As you’ve no doubt noticed, D.C. United has been scoring a lot of goals recently. The Black-and-Red are on a five-game streak of scoring at least two goals per game, and have scored ten in their last two home games. United has an article about this phenomenon on the team site, where they note that no one has more goals than DC since Patrick Mullins came over via trade. Over at MLSsoccer.com, Matt Doyle talked about the same thing, noting United’s +8 goal difference with Mullins in the lineup (as compared to a -6 in the games he wasn’t a part of).
Mullins has been a huge factor, and not just for the positions he’s taking up in the box. Ben Olsen still wants his teams to rely heavily on a target man to establish possession, and Mullins has been a major upgrade in that department. The move away from a 442 has also helped unlock Luciano Acosta’s potential, which earlier in the season seemed limited only to times when the other team was throwing caution to the wind.
On the wings, Lloyd Sam and Patrick Nyarko have been very difficult for opposing defenses to cope with. Nyarko has been great all year, and with one more goal and three more assists will hit career highs in both categories despite only appearing in 23 of United’s 30 games. Sam, meanwhile, has had an instant understanding of the players around him and his decision-making in the final third has made United far less predictable.
It took United a few weeks to sort out the 4141 formation, which was introduced for June 25th’s 2-0 win over New England. Mullins didn’t get to town until July 20th, which is just under two weeks after Sam was brought in from the Red Bulls. The DC attack has really only been firing on all cylinders for about two months, but in that time they’ve been fantastic. Since August 1st, no team has scored as often as United. It’s really not even close, both in terms of total goals and on a goals-per-game basis:
That’s five more goals than anyone else in the same timeframe, and over half a goal more than anyone else on a per-game average. That’s crazy, especially considering that as of July 31st, United had 20 goals in 21 MLS matches and 21 in 24 overall competitive matches. We see teams come to life one way or another in MLS every year, but we rarely see this radical a shift in goal-scoring form.
Of course, this chart isn’t all good news. United’s newfound goalscoring form has resulted in part due to a far less cautious approach to the game, and that has exposed the defense. Only six teams have been giving up more goals per game in this same spell. United’s only shutout since August came in the 2-0 win over Portland, who are one of the worst road teams in MLS. In six of the nine games played in August and September, United has given up two or more goals.
The good news is that the attack has been sharp enough to keep United from losing those games. If not for the madness at Yankee Stadium, the Black-and-Red would be unbeaten in ten matches. And for a fanbase that has been complaining about the aesthetics more or less non-stop since at least 2013, being involved in so many shootouts isn’t going to draw too many complaints...at least, for the time being.
There are some mitigating factors in this run, too. United has played the two worst defenses in the league in this time span on three different times. They’ve also played an NYCFC side who have made high-scoring thrillers their modus operandi. The first game in this run, against Philadelphia, also saw United up against a team known for both scoring and conceding often. Scoring twice against the Red Bulls both home and away is pretty good - among Eastern Conference teams, only TFC has a better defensive record than NYRB - but let’s be real about that two-goal comeback at Red Bull Arena. We might still be talking about that game when MLS turns 40.
In all likelihood, this trend is going to continue. United is a better team playing this more aggressive, riskier style, and at least in my opinion, Olsen is a pragmatist who will play the style that is most likely to get three points. The players in place are better at this direct (but keeping the ball on the ground), front-foot style of play than they are at grinding games out. The goal here should be to keep scoring while learning to be tougher defensively within this approach rather than to throttle down.
Furthermore, the schedule contains more teams that tend to engage in high-scoring games. Columbus is up next, and their recent 2.00 goals per game scoring form indicates that United will have to extend their current five-game streak of scoring multiple goals to bag a crucial win. Toronto FC is easily the toughest team to score on in the East, but after that? A home game against NYCFC and a trip to Orlando. It is entirely within the realm of possibility, with that schedule, that United could finish the regular season with over 30 goals scored in their final 13 games.
This club hasn’t gone on a scoring tear of this magnitude in a long, long time. I suggest you enjoy the ride.