WASHINGTON—It would have been naive to expect any side to replicate, over an entire season, the rampant offensive form D.C. United showed at the end of 2016.
Still, after the Black-and-Red scored 33 goals in their final 13 regular-season contests, no one on East Capitol Street predicted the offensive inconsistency that has characterized 2017.
Saturday’s 1-0 loss to the Montreal Impact saw D.C. shut out for a fifth time, against a club that hadn’t previously kept a clean sheet this year. More puzzling for coach Ben Olsen’s bunch, in the four games United have scored, they’ve sent in multiple goals, suggesting it might be as much about mentality as capability.
“When we are the underdog we seem to do better,” said midfielder Lloyd Sam. “And then when we get shown respect, we don’t so so well.”
United’s offense also started slow last season, scoring just 20 goals in their first 21 games before their late flourish. Sam was one of two midseason additions that helped jumpstart D.C.
Patrick Mullins was the other, scoring eight times in 14 games after he was traded from New York City FC. He's still scoreless this campaign, having missed four matches and played only 61 minutes over his last two while working back from a hamstring injury.
Mullins entered at halftime on Saturday, and United looked definitively better almost immediately. He had three shots -- one on target -- and came close to an equalizer in stoppage time with a header that narrowly missed the top left corner.
“They’ll come,” insisted Mullins. “It’s encouraging to be in those right spots. But I think the biggest encouraging thing from the second half is just to have possession in the right areas, and hopefully thats something to build off.”
There are some good signs. Luciano Acosta appears to have a larger nose for goal this season, scoring three times already after playing mainly a provider in 2016. Sebastien Le Toux’s two goals in Mullins’ absence have already justified United’s decision to pick up the French veteran for attacking depth.
“I don’t think we’re panicking about [our offense],” said midfielder Jared Jeffrey, who also has a goal. “I think we’re still creating chances. I don’t think anyone’s concerned about that.”
Still, Sam looks back to United’s glorious form from less than a season ago and admits he isn’t quite sure how to get back there -- whether it’s a matter of changing attitude, changing personnel or simply just grinding through adversity to better days ahead.
“That’s the million-dollar answer, you know what I mean? It’s similar personnel," he said. "Not the same, but similar. It’s hard to say. That’s something I can’t answer. You can ask Ben and the management. But we need to get back to that. That was fun times.”