We are but five games into the regular season for most teams, and while that is a very small sample size to analyze, I thought it would be interesting to see where D.C. United is shaping up statistically. As the season goes on, I’ll use this space to examine the numbers behind D.C. United, and hopefully the Washington Spirit. Yes, it’s a Members Only pun. No, I don’t have jackets.
Obviously the most important number for DCU right now is four, the points they’ve earned via an opening week comeback win over Toronto and a draw from behind against Orlando. Perhaps you’ve noticed a theme. Those four points have them 13th in the Eastern Conference in points per match (0.80), tied with Charlotte and just a shade better than last place Montreal (0.75). It goes without saying that the results thus far have been bad, but how are the underlying numbers?
All statistics found on fbref.com or whoscored.com
D.C. United ranks second in the league with 1.50 xA per match (Expected Assists, measuring the likelihood that any completed pass becomes an assist,) behind San Jose’s 1.60 xA in first, and ahead of Vancouver’s 1.34 in third. The stat can be complicated because it does not consider whether there was a shot taken, instead using the the type of pass and location of the receipt of the pass, among other things. This suggests that D.C. has been quite good at putting teammates in dangerous positions, even if they don’t shoot. Along those lines, United are third in the league in touches in the opposing penalty area with 26.0 per match, behind first-place LAFC (28.5) and San Jose (26.6.).
Contrast this with D.C.’s low-mediocre 1.12 xG per match (Expected Goals, used to measure the likelihood that any shot results in a goal,) tied for 17th out of 29 with the Red Bulls and Toronto, and I can’t help but wonder how a team that is so good at getting into the opposing penalty area is having trouble generating good scoring chances. I believe the answer is in the over-reliance on headed shots, which are less likely to result in goals than shots taken with the foot from the same location. D.C. United has taken the most headed shots in the league, with 4.0 per match, ahead of Charlotte’s 3.4. Christian Benteke is the team leader in this, with 1.8 per 90 minutes, which also happens to lead the whole league among players with more than 90 minutes of play. To put this in further perspective, Benteke is sixth in the league in total shots with 17, nine of which have been headers. The five players above him in total shots (Erik Thommy, Martin Ojeda, Thiago Almada, Daniel Salloi, Luiz Araujo) have been credited with one headed shot combined. No other team relies on headers for shots as much as D.C. United, and it stands to reason that it’s not a reliable way to win.
D.C. is tied for second worst defense in MLS with Portland, conceding 2.0 goals per game, 10 total so far this season, but the news isn’t all bad. One positive is that the team is first in the league in attempted tackles in the attacking third (3.8), and fifth in attempted tackles in the middle third (7.8). Willingness to contest higher up the pitch can be a recipe for success, as United is second in MLS in combined attacking and middle third tackles per match, between early Supporters’ Shield leaders St. Louis, and defending MLS Champion LAFC.
Where they fall off is attempted tackles in the defensive third, with 6.8 per game, which is 22nd overall, which is easy to link to also allowing the fifth most touches in the defensive third, with 218.4. While it’s good that they haven’t been too permissive of passes into their penalty area, allowing 6.8 per game, tied with St. Louis for 15th in the league, they’re second worst in the league in allowed carries into the penalty area, with 5.6 per game, behind Portland (remember them?) with 5.8. For perspective, the best teams in this stat are NYC and the Red Bulls (1.8).
My conclusion here is that I would like to see the team scale back slightly in challenging higher up the field in exchange for being more willing to challenge closer to goal. They have been reasonably good at keeping the opposing team from shooting, allowing 10.6 shots per game, tied for eighth, but they’re fourth worst in the league in allowing opposing shots on target, 41.5%. Perhaps contesting a just a little more often would lead to harder shots and fewer carries into the area.
I think the best statistical measure of goalkeeping is a stat called PSxG+/-, which subtracts goals allowed from post-shot expected goals, which itself measures the likelihood of a goalkeeper saving any shot. Think of it this way: this stat tells you that a team has allowed X goals from Y expected goals, and if PSxG+/- is positive, you’ve got above average goalkeeping. D.C. United has allowed 10 goals on 9.2 expected goals, a differential of -.80, which is seventh worst in the league. Sadly, this is still an improvement from last season, when they were second worst. This is not wholly Tyler Miller‘s fault, because he’s facing 1.84 PSxG per game, fourth worst in MLS, but two of the teams with worse numbers, Austin and Colorado (1.98 each), have allowed just 1.4 and 1.6 goals per game respectively. Those teams are getting good goalkeeping, as Austin leads the league in PSxG+/- with +.58, and Colorado is third with +.38.
Individual Performers (among players with 180+ minutes played)
- Mateusz Klich is 13th in MLS in SCA (Shot Creating Actions, which are offensive actions like passes, dribbles, or fouls suffered, that lead directly to a shot) with 5.2 per 90 minutes. Atlanta’s Thiago Almada leads the league with 7.75. Unfortunately, more than half of Klich’s SCAs come on dead ball passes. Chris Durkin is the next best United player with 3.9 per 90 minutes, 36th in the league.
- Russell Canouse leads the league with 1.33 attempted tackles in the attacking third per 90 minutes, and he’s second in the league in interceptions with 3.11 per 90 minutes, behind LAFC’s Timothy Tillman with 3.33.
- Steven Birnbaum is known in this space for being good in the air. This year he’s fourth in the league in aerial duels won, with 5.37 per 90 minutes. While that number is very good, it’s dwarfed by Christian Benteke, whose 8.40 leads the league.
While not everything looks bleak for D.C. United, I would expect that even these good numbers will start to come down to Earth if results don’t improve. Regression to the mean can be swift once we get beyond small sample sizes like five games, so real improvement in the columns that matter most needs to come soon.