D.C. United are one of the hottest teams in Major League Soccer. In one of the most incredible turnarounds in MLS history, D.C. have gone from Eastern Conference cellar dwellers to clinching a playoff spot. You have to go all the way back to August 26th (two months ago!) to find their last loss. What changed between the struggling D.C. United team we saw at the beginning of the season and the confident, playoff bound team they are now?
First, we have to address the 33-year-old, 5’9”, English elephant in the room. You guessed it: Wayne Rooney. Before D.C. United officially acquired Rooney this past summer, there were some questions about his age and his overall fitness. Those questions have, uh, been answered. Wayne Rooney is young and fit enough to play, experienced enough to lead, and is certainly good enough to dominate games. Among players with over 1000 minutes played, Rooney is fifth in MLS with 0.84 xG+xA per 96 minutes. Among forwards with at least 1000 minutes played, he is also fifth in terms of Key Passes (passes that lead directly to a shot) per 96, with 2.14.
Wayne Rooney’s dominance is evident in individual stats and in D.C.’s overall form. Since Rooney started and played his first full 90 minutes in Black and Red, D.C. United have only lost two games. That’s only two losses in nearly three months.
Manager Ben Olsen is clearly loving the chemistry between Rooney and his central attacking midfielder, Luciano Acosta. With the on-field arrival of Wayne Rooney in mid-July, Acosta has become a dominant attacking midfielder in MLS. He and Rooney can one-two their way through opposing low blocks or get out in transition and threaten on the counter attack. How ever they attack, Rooney and Lucho are providing some of the most entertaining, ingenious attacking play in Major League Soccer.
Another reason behind the transformation in D.C.? Russell Canouse. After coming back from injury in late July, Canouse has stabilized Ben Olsen’s midfield. Canouse is a ball-winning defensive midfielder who is clever and consistent with the ball at his feet. He’ll take your lunch money and then make absolutely certain that you’ll never see that money again.
Just look at this clip.
Finally, it would be impossible to look at D.C.’s impressive run of form without bringing up the large number of home games they’ve played down the stretch. Since Audi Field opened on July 9th, D.C. have played all but four games at home. The comfort of Audi field has been a big help in boosting D.C. United above that Eastern Conference playoff line.
Most of D.C. United’s lineup has stayed consistent since late July. The only real question is the right side of Olsen’s 4-2-3-1. Starting right back Oniel Fisher is out for the season with an injury, so it’s up to either Nick DeLeon or Paul Arriola to replace him. If DeLeon starts, Arriola will play on the right side of attacking midfield. If Olsen chooses Arriola as his new right back, Zoltán Stieber or Ulises Segura will play right midfield. The overall lineup will look like this:
Passes For per Game: 480.1 (10th in MLS)
Passes Against per Game: 528.5 (4th most in MLS)
xGoals For: 46.5 (14th in MLS)
xGoals Against: 53.5 (16th in MLS)
GD-xGD: 17.0 (2nd in MLS)
Top expected goals for: Wayne Rooney, 10.8 xG
Top expected goals assisted: Luciano Acosta, 8.6 xA (9th in MLS)
Top expected buildup: Luciano Acosta, 22.21 (17th in MLS)
Why D.C. United will make MLS Cup:
D.C. are coming into the playoffs hotter than any team in MLS. Though they currently sit in the East’s fifth slot, they will jump up to fourth with a win over the Chicago Fire on Sunday. Fourth place means a home game in the knockout round, and we all know how good D.C. United are at home. The momentum from an opening-round home victory combined with a dynamic attacking front four and a solid midfield will be more than enough to get D.C. that MLS Cup.
Why D.C. United won’t make MLS Cup:
You can’t play every game in the playoffs at home. D.C. United haven’t truly been tested on the road since August, when they lost 1-0 to the New York Red Bulls. If you want to bring home the cup, you have to put in solid performances away from home. That might be too much to ask for this D.C. United team.