Opta Spotlight: How did DC United go from the cusp of a title shot to the most anemic team in MLS?

How does a team go from the cusp of MLS Cup to the dustiest, dankest corner of the league basement in less than a year? How does production free fall from 53 goals to 20, the league’s most offensively anemic haul by almost double-digits?

More importantly, how can it be that D.C. United are utterly punchless – shut out in 14 of 30 regular-season matches – when they’re actually attempting (and completing) more passes in the final third than they did a year ago?

  2012 (34 games) 2013 (30 games)
Goals 53 20
Assists 52 17
Passes/game in final third 108.1 111.2
Successful crosses 95 101
Big chance created/scored 28/15 16/3
Goals from open play 42 14
Shots/game 10.6 8.5

The simple answer? D.C. are easy to defend. They’re predictable. They’ve got comparable possession in 2013, sure, but they lack the dynamism to open space for a high-percentage shot or unsettle a waiting defense.

And you can bet Real Salt Lake, their opponents in Tuesday night’s US Open Cup final (9 pm ET, GolTV), are well aware of those attacking shortcomings with a trophy and ownership of a CONCACAF Champions League slot on the line.

Here’s what RSL boss Jason Kreis would see if he used Opta’s chalkboards to plot United’s successful passes in each of D.C.’s last three MLS road matches, all defeats. As you can see, backpasses seem to be the rule rather than the exception and an arc appears to surround the opponent’s goal and endline. D.C.’s ball possession is limited to areas that, frankly, pose little to no danger.

Aug. 31 at New York (2-1 defeat)

Sept. 8 at Chivas USA (1-0 defeat)

Sept. 11 at New England (2-1 defeat)

And while it certainly doesn’t help that Ben Olsen lost 14 goals and 14 assists when Andy Najar, Branko Boskovic, Hamdi Salihi and Maicon Santos made their respective exits ahead of the season, the shift from dynamic to static in the final third comes down to the two driving forces who really made D.C. hum last season.

That would be Chris Pontius and Nick DeLeon on the left and right flanks, respectively, players who thrived with Dwayne De Rosario playing conductor in the middle, Santos or Lionard Pajoy holding the ball up top and Najar overlapping at pace. They combined for 18 goals and eight assists, using their speed and one-v-one ability in space to put defenses on their heels and open valuable real estate for their elder statesman to roam, find the ball and face up.

Last season during breakout campaigns for both, they combined for 51 starts, 51 shots on goal, 16 goals from open play, converted 10 of 14 big big chances, had 168 touches in the opponent's box and 80 chances created. And D.C. thrived, wide play opening up the game for everyone else.

In 2013? Pontius and DeLeon, robbed of consistency and form by injuries and the malaise that surrounds the club, have combined for 36 starts, 17 shots on goal, two goals from open play, thee goals from six big chances, 92 touches in the opponent's box and 47 chances created.

Predictably, De Rosario – oft-injured, isolated and hounded by defenders with little else to worry about when he's available – has seen his production slip to three goals and two assists in 21 appearances (16 starts). With no real wide threats to keep opposing defenses from packing it in, D.C. methodically moves the ball up the field without much real pace or verve usually ending in turnover or a speculative shot.

Now United face a US Open Cup final in which all the odds are stacked against them – the club is winless on the road in MLS play this year (six goals scored to 29 allowed), 1-6-1 all-time in Utah and only three road teams (Chicago '03, New England '07 and Seattle '09) have ever won the Cup in the MLS era.

And although Pontius and DeLeon are ready and available, you can be sure Kreis and Co. will do everything in their power to negate what basically amounts to D.C.'s only hail mary outside of a vintage bit of De Rosario magic or Luis Silva imagination.

If they can channel their 2012 selves, D.C. may just have a chance at a piece of hardware. If they can't, it will be yet another gut punch in a season already defined by them.