Armchair Analyst: DC wager on the midfield | #MLSIsBack in 18 Days

D.C. United, in 2017, had the worst attack in the league, and so it's easy to understand why offseason moves would be coming and – to an extent – where those changes would be.

Except... not really. United have spent this offseason (more than they ever have before) but their center forward corps still consists of two guys, in Patrick Mullins and Darren Mattocks, who've never played anywhere except MLS. In an era of high-priced imports, that's somewhat anachronistic. You're supposed to pay big money for big-time strikers.

But there may be a method to what seems, on first glance, to be parsimonious madness. Because D.C.'s underlying numbers tell a tale:

D.C. were 17th in total shots last year, meaning they didn't shoot often. And they were 20th in shot attempts from outside the box, which is not a bad thing (shot discipline is important unless you're Sebastian Giovinco). Those two things would suggest this team was methodical in their build-up play except that's just decidedly not the case.

United didn't have an inordinate amount of possession in the attacking half, and they were dead last in big chances created. They created just 22, while the league's elite attacking teams (TFC and Atlanta United) each created more than 50. No playoff team created fewer than 37, and no other team in the league created fewer than 27. Even the Rapids conjured 29.

D.C. were not methodical. They were stymied and idea-less.

What happened is that teams were able to build a wall around the box, and force United's attackers to shoot from 18 yards out more often than any other team in the league. They generated D+ chances and finished them at a D- level. They didn't find 1v1s, and they didn't find tap-ins, and when you combine those two truths with the injuries they battled everywhere and the inconsistencies they battled on the backline, that's a good recipe for a bad team.

So instead of dropping guap on a striker, D.C.'s braintrust invested in the midfield. They brought in Venezuelan d-mid Junior Moreno to win the ball back in better spots and Costa Rican center mid Ulises Segura to get the ball to the creators faster and then nabbed Argentinean winger Yamil Asad after he couldn't agree to terms with ATLUTD. As I mentioned above, D.C. as a whole created 22 big chances. Asad on his own created 10.

That means Mullins will get better looks this year and that Mattocks – who joins United from Portland – will get one last chance to prove he's an MLS-caliber forward. The underlying numbers for Mullins are promising, and he had that half-season of magic in late 2016 to hang his hat on. There's less of an analytical case to make for Mattocks, but he's a dangerous counterattacking player and given D.C. will be on the road for four months, there's a good chance that they're going to be pretty reliant on the counter. 

I'm not sure it's going to work, but I've talked myself into this. D.C. are a younger, faster, deeper, more creative team in midfield and have at least one forward I'd bet money on being good enough to lead a very good MLS attack. And they've kept the powder dry on that third DP slot, which they can use in the summer if things become... unfortunate.

It may not have gotten the headlines that LA's rebuild, or Orlando City's managed. But it makes sense.

Now Mullins and Mattocks have to force it to make goals.

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