Every MLS team entered the current transfer window with some kind of need to address, but few had a more obvious problem than D.C. United. The Black-and-Red are within a point of a playoff spot, but it's more or less entirely down to their ability to defend as a team. United has conceded the third-lowest goal total in MLS, but are still a point outside the playoff spots in the East because they have scored just 18 goals in 19 games. Only the Chicago Fire have a lower total on the season.
While fans would certainly love to see United generate more chances, the real issues have been turning the existing chances into goals, and having that extra bit of guile to turn a promising move forward into a better quality chance. It's no accident that United has, many times, taken 14, 15, 16 shots in a game and come away with one goal. It happened in March, it kept happening as spring turned into summer, and it happened this weekend in Columbus.
So it was no real surprise that United went out and acquired a striker, making a trade to acquire Patrick Mullins from NYCFC, with Fabian Espindola shipped out to Vancouver in order to make room. It does leave some questions, though, as United has moved their most productive attacker from the past few years for a guy who has less than 300 minutes of playing time this year.
Let’s start with Espindola, the fiery, inventive, and entirely unique player United has decided to move on from. Espindola still has plenty of talent, but there’s no good place for him in the 4141 United is using these days. Up front, Espindola isn’t built for the hold-up play required, and in any case his idiosyncratic movement off the ball would often leave United without a presence up front. This formation already has the potential flaw of leaving the center forward isolated; if he then drifts wide or drops deep off the front line, United finds themselves in a 4150 pretty quickly.
DC is not built to be the kind of team that can win with that level of fluidity. There are rare teams worldwide that have turned that lack of defined shape into a strength, but it takes a level of soccer intelligence and technical ability that we don't see in MLS. When United has Espindola leading the line - even when it's been him and Luciano Acosta playing up front in a 442 - the result is usually moves that end up dying when it's time to turn possession into a threat. When lacking a true forward presence, the Black-and-Red just end up not causing their opponents any worry.
Ben Olsen had moved Espindola out to the left wing in his last three starts, and while they went alright, the fact is that he was a diminished version of himself in that spot. His success in wide areas came from peeling out of the middle to create overloads and confuse opponents. Starting him out there robs him of the element of surprise, and making one of your own attackers predictable is usually not a good plan. It was a roll of the dice based on getting the most talented players on the team all on the field, but in Espindola's case there's just no role in this alignment that suits him.
The retort here is that Espindola was still producing relative to his teammates. He has United’s last goal and the club’s last assist, and in both cases played a part in salvaging a road point. His goal against Columbus over the weekend put him into a tie for the team lead in goals on the season (a low bar, but still). As has been indicated elsewhere, he's has been a huge part of DC’s attack for two and a half seasons:
Despite only starting 49 of a possible 87 games, Espindola has scored or assisted on 37 of DC United's 113 goals (33%) during that time— Seth Vertelney (@svertelney) July 20, 2016
When he’s been available - a very real concern for a player whose MLS career high in starts still involved not starting about 20% of Real Salt Lake’s games in 2012 - Espindola has made goals happen. However, those numbers are in decline, with 20 of those 37 goals/assists coming in 2014 (a season in which Espindola started 24 games out of 27 total appearances). In 2015 and 2016 combined, he’s got 9 goals and 8 assists from 32 appearances (25 starts). That’s a pretty respectable total for a season’s worth of MLS play, but a) those 32 appearances have come during a time in which United has played 53 games and b) those numbers are still dropping, which is not a great sign for a player with Espindola’s age and injury record. It’s highly unlikely for that trend to reverse dramatically, if at all.
Even with the poor fit on an evolving team and the erratic form, Espindola should be missed by United fans. Who can forget him playing the full 90 and scoring the game’s only goal against Sporting KC despite having been sick for 3 days prior? Or this utterly absurd goal against Waterhouse FC in the CONCACAF Champions League (jump to 1:10 to see it)?
Or perhaps the most Espindola game of all: Against the Montreal Impact in June of 2014, Espindola showed us the good (3 assists in a 4-2 win), the bad (a retaliatory kick on Felipe that deserved Disciplinary Committee sanctions), and the ugly (a knee injury suffered moments into the match thanks to Felipe’s craven, amoral tackle designed specifically to injure), all before halftime. Espindola ended that day with 7 goals and 8 assists in his first 15 appearances for United, a pace that outstripped eventual 2014 MVP candidate Lee Nguyen’s numbers in New England.
Let’s move on to Mullins. It’s no secret to regular readers of this site that I went to the University of Maryland and ardently support their soccer program. During the NCAA season, I’m at Ludwig Field for games whenever I get the chance. So Mullins, with his background leading the Terrapins to two straight College Cup appearances while also winning the M.A.C. Hermann Trophy (college soccer’s MVP award) both as a junior and as a senior, is a player I am a fan of. On an emotional level, I’m glad to see him joining the Black-and-Red.
However, there are good reasons for non-Maryland supporters to be pleased about this move. Mullins scored 47 goals in four years with the Terps, and his stats during his junior and senior seasons - 36 goals and 18 assists - are flat-out ridiculous. United has badly needed an all-around striker who can improve this team as a starter rather than simply adding depth, and Mullins fits the description.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Mullins is going to win the Golden Boot or become a USMNT regular. However, there’s plenty of room to hope that Mullins contributes 5-6 goals in the remaining 15 games in 2016, and probably 3-4 assists to go with them. Given a full season as a starter - and my expectation is that he becomes United’s first-choice striker after no more than a couple of weeks getting accustomed to his new surroundings - Mullins is the kind of guy who should be expected to score 11-13 goals while approaching 7-10 assists in 2017. That’s a marked improvement over Alvaro Saborio, and it's up from what Espindola was producing this year.
Just as importantly, Mullins is more versatile than the other forwards on the roster. He can play in the current 4141 due to his technical ability, soccer IQ, and sturdy frame. Expect to see the sort of hold-up play Saborio is capable of, but with more mobility and a more consistent presence in scoring positions. Olsen’s new formation demands a lot of its #9, and Mullins has had to carry that kind of weight before. As a senior at Maryland, he was the team’s target man, creative hub, and main goal threat all rolled into one.
However, let’s say the 4141 gets pushed aside for a return to the 442. Mullins can lead the line in that set-up if Acosta is pushed into a withdrawn forward role again, but he’s also very comfortable playing off of another forward. If Saborio is used as a target man, Mullins would be comfortable floating off of him and dropping between the lines to solve problems. Mullins also has the passing ability to be a good partner for Alhaji Kamara, who will look to run the channels and put defenders on their heels with his movement. He can also play out on the left side of midfield, where his ability to cross or pick out a pass could come in handy if United is throwing the kitchen sink at an opponent.
United fans will look at what Mullins has done in MLS and have their questions. 10 goals and 6 assists since being drafted in 2014 is not exactly stellar production. However, context is key. New England took Mullins in a pure "best available player" move on draft day, adding him to a team that already had Charlie Davies, Teal Bunbury, Jerry Bengtson (they hadn’t given up on him at that point), and Dimitry Imbongo. Mullins ultimately had an underwhelming rookie season, though he did still show flashes of ability to be an important player at the MLS level.
Mullins moved to NYCFC via the expansion draft, where he was the fourth overall selection. With David Villa around, Mullins was understandably not a regular in the starting lineup. However, under Jason Kreis he managed 6 goals and 4 assists in 1,040 minutes played. Even though he was stuck as a rotation option (he had 24 appearances in 2015, but only 11 starts), Mullins was making a big difference on a team that was otherwise a mess on and off the field.
Patrick Vieira’s system doesn’t have room for Mullins and Villa to play at the same time, and when you add that to Villa’s durability and admirable commitment to the cause, Mullins has played just 228 minutes across six appearances in 2016. It’s actually kind of shocking that no one in MLS found a way to make this deal earlier. In fact, it’s kind of strange that United managed to beat a team like Vancouver, their quasi-partner in today’s merry-go-round of trades, to Mullins.
Admittedly, though, this is a move that looks good, but is still theoretical at this point. I have seen Mullins play a ton of soccer, but I can’t guarantee you that he will absolutely be a roaring success. Mullins has to turn that 2015 output into a regular, week-in and week-out thing with United. It may be tempting to think of Mullins as a young player, but 24 isn’t actually that young in soccer. For both player and club, there is real pressure to make sure this move works.
The pressure on Mullins is to prove his college numbers were not just him hitting his peak. Should he struggle here for a season or two, he'll be seen league-wide as a journeyman going forward. Reasonable people can let a shrug-worthy rookie season go, and it’s hard to blame anyone in MLS for failing to displace David Villa, but it’s difficult to imagine teams giving him further opportunities if he can’t break through at RFK Stadium.
United, meanwhile, is under a different kind of pressure. They’re outside the playoff places right now and have scored less than one goal per game in league play. They just traded a player that, for all his foibles, has a record of producing goals and assists, and they did so more or less to make room for Mullins. This comes after making it clear they had "money to spend" and would be making multiple moves to improve their attack. Yesterday's pair of trades and the acquisition of Lloyd Sam are probably (but not definitely, as there's still some cap room to play with) the two biggest moves they’ll make in the transfer window, which closes on August 3rd.
In other words, it’s a big bet on a player who has the tools to make this work, but not necessarily the track record at the professional level. It’s a big bet on a new approach for United, who is so associated with a 442 that outlets like Opta will still occasionally claim they played it when they didn’t (for example, Opta listed a 442 with Jared Jeffrey as a left midfielder against Columbus last week). Moving Espindola is also a big bet on a player like Acosta, who now has to step up and be United’s creative hub on a consistent basis. There's a lot of promise here, but for both club and player it's a move that has to pan out.