Nick Deleon

2016 ASA PREVIEW: DC UNITED by Drew Olsen

United have the most storied history of teams in MLS, but a lot of change is incoming. 2015 was a solid season for the black and red, but changes need to be made if the team is to be considered a contender again for MLS Cup. My guess is that that the season ahead will be a bit of a struggle as the club looks ahead to a new stadium and a new identity in the coming years.

2015 in review

Last season was an interesting one for United. As evidenced by the season progress in the graphic above, the club hovered around the top of the league standings for the first three quarters of the season, largely on the back of their league-leading 11 victories by one goal. They also had the second fewest wins by 2+ goals, ahead only of cellar-dwellers Chicago and Colorado. Unfortunately for United fans, Ben Olsen’s conservative strategy fell apart at the end of the summer, as DC finished the season with six of their 13 losses coming in the final nine games, culminating in a 0-5 rout in Columbus on the last day of the season. They were ultimately eliminated by the Red Bulls in in the conference semifinals for the second year in a row, losing both legs 0-1.

There are multiple ways to interpret the season; is Olsen the Jose Mourinho of MLS or just afraid of offense? On paper, it seems like he’s working with less than many other playoff teams. Fabian Espindola is the only designated player on the team, and he made just 15 starts last season due to injury and suspension. Chris Rolfe led the team with 10 goals, but no other player had more than five. Though a midseason trade for Alvaro Saborio gave some hope that more offense was coming, it never did. It may not have been pretty (and it certainly wasn’t), but Ben Olsen has shown he can consistently get more out of his team than most MLS coaches. It’s a task he’ll try to replicate in 2016.

More after the jump.

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2015 ASA Preview: DC United by Jared Young

*xG = expected goals, xA = expected assists, xGD = expected goal differential. For more information see our xGoals by Team page.

By Jared Young (@jaredeyoung)

Time for soccer analysts to perk up because D.C. United’s 2015 season is the one to watch if you are into numbers. Why? Because in 2014, D. C. United defied them. And the story of the year, at least for the geeks, is whether or not D.C. United can do it again.

After one of the worst seasons in franchise history in 2013, D.C. United shocked the league and won the Eastern Conference in 2014. A turnaround like that required improvement on both sides of the ball. United went from easily the worst offense in the league with 22 goals to a solid offense with 52. And they turned the worst defense in the league with 59 goals allowed to tied for the league’s best with 37 goals.

So what’s the problem? The issue is that the numbers say it shouldn't have happened. The ASA expected goals model says that D.C. United should have scored just 38 goals compared to their 52. And on the defensive side the ASA models thinks that 48.6 goals against would have been a more likely number, compared to the actual 37. Their expected goal ratio in fact was 3rd worst in MLS. Michael’s Caley’s expected goals model suggests a similar story to that of ASA. Were D.C. United just lucky or are they doing something that the models don’t contemplate? On the offensive side of the equation the positive story can be traced to two dynamics scorers.

D.C. United’s dynamic duo

If United fans had their way, they’d pair Luis Silva and Fabian Espindola at the top of Ben Olsen’s 4-4-2 formation. And despite the fact that the two play a very similar style of forward, they’d be right. That pair was the reason for the strong shooting from United. The paid scored 22 goals last season, but the ASA expected goals model suggest they should have 11.4. That 10+ goal gap is most of the team’s “overproduction” last year.

Espindola’s finishing prowess is puzzling because he actually took his shots on average four feet further from the goal than other shooters.  Remarkably he was terrific at avoiding blocked shots. While shooters on average have their shots blocked one in every four attempts, Espindola had that happen approximately once in almost eight attempts. He may have been more focused on getting open looks versus how far he was from the goal. Silva’s ability is tougher to figure. Everything but his finishing rate appears average. His shots on target level was slightly higher than average and the percentage of his shots that were blocked was 23 percent. Unless the team finds new ways to increase their shot totals, the duo’s ability to shoot better than expected will be depended on going into 2015.

What’s changed going into the 2015 season?

The biggest change for the red and black this offseason was actually confirmation of a new soccer specific stadium to be built for the 2017 season. That stadium has the opportunity to enhance the soccer experience in the D.C. area and build a bigger base of fans for the team.

From a roster perspective there were just a few changes. United added Jairo Arrieta from Columbus Crew as forward depth. He will be a key contributor, especially in the early going. The most intriguing acquisition was nearly 31 year old Malmo FF and Finnish national midfielder Markus Halsti. Halsti is a versatile defensive minded midfielder who also adds depth for the defense. He should fit in well with Perry Kitchen, Davey Arnaud, Nick DeLeon and Chris Pontius. D.C. United also signed their first round pick Miguel Aguilar, who figures to get his feet wet on the wings this season.

No change is good news for the defense that led the league is goals against. Second year emerging star Steve Birnbaum and Bobby Boswell anchor the center of the defense while Sean Franklin, Taylor Kemp, and Chris Korb will rotate at the fullback.

What to expect in 2015

When expected goals models fail how can you expect what to expect? The defense-first United stand to keep up their stingy ways despite the models. The return of the core defense and the continued development of one of the bright young keepers in MLS, Bill Hamid, should mean Ben Olsen’s squad maintains their perch near the top of MLS.

The offense could prove to be more difficult to maintain, at least to start the season. Espindola starts the campaign with a six game suspension and Silva has been nursing a hamstring all preseason. Eddie Johnson’s playing future is uncertain at this point due to an enlarged heart, and that leaves Chris Rolfe and Arrieta to maintain status quo. It could be a rocky opening to the season, but one of United’s strengths is that they have a number of players that can play multiple positions. Rolfe and Pontius, for example, are hybrid offensive players that give Olsen flexibility with both lineups and styles of play.

And therein lies United’s core strength; while they prefer to play defense first and are usually more reactive than their competition, they can win playing all styles. Early on Ben Olsen will need to mix and match players until he lands on a core group and formation. There’s no reason to think that D.C. United will slip so far as to miss the playoffs, unless of course you believe that numbers never lie.  

Top 50 Total Shots Created: MLS Week 13 by Matthias Kullowatz

I've been terrible with trying to keep up with this quantitative metric, but I figured it wouldn't hurt to throw out an updated version in a vain attempt to try to play catch up with the status quo, being that the league is crawling towards the World Cup break. Really, the point of this exercise is to try and capture how often players are creating shots--not just for themselves, but for teammates. It's still pretty simplistic, and by no means the definitive answer to who the most valuable attackers are, but it's a start in moving away from basing value judgements on goal totals.

To be as clear as possible this is not a metric that measures quality or success of the shot. It's purely about opportunities to score. Either by way of putting mates* in position to score through passes that lead to shots--key passes--or to create a shot by himself--assisted or not--are the ways I count shots created.

*Editor loves word choice.

One thing I did do to include the best available and least luck-influenced player was to set a threshold of 700 minutes played. That limit was arbitrary and selected merely based upon the results of compiling the list. For that reason, and no other, you won't see individuals such as Michael Bradley, Gilberto, Brad Davis, Joao Plata, Marco Di Vaio and Kekuta Manneh on this list even though their shot creation rates merited a position in the top 50. I am very high on both Plata and Manneh, and I would love to see both surpass the 600-minute mark and really fly beyond 2,000 minutes this season so we can see what their stable versions look like.

50-33:  The Above Average

RankNameClubPositionMinutesKey PassesAssistsShotsShCShC/90

50Blas PerezDallasFWD8996224323.20

49Nick DeLeonDCMF102612223373.25

48Vincent NogueiraPhiladelphiaMF134817230493.27


46Benny FeilhaberKCMF126026317463.29

45Erick TorresChivasFWD11868137463.49

44Jack McInerneryMontrealFWD84411121333.52

43Baggio HusidićLAMF76113116303.55

42Dillion PowersColoradoMF8252139333.60

41Lamar NeagleSeattleMF98710228403.65

40Teal BunburyNEFWD117015330483.69

39Felipe MartinsMontrealMF99615224413.70

38Jairo ArrietaColumbusFWD8189025343.74

37Max UrrutiPortlandFWD7445026313.75

36Justin MappMontrealMF94917419403.79

35Travis IshizakiLAMF73520110313.80

34Andrew WengerPhiladelphiaFWD101211131433.82

33Diego FagundezNEMF10868237473.90

I'll admit there is quite a bit of disparity between Diego Fagundez (#33) and Nick DeLeon (#49). This group does however hold a few names seems that, to my mind, seem to fit together. Blas Perez (#50), Erick Torres (#45), Jack McInerney (#44) and Andrew Wenger (#34) all are viewed a bit differently in terms of success, but, again, this isn't about results-based productivity so much as process-based productivity. We're merely looking at how much they're involved in creating goal scoring chances, regardless of the quality of those chances or where they are located. In that context it makes more sense.

The lone surprise for me in this tier is Justin Mapp. I would have assumed he'd be much higher on this list being that he's been on the few bright spots for Montreal a long with JackMac.


32-10:  The Good.

RankNameClubPositionMinutesKey PassesAssistsShotsShCShC/90

32Chris WondolowskiSan JoseFWD8106030364.00

31Obafemi MartinsSeattleFWD124619631564.04


29Lee NguyenNEMF103224024484.19

28B. Wright-PhillipsNYRBFWD10518041494.20

27Edson BuddleColoradoFWD70710122334.20

26Shea SalinasSan JoseMF9163247434.22

25Sabastian FernandezVancouverFWD65410021314.27

24Will BruinHoustonFWD122120137584.28

23Graham ZusiKCFWD79424311384.31

22Alvaro SaborioReal Salt LakeFWD8695235424.35

21Leonardo FernandezPhiladelphiaFWD70113120344.37

20Giles BarnesHoustonFWD133512251654.38

19Gaston FernandezPortlandFWD75719018374.40

18Mike MageeChicagoFWD7149224354.41

17Harry ShippChicagoFWD89423417444.43

16Marco PappaSeattleMF75112124374.43

15Mauro DiazDallasMF64616214324.46

14Bernando AnorColumbusMF71811025364.51

13Cristian MaidanaPhiladelphiaMF87123220454.65

12Quincy AmarikwaChicagoFWD88015428474.81

11Dom DwyerKCFWD10507050574.89

10Deshorn BrownColoradoFWD9026043494.89

Two other names that are notable here. Edson Buddle (#27)--whom everyone thought was done two years ago when he was traded to Colorado--and Marco Pappa (#16), who was kind of a last minute signing before the start of the season, and who was a serious question mark considering his lack of playing time in the Netherlands.  Now both of these individuals that were stamped as likely non-essentials are two of most involved in the creation of their clubs attack. Lee Nguyen (29) coming in higher than Obafemi Martins (31) makes me laugh, simply because Martins is second in the league in assists and most people still hold that to being the truest or, perhaps, the most obvious sign of team goal contributions. Yet Nguyen has been a catalyst for New England and is simply their most valuable player when it comes to finding the ability to create chances. This is the meat and potatoes of the list.

9-4: The Elite.

RankNameClubPositionMinutesKey PassesAssistsShotsShCShC/90

9Javier MoralesReal Salt LakeMF115441521675.23

8Fabian EspindolaDCFWD108630430645.30

7Diego ValeriPortlandMF111728537705.64

6Landon DonovanLAMF80224225515.72

5Thierry HenryNYRBFWD117023449765.85

4Federico HiguainColumbusFWD108039527715.92

So there that is. There shouldn't be any argument here with any of these names. Fabian Espindola (#8) is the sole reason DC even has a shot at the playoffs. He is going to get every opportunity to be 'the man' in black and red. Landon Donovan (#6) despite his uncanny snubbery from the US National Team is still clearly a major factor for the Galaxy and their attack. Sticking with the theme of decline in skills, Thierry Henry (#5) is still one of the greatest to ever play in MLS.

Oh, and I'm just biding my time for Higuian to get past this "slump" and jet into the MVP Candidate category... because that's simply where he belongs. More on that down the road.

3-1:  The MVP Candidates.

RankNameClubPositionMinutesKey PassesAssistsShotsShCShC/90

3Robbie KeaneLAFWD99019245666.00

2Clint DempseySeattleMF75114243597.07

1Pedro MoralesWhitecapsMF82131438738.00

Clint Dempsey (#2) has had the kind of year that is simply bananas. It's been so crazy that it's somehow eclipsed the Pedro Morales (#1) show that is going on just a few short hours north of him. Sure, these guys take penalty kicks, but that's only a small fraction of their shots generated. If these two take this same show into the later stages of the season I can't think there would be much reason to consider anyone else for MVP.

Oh, I guess you could probably throw Robbie Keane's (#3) name in that list, too. People forget about ol' faithful, but even without his P.I.C. (read: 'Partner in Crime' for those that aren't as hip as I am) for a game or two here and there, he's still been incredible. Currently he ranks third in individual expected goals, proving that he also finds dangerous places to take his shots and doesn't hesitate to pull the trigger. Oh, and despite the angry looks and words AND finger wags, he gets his teammates those same opportunities.

And here's the Excel File for the top 50.

Player Acquisition: The Tweeners by Drew Olsen

There is a thing that constantly steals my interest when it comes Major League Soccer. It's how teams choose to scout and evaluate talent that is already in the league. One thing that has been made quite clear with the financial constraints is that it is difficult to hold on to those players that hover around the $200,000 salary threshold, and yet aren't stars or obviously consistent difference makers. Player makers such as Chris Rolfe, Mauro Rosales and Bobby Convey have found new homes in MLS, either in the few months leading up to this season or since the first kick. The names themselves aren't specific references of importance, but rather examples of what happens in the off-season concerning players in the aforementioned pay range that are just casualties of cap situations in today's era.

These players we understand to a degree. They are interesting talents with a fair amount of room for critiquing, whether that be due to personality, problems with injuries or just inconsistent displays of performance from week to week. There are always one or two or even three (in this case) of these players that are available come the off-season.

Two of the three players went to clubs with the ability to take chances.

Chivas USA was obviously getting a steal in adding Rosales. Super Mauro, since being added to the roster, has accrued 17 key passes and 3 assists while producing 12 shots on his own. He leads the club in Total Shots Created.

DC United needed anything to help save their season and jump start their offense. The arrival of Rolfe in return for a bit of allocation money was seemingly a worthwhile risk--and his influence on Ben Olsen's chances of keeping the head coaching job can probably be debated to some extent. Prior to the trade, Olsen and DC United had only produced 1 point through 3 matches. Since the addition of Rolfe, they're now rolling at nearly 2 points per match.

Now, I'm not saying that Rolfe is truly responsible for the turn around. That idea would represent lazy analysis. In fact, DC United generated 34 shot attempts to its opponents' 36 in the first three games, and 108 to 112 since, so it's not like Rolfe's presence has indicated a stable improvement yet. Frankly, since MLS week 4, it's been the Fabian Espindola show at RFK, and that is a completely different discussion.

On to Convey, who didn't go to a team that had to take on a lot of risk. Instead he went to the defending Supporters' Shield-winning New York Red Bulls. He has been somewhat of middling attacking influence in his time on the pitch for the Bulls, adding 9 key passes and 2 shots in just under 700 minutes over his initial tenure this season.

WhoScored isn't exactly impressed. They have graded his performance so far by issuing him a 6.39 rating which is well below their league average rating for a player---which sits near 6.7. Squawka ranks him 16th on the  roster depth chart which mostly follows up that thinking being that WhoScored placed him 15th overall.

These three players represent teams that have taken advantage of a system available to them in an effort to improve their club. What is intriguing to me at this juncture isn't necessarily the impact they've made upon their current club but how their current clubs targeted them as being upgrades and financially worth their investments.

I'm sure that MLS teams have personnel that help front office types make decisions and help discern player talent and ability that make them right for the acquisition. I am familiar enough with certain clubs to be aware of the individuals that are involved in that process, and much of it seems archaic and awkward in method.

Mauro Rosales may have been less of a risk when it comes to Chivas. In fact it was kind of "duh" type moment that perfectly fell in their lap. The other side of the coin is that Rolfe and Convey were both risks, and heavy ones at that considering their price tags (before New York lapped Convey up, that is).

I would certainly concede that all are substantial talents within the US first division. But how they fit the rosters to which they were added to is a bit interesting.

Some could point to Convey's addition to New York as an attempt to add competition to the left side and some wide play making, Convey has instead shifted to the back line in the form of a full back. Which begs the question, was that the idea before he was added?

I, as well as many, had thought Luis Silva would be taking over the role of central play maker in Washington after the departure of Dwayne De Rosario. After the stumbles by Silva early on, I thought that Rolfe would take over that role, but instead he looks to be pushed out wide with Nick DeLeon, being featured more frequently in the central attacking role. Was this a decision made before acquiring him, and did the club think he could fill that role any better than some of the more natural wide midfielders who have moved clubs since?

Results-based analysis is often unhelpful, and in these cases, don't truly tell the story we're seeking in how MLS teams are valuing these types of players. I'm curious if there are any specific statistical values that teams could point to as to why they made this move--and please, I hope it's more than the assists or goals totals, or the fact that they're "winners." For all the talk about transparency in details for the league, it would be nice to see some of the true thought processes involved in analyzing these talents beyond tired cliches. Especially considering that all these clubs they have access to far better gauges and methods than what most of us have at our disposal.