Analyzing DC United’s Attack in the 2021 MLS

Article by Ben Griffis

The 2021 MLS regular season is coming to a close, and DC United sit 9th, 3 points behind the New York Red Bulls in 7th—the final playoff spot—with one game left. Hernán Losada’s first season in charge of the club looks to be coming to a close, although a win away at Toronto could see them move up to 7th if results elsewhere go their way.

But with just 2 wins (and 10 losses, 4 draws) away from Audi Field all season, that looks to be a tall task. The saving grace, however, is that Toronto’s home record is 4-7-5, meaning they’re almost as poor at home as DC United are away.

Hernán Losada has put in place a strong attack in his first season at DC United, with his team ranking joint-6th in goals scored (53 after 33 matches). Ola Kamara has been top or near thee top of the scoring chart all season, and currently sits 2nd place, with 17 goals, one behind leader Valentín Castellanos. Right wing back Julian Gressel has also recorded 7 assists, the second-most assists by a defender all season. One of the biggest strengths this season for DC United has been their ability to create and score chances.

In this article, I’ll dive into several attacking statistics to show areas of strength for DC United as well as areas the team can improve—either in the near future if they make the playoffs, or ahead of next season.

Expected Attacking Contribution

First, let’s look at how players performed with their expected attacking contribution, using expecting goals (xG) and expected assists (xA) per 90 minutes. Please see this overview of xG and xA if you’re unfamiliar with the concepts. This first graph plots all MLS players with at least 450 minutes played, as of Octobber 22nd when the data was gathered.

We can see that Ola Kamara is one of the top players this season with xG, and Julian Gressel is one the best at creating chances with xA. Now let’s isolate DC players to look at how they all perform.

Of course, Ola Kamara and Julian Gressel are the two main players involved in creating chances this season. But overall, there are eight total players who account for the vast majority of DC United’s xG and xA. Kamara, Gressel, as well as Arriola, Robertha, Reyna, Perez, Flores, and Asad.

While Kamara and Gressel are some of the best performers in the MLS this season in xG and xA respectively, the other six players are relatively in line with players at other clubs.

Quality of Shots Created

Now we move on to the average quality of shots players create. We saw that Julian Gressel is one of the top players in terms of total xA, but what about average xA per shot created? This metric shows the average quality of each shot taken from a players’ passes—a higher average xG per shot off a players’ passes means that the passes are usually of relatively high quality.

Gressel does stand out a bit when looking at the quality of the chances he provides. He’s one of the top players in both shots created and average quality of shot created—hence why his xA is so high. This is one of the reasons why he’s been so integral to DC’s attacks this season. He creates a lot of high quality chances for his teammates.

Looking at other DC players, Paul Arriola creates a decent amount of high-quality chances, as does a group of Flores, Asad, Perez, and Reyna. While Birnbaum’s chances he creates are, on average, better than Gressel’s, he creates fewer than one shot per 90 minutes so it’s not more likely he has one or two really high quality shots created of the very few he does create.

Overall, taking both the expected attacking contribution and quality of created chances, we can see that Kamara is the main goal threat while Gressel is the main creation threat for DC United. After them, Asad, Reyna, Flores, and Perez are all fairly involved in both creating and shooting, but are fairly average at it—not necessarily a bad thing, of course.

Teammates’ Ability to Finish Chances Given

These next graphs show how well a player’s teammates finish the chances they create for them. Having more assists than expected can mean that a player’s teammates finish chances given at a higher rate than expected. Conversely, recording fewer assists than expected can mean a player’s teammates are finishing their chances at a lower rate than expected.

For example, New England’s Carles Gil creates the most shots per 90 minutes in the league, and also has just about as many assists as expected. That means his teammates are finishing the shots he creates at expected rates. Darwin Quintero, however, has fewer assists than expected so that means he’s creating decent chances his teammates can’t put in the net.

Looking just at DC United players, something stands out. Julian Gressel, who as we’ve seen creates the most and the best chances in the squad, has almost 0.2 fewer assists per 90 than he should have. As of October 22nd when the data was gathered, Gressel had 7 assists but 11.8 expected assists total.

Imagine how much closer DC United would be to the playoffs—or maybe they’d be in them now—if Gressel had 4 or 5 more assists, meaning DC had 4 or 5 more goals. One loss turned to a win (or a draw to a win and a loss to a draw) would put DC in the driver’s seat for a playoff spot going into the final match instead of needing a victory and relying on results to go their way in two other matches.

Given than Gressel is the best chance-creator in the squad this season, it’s a little worrying that he’s under-performing in assists much more than anyone else in the squad. However, it is good that of the five players who create the most shots per 90, three of them have more assists than expected. Further, Yamil Asad as 1 assist from 1.3 xA, which is nothing to worry about. Yet this graph shows that DC United players have been relatively wasteful of the chances Gressel creates.

Quality of Shots

Now we can move from shot creation to the shots themselves.

This chart shows the average quality of shots taken by each player (y-axis), as well as how many shots they take per 90 minutes (x-axis). The top shot-taker in the league, New England’s Adam Buksa, takes many shots but they tend to not be of exceptional quality—just about above average.

Ola Kamara, however, is the player with the highest average shot quality. While he doesn’t shoot as often as other strikers, the shots he does take are typically of much higher quality than other players.

Looking just at DC United players, we can see that outside of Kamara, the five other players who shoot the most have fairly good quality shots. Nigel Robertha in particular takes plenty of good-quality shots per 90. Edison Flores takes the most shots per 90 for DC, and his shots are of about average quality in the league, but a bit lower quality than DC United’s other shooters.

From this, we can see that while Kamara doesn’t get as many opportunities to shoot as the wingers and midfielders behind him, he makes the most of those opportunities and averages over 0.3 xG per shot. Overall, DC’s main shooters take pretty high-quality shots, around 0.1 to 0.15 xG per shot.

Shooting Effectiveness

Now let’s look at how well a player finishes their shots. We can look at their goals minus expected goals—similar to assists minus xA—to get an idea of this.

Above is the graph of this information for the full MLS. A player like NYCFC’s Daniel Royer shoots very often, but also records almost half a goal per 90 fewer than he is expected to have. On the other side of the spectrum, Columbus’s Miguel Barry might not shoot very often, but he’s scoring his shots at a much better rate than expected.

Looking at DC United’s players, we can see than the two players who shoot the most are scoring at a lower-than expected rate. Edison Flores and Adrien Perez both should have more goals currently, especially Perez. Perez’s xG at this time was 2.5, and he had 0 goals. Similarly to what I said when talking about Gressel’s chances going to waste, imagine if Perez and Flores was better at finishing their chances. DC’s position as a long-shot for the playoffs might be turned on its head and put them in the driver’s seat.

While Flores and Perez under-perform their xG, we can see that the other four main shooters in the squad are scoring goals at a higher-than-expected rate. Overall, this has probably made up for Flores and Perez’s ineffectiveness, but it does show us a key area for improvement next season.

Areas for Improvement

So, after all that data we can ask: what key areas can DC address to improve their attack next season?

I think the biggest area for improvement lies in getting players to finish the chances Julian Gressel creates. Whether his final passes go to Kamara, Perez, Robertha, etc., Gressel has recorded a lot fewer assists than expected. Further, he creates lots of chances per game—and chances of very high quality. Getting the squad to finish his chances would immediately improve DC United’s attack. While easier said than done, it’s an area to work on, especially given that no other DC player has such a gap in assists compared to xA.

Second, Edison Flores and Adrien Perez should work on their finishing. Even though they aren’t strikers, they’re both getting into shooting positions but not finishing their chances. Given that they take the most shots of all DC players when they’re on the pitch, improving their finishing would be very beneficial to DC United’s attack.

Finally, there’s room for improvement from a squad-level perspective. We saw here that DC United rely heavily on Gressel for creating the most high-quality chances. If he were taken out of the squad, there would be a large gap in DC’s chance creation. The team should focus on keeping Gressel’s chances while looking to add chance creation from other areas of the pitch. Since Gressel plays only down the right wing, it could be relatively easy to stop DC from creating chances by stopping Gressel from getting so far forward. However, if another player more centrally with license to roam around can improve their chance creation—or if DC can buy a player who adds this—then DC’s attack would be more balanced and harder to defend against. Since the best chances would be coming from multiple players in different areas of the pitch, their attack would have multiple dimensions that are difficult to stop.

Overall, DC United under Hernán Losada have one of the most dangerous attacks in the league. Key players like Julian Gressel and Ola Kamara can create and finish at very high levels respectively. DC’s other attackers are very involved in both creating and shooting, with the chances they create and shots they take being of relatively good quality.

However, DC United have a couple main areas to focus on whenever their season ends. Making the most of Gressel’s chances and improving the finishing of the top shooters would bring their attack to even higher levels. As long as work is put in in the off-season to improve in these areas while at least keeping their defense the same, DC United should expect better results come next season.

If that happens, “Losada Ball” will be even more dangerous than it already can be.

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