its fullbacks into the attack. They combined with the inverted wingers and No. 10 to get into crossing positions from which they could serve the ball to the striker in the box.

While that makes the No. 9’s job sound easy, he still had work to do off the ball. He had to read the play, pull defenders around and move into the space he created.

Ola Kamara does that at a high level:

Watch as Kamara moves off the defenders’ back shoulders. His change of pace at the four second mark allows him to remain in Jonathan Bornstein’s blind spot. When the ball pops out to Julian Gressel, Kamara comes inside to work off Miguel Navarro’s back shoulder. From there, he anticipates the play to dart in front of Navarro and deftly heads Gressel’s cross home.

That is Kamara at his best.

How do their respective games align with D.C. United’s personnel and tactics?

With D.C. United naming Rooney its new coach on Tuesday, the Losada era seems well and truly over. Ashton, with the help of Losada’s assistant, Nicolas Frutos, tried maintaining the Argentine’s system, but a combination of factors — from the team’s stretched lines to the backline’s shakiness defending in transition — made that difficult. Now, D.C. is no longer among the league’s highest pressing teams, which, if Rooney’s initial remarks are anything to go by, is unlikely to change.

In the six league games that Losada coached this season, D.C. United averaged 47.5 attacking third pressures per 90, according to FBref. Under Ashton, that number has dropped to 34.5, which is below the league average of 35.8.

As a result of the broken system, the Black-and-Red have not forced the turnovers that killed opponents in 2021. Around half of Kamara’s open play goals, last year derived from the press, as his team would win the ball in the attacking third and immediately look for him in the middle. I could choose from several of his goals to illustrate this — his first of two in Miami, his opener in Columbus and his winner against Montreal jump to mind — but c’mon, I’d never pass up the opportunity to highlight a goal against the Red Bulls:

Because D.C. isn’t forcing such turnovers this year, it isn’t getting the ball into the box from open play with as much regularity. According to FBref, the Black-and-Red were ninth in the league in completed passes into the 18-yard box (excluding set pieces) per 90 in 2021. This year, they’re second to last in that category, averaging 2.15 fewer.

The less service a striker receives into the box, the more work he has to do on the ball to create opportunities for himself and his teammates. Estrada has shown that capability during his team’s moments of offensive transition, which have stemmed from deeper positions this year. In those moments, he has excelled at dropping into the channels, holding onto the ball with a defender on his back, turning, carrying it forward, and setting up a teammate in the middle. Kamara, meanwhile, has struggled in those moments since he becomes less effective the farther he is from goal.

Since Fountas set foot on the field, however, Kamara has not been as effective in the box either because he and the Greek international take up similar scoring positions:

Those goals might as well be carbon copies of each other. Leading up to both, D.C. tilts the field to the left in order to isolate Gressel on the right. This allows him to make a run in behind the left back, at which point the ball is played into his stride. Once in the half-space (aka the optimal assist zone), he hits a low, driven cross toward the penalty spot, but not before Estrada begins his hard run to the near post. This run pulls the defense toward its goal, opening up space in the center of the box for the trailing runner.

Those are the types of runs that Fountas and Kamara like making.

For as often as Fountas shoots – per American Soccer Analysis, he’s 13th in the league in shots despite playing around half the minutes of the players ahead of him – only two of his nine goals in MLS have come from outside the box. He’s more effective at reading the play and timing his runs to arrive late in the area.

Looking at Fountas’ seven goals from inside the box, all but one have come from the right, with the exception being his second goal against Houston in May. His movement off the back shoulder of the opposition’s right back or right center back is so smart. He lurks in their blind spots, allowing the play to develop, before darting in front of them or checking to the penalty spot to put a low, driven cross from the right into the back of the net.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s what Kamara did in the clip from the section about his game. He and Fountas are similar in that sense. When sharing the field, one of them has to shift into positions in which he is less comfortable, thus making the team as a whole less dangerous.

Fountas’ production since arriving in the nation’s capital has lifted D.C. United supporters amidst a challenging season. So should the hiring of Rooney and the potential of signing two Designated Players (DPs) this summer, one of whom figures to be a No. 9.

If the signing of Estrada is anything to go by, supporters can relax knowing the front office is targeting the right profile of player.