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Setting the Stage for March: How'd D.C. United Get Here and Where Are They Going!?!

Let's get ready for Saturday by reviewing a whole host of information that helps to put the start of the 2014 season into context. We've also got interactive data charts and a poll. Let's do this!

Ben Olsen goes for his second cup as a coach in 2014.
Ben Olsen goes for his second cup as a coach in 2014.
Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

The 2014 Major League Soccer season is here. Lots has happened this offseason, for D.C. United and for the rest of the league. Superstars have come (back) to MLS, players have changed teams, new players have been drafted/signed, new coaches are walking the touchline, and new jerseys have been debuted. All this preseason activity for each and every team will be for naught, however, if it doesn't translate into results on the field.

So, as the first matchday of the MLS regular season is upon us this Saturday, let's set the stage for all the action. We'll start by reviewing what happened in 2013, and look in particular at some key factors the Black-and-Red must improve if they are going to be better in 2014, and then we'll close by looking at the Eastern Conference schedule to see who has a real opportunity to start the season fast, and who has to watch out for stumbling out of the gate. We'll even do this through the use of some new interactive data charts.

1. Last Year's Supporters' Shield Standings. 2013 was bad for the the Black-and-Red (one magical run to the US Open Cup notwithstanding), but it looks even worse in graphical form. For example, did you know that every other team in the league earned more points in their 17 home games last season than the total points D.C. United earned in 34 matches?

2. Will D.C. United's Payroll be More Efficient in 2014? In 2012, D.C. United was exactly in the middle of the 19-team league for team salary. In 2013, they fell from being a mid-table salary team toward being a lower-tier salary team (see table below). This data comes from the Major League Soccer Players Union Sep. 15, 2013, salary data.

Fortunately, success on the field in MLS isn't totally (or even primarily) determined by how much money you spend (looking at you big-spending teams not named Galaxy). Rather, teams have to be smart with the money they spend on player salaries. In this regard, probably three of the best managed clubs in the league are the Houston Dynamo, Real Salt Lake, and Sporting Kansas City. All are traditionally lower spending teams, and Houston and Sporting even spent less than D.C. United last year.

One measure of how efficient teams are with the money they spend on salaries is how much each point they earn in the overall table costs per dollar of salary. Not surprisingly, the biggest spending teams will always appear to be inefficient in this regard, but D.C. United was even more inefficient than the mega-spending clubs last season! If D.C. United is going to return to respectability in 2014, they will have to be much closer in efficiency to the best managed teams in MLS rather than the mega-spending teams. In the graphic below, the size of the box represents how many total points each team earned in 2013, while the lighter the color the more efficient the team was with their salary. D.C. United, sadly, is the smallest and darkest box since each of their 16 points costed them ~$227K last year (while the most efficient team and defending MLS Champions, Sporting, spent less than $61K per point).

3. D.C. United's Goal Differential Must be Better in 2014--Much Better! In 2013, D.C. United scored the fewest goals in the league while giving up the second highest number of goals. With a remade backline made up of proven talent, and a US Men's National Team pool player minding the goal, the defense looks like a sure lock to be considerably improved. Goals also should flow easier this year with Eddie Johnson and Fabian Espindola composing the Black-and-Red's new strike force. No playoffs team in 2013 had a negative goal differential, so at a minimum, it appears D.C. United needs to be at least 37 goals better in goal differential in 2014.

4. Even in the Midst of the Worst Season in MLS History, D.C. United Still Expanded its Trophy Case. Of the 19 teams in MLS, ten have won two or more major trophies (including the Amway Canadian Championship). This means the US Open Cup the Black-and-Red won last season equals or exceeds the entire trophy haul of nine other teams for their entire history. I scoffed when Ben Olsen said last year that 2013 was a better year than 2012 because of the US Open Cup win, but when compared to how hard many teams in MLS have found winning a single cup, his comments start to make sense. In the graphic below, the size of the circle represents the number of trophies won, while the depth of color represents the average number of trophies won per year while each team has been in MLS. Good for us, D.C. United is tops in both measures!

5. March's Eastern Conference Schedule. The headliner games each of the first two weeks involve the Seattle Sounders, both to be played in the northwest. On the opening weekend, the Sounders take on the defending champions, Sporting Kansas City. The following weekend, the Sounders will host a greatly upgraded Toronto FC side in a clash of American USMNT mainstays.

8 Mar/9 Mar 15 Mar/16 Mar 22 Mar/23 Mar 29 Mar/30 Mar
New York Red Bulls @ Vancouver Colorado @ Chicago Chivas
Sporting Kansas City @ Seattle Dallas San Jose @ Colorado
New England Revolution @ Houston @ Philadelphia Vancouver @ San Jose
Houston Dynamo New England Montreal @ Vancouver
Montreal Impact @ Dallas @ Houston Seattle @ Philadelphia
Chicago Fire @ Chivas @ Portland New York @ DC
Philadelphia Union @ Portland New England @ Columbus Montreal
Columbus Crew @ DC Philadelphia @ Seattle
Toronto FC @ Seattle DC @ RSL
D.C. United Columbus @ Toronto Chicago

a. Teams with a favorable March schedule. D.C. United only plays three times in March, and two of those matches are at RFK. Further, the Black-and-Red are the only club not playing a returning playoff team in March, although we do face Toronto, the most improved MLS team entering the season. But, since that game is on the road, and D.C. United was woeful on the road last year, it's hard to predict at this point how Toronto's offseason additions will impact the result United would have otherwise had in Toronto later this month (and by the way, who thought playing an outdoor game on Mar. 22 on the shores of Lake Ontario was a good idea?). The second team having a favorable schedule is the New York Red Bulls. Although they play four times during the month, with games evenly split between home and away matches, they only face one returning playoff team, Colorado (last season's Western Conference #5 playoff seed, and a team still without a full-time coach).

b. Teams with a difficult March schedule. Perhaps the most difficult schedule in March belongs to the Montreal Impact, who because of early season weather, always are front-end loaded with road games. This season, they play once at home (vs. Seattle indoors at Olympic Stadium) and three times on the road, and three of those games are against returning playoff teams. Last season, the Impact had an impressive sweep of both Seattle and Portland on the road in March. Can they get off to such a fast start again? New England also only plays once at home in their first four matches, with two of their road games against returning playoff teams (and a road trip to the Bay Area thrown in as well). Finally, Chicago will get to see both ends of last year's Supporters' Shield standings with games against New York (#1), Portland (#3), Chivas (#18), and D.C. United (#19)--and only one of those games is in Chicago.

6. What to expect from D.C. United. I think this D.C. United team can make the playoffs if all the pieces come together and good fortune smiles upon us once again. But we can't fall into a hole early in the season while the team is gelling. Points must be accumulated when the opportunity presents itself, and that will frequently be at home. In March, two non-playoff teams are visiting RFK, and D.C. United needs to capitalize. Is it sheer, blind homerism to predict 6 points from the two home matches this month (which would be 37.5% of last year's total points haul)? Or to think United could nick a point against the Reds?

How many points do you think D.C. United will earn in March? My thanks to Robb Tufts over at SBNation's St. Louis Game Time for the advice on getting the data charts to work on this post. All formatting and presentation choices, however, were mine alone (which will be abundantly clear if you check out his great work in the links above).