How DC United's midseason pickups made them the most explosive team in MLS

For the past five seasons, D.C. United have been known as a solid, organized team who don’t necessarily strike fear into opposing backlines. That long-held belief is slowly changing thanks to some outstanding performances that have vaulted United into fourth place in the East.

Heading into the All-Star Game, D.C. sat in eighth place in the East after having collected 22 points through 20 games. Their main problem was the fact that they could not score, as Ben Olsen’s team was averaging just .95 goals per game, which was the second-worst rate in MLS.

A week before, general manager and VP of soccer operations Dave Kasper traded for New York City FC forward Patrick Mullins, who had not been seeing much playing time under Patrick Vieira. This was the same day that star forward Fabian Espindola departed the club. Kasper had also made a move on July 7 to acquire struggling New York Red Bulls winger Lloyd Sam.

Since the All-Star Game, D.C. United have been the most explosive team in MLS. Their 32 goals are nine more than any other team. This has helped them to a record of 6-1-6.

United head coach Ben Olsen sees the Mullins and Sam acquisitions as the main reason for their suddenly explosive attack.

"[Mullins] understands how to maneuver in the box and be in the right spot at the right times," Olsen told MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday. "It's also the ability of a Lloyd Sam to connect on the end of his service, which he's one of the best guys in the league at."

This significant uptick can be explained in many ways. D.C. rank 1st or 2nd in MLS in several offensive categories since July 30.

Before 7/30 (league rank) Stat After 7/30 (league rank)
13.2 (7) Shots/Game 15.23 (1)
31.39% (5) % of Passes in Final Third 33.43% (2)
7.5 (12) Shots Inside the Box/Game 9.92 (1)
1.45 (14) Big Chances/Game 2.08 (1)
7.2% (20) Conversion Rate 16.16% (1)

The most shocking of these numbers is their conversion rate, having gone from scoring on just 7.2 percent of their shots to 16.16 percent.

"All of the analytics of who we were in the beginning of the year and they were all pointing in the right direction," said Olsen. "[We were] getting a lot of looks in the right spots [but] our conversion rate wasn't good enough."

"We stuck with a lot of the same exercises, mentality and mindset that we had. We picked up a couple of additions that helped us with the final product."

Part of this has to do with the increase in big chances. Mullins has converted three of his eight big chances while Lamar Neagle, in just 342 minutes, has converted five of six big chances.

But it’s not just them. Prior to Aug. 1, only one United player converted more than 13 percent of their shots into goals. As an example, Fabian Espindola was taking 3.7 shots per 90 minutes but scoring on just 10.5 percent of them.

Since then, five players have seen their conversion rates rise above 13 percent. Mullins and Neagle are the most notable players, with the former NYCFC striker converting 21.6 percent of his shots and Neagle sitting at 37.5 percent. Mullins’ eight goals are the fourth-most in MLS since July 30.

Sam has also contributed to this increase, converting 27.3 percent of his shots which has resulted in three goals.

That’s not the only thing Sam has contributed. He has been a big reason why United are creating more chances. Much of the chance creation responsibilities fell on the shoulders of Espindola, Luciano Acosta and Chris Rolfe (when healthy), prior to Sam's and Mullins’ arrivals. Since then, the duo has picked up much of the slack, while Acosta and Patrick Nyarko have also stepped up their games.

Player Chances Created before ASG Chances Created after ASG
Luciano Acosta 1.88 2.26
Patrick Nyarko 1.47 1.85
Lamar Neagle 1.19 1.84
Lloyd Sam N/A 2.56
Fabian Espindola 1.65 N/A
Chris Rolfe 2.10 N/A

"His ability to get service off is second to none in this league. A lot of guys can get service off but he also comes with quality service on top of that. [His ability] to make his services connect is as high as anybody in the league as well. That's what separates him from other wide guys in the league," said Olsen.

The numbers back up Olsen's point. Among players who have attempted at least 40 crosses since the All-Star Game, Sam has the highest success rate.

D.C. have a huge match on Sunday when they travel down to Orlando (4 pm ET; MLS LIVE) to try and secure a home game in the Knockout Round, and they will be hoping to continue this impressive run of attacking form on Decision Day.

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