Somehow, the most frustrating result of D.C. United's 2016 season thus far was not a loss. A 1-1 draw against the Colorado Rapids, regardless of a season-high shot total and a first half spent camped out in Colorado's end, constitutes a disappointment. Colorado came in with a plan of staying deep, staying compact, fouling when necessary, and trying to scratch out a goal from a mistake or a set piece. I think they went back to the Rockies pleased with how that strategy worked.
Watching the Rapids successfully destroy the game was not the only reason this was a troubling result, though Fabian Espindola's late equalizer broke a 255 minute run without a goal in MLS, which seems tough to do in a season that is 270 minutes old. Across 5 competitive games, the Black-and-Red have 3 goals. Those goals have come via a piece of individual brilliance that will be hard to replicate, a turnover, and a rebound from a shot cleared off the line. Espindola has United's only assist, and even that was simply a square pass that Julian Buescher turned into an assist by scoring from over 30 yards out.
Finishing has obviously been a problem for United. Steve Birnbaum missed a glorious opportunity to give D.C. a lead over the Rapids, and he was turned away repeatedly by Queretaro's Tiago Volpi. Chris Rolfe had a penalty kick saved by Volpi, and United wasted chances to pad their early lead (or level the scores at 2-1) in LA. Even in their worst attacking outing of the season, United saw Nick DeLeon blaze a promising late shot just a bit high and wide in New England. There have been opportunities to turn every single game this season into one where United held either a substantial lead or a narrow lead in the final minutes.
That shouldn't be confused with a statement that United has had a lot of opportunities, period. United has fired plenty of shots so far, so they've solved one complaint from last season. They've out-shot their opponent in four of five games, taking 76 shots (33 on goal), or an average of 15.2 (and 6.6) per game. Their opponents collectively have 66 shots (23 on goal), averaging 13.2/4.6 as a group. They're 5th in MLS for average shots per game in league matches despite playing two of their three games on the road against 2015 playoff teams.
That's all very good, but shots are not really opportunities. United isn't creating big chances, and if anything they've been left feeling like a lot of teams must have felt after facing "Bennyball" during the first half of 2015. The Black-and-Red are shooting, but they aren't getting good shots. I went through every single game and looked at each shot United has taken in 2015, and only 30 of their shots have been in higher percentage areas. The rest have come from sharp angles, long range, or were blocked (whether due to being predictable or to having too much traffic to shoot through).
It goes deeper than that. United isn't generating their chances in dangerous spots either. Across all five games, they've produced just 8 key passes that originated either inside the penalty area or in zone 14. The Black-and-Red are having to create shots from crosses, or passes from the wing (which mostly have produced low-angle shots), or from deep.
Sunday's game was an improvement in that regard, with 3 key passes coming in those areas. Given that Colorado dropped very deep while playing a 4231 featuring two extremely defensive midfielders, that's more than one would tend to expect based on the other four games. It's still not good enough, though, and it's telling that the Rapids piled up blocked shots. MLSsoccer's chalkboard credits them with 8 defensive blocks, and lists 7 of United's shot attempts as blocked (6 of which are from either outside the box or from an acute angle).
All of this should leave you less than surprised when we step back and place United in a league-wide context. They've taken the 5th most shots per game, but they are 20th out of 20 teams in terms of the percentage of their shots that came from central spots. They've taken the biggest percentage (56%) of their shots from outside the 18 yard box of any club in MLS. That means that United is settling too often for a shot from an angle or a shot from too far away, just as so many of their opponents did when facing the Black-and-Red in recent seasons. It's like this United is playing Bizarro United every week.
This wouldn't be such a problem if not for a very specific kind of shot United is giving up: Set piece shots from point-blank range. LA scored two of their goals from within 10 yards of goal and dead center, and that's where Dillon Powers scored his goal Sunday as well. Even if United were creating more truly good chances, this would be a huge problem. We're not talking about a team that has the quality in terms of finishing to just paper over being weak on set pieces by firing back at the other end. United cannot afford to be soft when it comes to defending from dead balls.
Part of the problem has been some odd marking assignments being handed out. DeLeon was blamed on TV and by some fans after the game, but Rolfe correctly took the blame for losing Powers on the goal. The odd thing is that this is the second time Rolfe has been the man-marker on a set piece goal. Why is one of United's smallest players having to man-mark on set pieces?
It could be down to simple in-game disorganization. Take a look at how United set up to defend a corner Colorado won in the first minute of the game:
United is at a bit of a disadvantage here once you go down the line, but there's nothing they can do about that playing a team as big as Colorado is. Birnbaum and Bobby Boswell have marked the opposing center backs, Sean Franklin is doing his best to simply be too much of an obstacle for Kevin Doyle, Lamar Neagle has Sam Cronin in case the delivery is hard to the near post, and maybe the biggest mismatch is Patrick Nyarko on Dominique Badji. Rolfe's job? Marking space at the top of the box, where Marc Burch is lurking. DeLeon and Marcelo Sarvas are the extra men here, and they're covering the two most common end-points for runs. This is about as good as United can get set up given the personnel involved.
And now let's look at the corner Powers scored from:
First, some context. United had made one sub, but it was Espindola replacing Luciano Acosta (who was, for obvious reasons, not in the box on corners). In other words, the organization on corners should be largely the same. Further, all 11 United players are inside the 18 here. There shouldn't be an inch of space for the Rapids to do anything. Their only change is to push Powers into the box. On the first corner, he stayed out wide as a short option that United took away by sending Acosta (and Kemp, who also provided a one-man wall) out.
However, that one extra attacker ends up counting for more than United having two extra defenders inside the area at the time. It would be difficult to say whether Rolfe had been told to mark Powers before the game, or if this was a change that was shouted from the sidelines, or if he had to figure it out in the moment. ESPN's cameras closed in on other areas before the kick.
Here's what we do know: Powers doesn't really start to run until he sees Rolfe over-commit to being between him and the ball. That's when he puts both hands on Rolfe's back and makes sure that a) there's always going to be at least an arm's length between the two of them and b) Rolfe can't turn to see Powers easily. This is the moment the goal is scored, essentially.
DeLeon, having to judge that in his peripheral vision while also noticing where the ball is headed and how fast it's coming in, figures out quickly that Powers is running unimpeded and that Travis Worra can't come for the ball (Marco Pappa's service is too good for that), but "quickly" is still a split-second too slow for him to get into a position to prevent Powers from having leverage on him. Neagle leaves Cronin to try to get a glancing header in before the ball finds Powers, but his backwards leap is about 3 inches from interfering.
Attackers moving through the box quickly is a common thread on the three set piece goals United has given up. Daniel Steres and Mike Magee were both able to run - not just take a step to the ball, but run - onto service, and here Powers gets four or five steps towards the ball for Colorado. United, on an individual level, is struggling with being an obstacle in the moments before the ball is even in the air, and these runners are able to get to the service as a result. That's where the Black-and-Red have to be both grittier (in not losing these brief little wrestling matches) and quicker to read their man's intentions (to delay the run by simply being in the way).
As frustrating as it's been to watch the five games played thus far this season, United has been close to getting a favorable result in every outing. The two problems we've talked about here are the difference between having at least one MLS win, zero MLS losses, and possibly even advancing in the CCL (let's not forget United's missed chances in the first half at Queretaro) and the current situation.
However, they won't be cleared up at the same speed. The Black-and-Red can fix their set piece defending by making some individual adjustments with players and by changing a marking assignment here and there. It's not a structural issue, so we're not talking about something that will take weeks of training and/or a new signing.
Producing better quality shots is going to take more than a couple of tweaks or a refresher on how to position oneself inside the box. There are a lot of possible ways for United to give themselves better looks. Here are just a few, off the top of my head:
- Be brave enough to be a bit more patient with the ball
- Help Acosta continue to adjust by leaving him on the field for more time
- Harder, earlier runs that aren't easily angled away from goal by defenders
- Show more of a willingness to draw an extra man to the ball before making a pass
Those are all simple concepts, but they don't all just happen once you say them out loud. This will take time on the training ground, and players will need to build more of an understanding so they start to have the trust that drawing that extra man will be paired with a player running into that new space, or that those hard runs from deep will be rewarded with the right pass at the right time. Without that understanding, those are big risks to ask for when a player is going through the numerous decisions they face in every second of the game.