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Assessing the value of D.C. United's defense.

In which we know what is happening that is improve the team play, but we try to put on finger on some of it.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

I stumbled late one day onto a discussion that some friends and B&RU commenters were having regarding Bill Hamid receiving another Save of the Week nomination, and there was concern expressed that Hamid's nod for SotW was some indictment on D.C.'s decision on defending deep for prolonged stretches for the second game in a row. One saw recently how much Tim Howard had to stand on that shaved head of his in the United States' World Cup loss against Belgium to see that a goalie seeing a lot of traffic would portray his defense in a bad light, at least if you are Alexi Lalas.

But perhaps the goaltending and defense are a synchronized machine and said defense is giving Hamid the chance to makes saves that use his talents best, or put another way to be Bill Hamid? I'll try to explain.

Shots Faced 148 166 141
Shots Faced/G 4.35 4.88 4.15

Above are the total shots faced and shots per game for three MLS teams in 2013. Here are the 2014 numbers for those same teams:

Shots Faced 87 77 102
Shots Faced/G 4.58 4.27 5.36

About this time it is hopefully evident that column B is D.C. United. But column A is the Philadelphia Union and column C is the Houston Dynamo. But whereas Column A's Union while having a still pretty low shot total, they do still have Zac MacMath starting and his numbers have taken a bit of a tumble from 2013. How much of that is due to (yet another) coaches changing remains to be seen, but Amobi Okugo, Raymond Gaddis and Sheanon Williams remain as defenders, with Fabinho, Austin Berry, Ethan White and the ghost of Danny Califf playing in rotation.

How about Houston? Well, near as I can figure they still have Kofi Sarkodie, Jermaine Taylor, Corey Ashe and Eric Brunner, with David Horst as their new center back and A.J. Cochran. And Hall has been a steady goalie through the years since coming into the League. And they have been dealing with injuries to an extent. But is it something more significant?

Well let's start by looking at shot and goal types. To summarize, these statistics (updated at the end of every game week) attempt to show the types of shots and goals teams face along with where on the field they face them, more on this information is from the excellent Michael Carey (of Cartilage Free Captain lore) and the page and glossary of terms I'm about to use can be found here. So the first round of 2013 numbers are as follows:

D.C. United 188 96 177 81 31 44 40.80% 61.60% 49.50% 4.20%
Houston Dynamo 168 74 181 60 27 43 39.70% 57.20% 36.90% 9.20%
Philadelphia Union 170 79 184 62 32 49 39.30% 57.50% 41.20% 7.40%

What does this information tell us? Well for one thing it illustrates just how bad D.C.'s defense was last season (duh!), but save for Chivas USA, no other team allowed as many shots from inside the 18 (the DZS & WS) as D.C.; it was a shooting gallery. Take a look at Houston and Philly's totals. Average them out, and it ranges anywhere from a half a shot to more than a shot fewer per game in a dangerous (or at the very least close-ish) area. On a deeper level, the DZSoT total shows us that those shots were on target more than almost any team in the League (hi again, Chivas!). Their percentage of shots in the box was absurdly high, behind only Real Salt Lake who has Nick Rimando and comparing Bill to Nick isn't really fair at this point is it? One other number I would like to bring up, and it's the number of shots in the close areas that came from through-balls. Contrasting that number against the DWS/WS totals and you could say there was no final ball needed before a shot closer to the net because well, the shooter had a damn good look as is.

Now here's 2014, worked out to full season numbers and before Philly's midweek game:

D.C. United 172 87 164 64 36 39 40.60% 61.20% 50.50% 7.50%
Houston Dynamo 174 89 193 70 30 62 38.00% 57.60% 41.20% 10.90%
Philadelphia Union 164 93 149 75 29 39 40.50% 63.40% 31.50% 11.50%

Basically helps to affirm what we know, right? D.C. is on pace to see notably fewer shots in the 18 this year compared to last, but check out the DZSoT totals of the teams. Going to pace, Hamid and Andrew Dykstra are going to see almost 21% fewer shots on target from the high pressure areas (or some kind of zone...). Bobby Boswell, Jeff Parke, Steven Birnbaum and other members of the team are getting in front of shots or at the very least making life difficult for those who take them, giving Hamid and Dykstra to be...Hamid and Dykstra. How do we figure that latter part out? Glad you asked:

D.C. United 40 6 4 5 4 59 0.213 0.063 0.023
Houston Dynamo 24 8 5 2 2 41 0.143 0.108 0.028
Philadelphia Union 33 5 4 1 1 44 0.194 0.063 0.022

Here are the expected goals allowed for 2013. Again, D.C. gets the shooting gallery, though it should be noted that MacMath saw fewer shots on target from these danger zones and had a worse approximate save rate on them as Hamid, so I guess that's why Andre Blake or something. Also, if you want to beat Tally Hall, shoot from wider angles when you're close or something. Now for 2014 working out to full game totals.

D.C. United 26 4 4 2 0 36 0.154 0.043 0.023
Houston Dynamo 45 5 4 13 2 68 0.258 0.06 0.019
Philadelphia Union 43 4 7 4 2 59 0.261 0.038 0.048

Sure, the Danger Zone Goals are down for D.C., and up for Houston and Philly, but contrast those numbers against the Shots on Target in those Zones. In 2013, D.C. goalies only managed to save 50.6% of shots in the Danger Zones, compared to 60% for Houston and 46.8% for Philly. In 2014, D.C. goalies are projected to save 59.4% of shots on target in those zones, compared to 42.7% from Philly and 35.8%(!) for Houston. When the defense takes out the other variables it generally goes to positive results as both Hall and Hamid would presumably attest.

Now to the challenge of how to credit the defense for all of this, specifically one Robert Allen Boswell, which I'll try and tackle in a future post.