These are the posts I hope no one reads or re-reads after the matches play out. Let’s look at the upcoming DC game, 3pm on Sunday (FS1 in the states).
DC so far have been more than happy to cede possession, averaging 45% if you go with whoscored’s figures, or 41% if you prefer AmericanSoccerAnalysis‘. I am not here to stress the importance of possession as a success factor or key metric, or to give it extra meaning — only to say that this DCU team appears to be very used to playing without the ball (also one of the lowest possession teams in 2016), and that’s something Atlanta hasn’t seen much of against full strength sides. Further, a team that plays more direct will typically not concede the type of open turnover / transition chances that Atlanta have thrived on this year. That is not to say that DC United are reactive on defense. They can press actively. If DC presses (which is perhaps a difficult decision given their recent injuries), it will be interesting to see how Atlanta adjusts — whether in front of its home crowd, the team will focus on holding the ball in the face of DC’s pressure, or if it will turn the game into a track meet, or set clever traps to artificially create transition.
Chance profile and away production
DC have a similar shots profile to Atlanta, creating 11 shots per game, and giving up 14. (similar expected goals differences as well). They have struggled on the road, in terms of expected goals and scorelines. Away figures to date (from ASA):
They’re conceding 2.7 goals per game on the road and scoring 0.7. To look slightly deeper at underlying performances, based on the shots DC have conceded and taken themselves, one would expect they would be conceding 1.5 goals per game and scoring right around 1 per game. Obviously three games is too small a sample size, but in 2016, this DC side conceded something similar at 1.7 goals per game on the road, and scored just over 1 goal per game. Importantly, this is pretty standard for any MLS away side and mirrors the overall league averages for home and away both in 2017 to date and in 2016. So I guess I’ll move on. Suffice it to say, it looks like Atlanta have an advantage as most MLS home teams should expect to, and there’s nothing that I see in the #numbers that would suggest DC bucks this trend.
I honestly have no idea what the DC United team sheet will read on Sunday. There have been plenty of injuries and squad rotation in recent weeks. But I was interested to see quite a variety of decently high chance creators showing up in the numbers published by ASA for 2017. Luciano Acosta is perhaps most dangerous of them by the numbers, averaging a combined half a goal worth of expected goals and assists per 96 minutes with striker Patrick Mullins, yet to find the net this season and having missed some time from injury, also creating dangerous chances at a similar contribution rate (0.49 xG+A/96min). Lloyd Sam, who appears to take their corners, is creating dangerous chances as well (see pass map from NE game: right), and I think he is perhaps the biggest threat for Atlanta on Sunday. I will also have my eye on rookie central midfielder Ian Harkes (creating a Gressel-like 0.2 per 96) who could be a rising star in MLS and for the future of USMNT. He will likely have a tough test against whoever Atlanta throws at him, whether it be Gressel, Carmona, Larentowicz or whoever….
It appears as though DC United play a fairly traditional 4-1-4-1 type thing with a lone striker (Mullins if healthy) a midfield triangle including a #6 (Jeffrey) in front of the back four, with Harkes in front of him in a #8 role, alongside either another similar midfielder or Acosta playing a more advanced #10ish role. The aforementioned Sam will likely roam the right flank and plenty of traffic will flow through him – hopefully Garza is healthy.
It’s a mixed bag in terms of keeper distribution. Hamid seems to play short passes to his back line in some games (away to NYC and NE) and exclusively hit it long in others (home to NYC and away to Red Bulls). Without watching all of the games, I can’t be sure what the considerations are, but…
I would guess he will hit the ball long often against Atlanta – especially given the most recent two weeks where ATL has created 3 goals off of keeper distribution in their own half. Also, DC are playing with a fairly makeshift backline due to injuries (not sure but maybe CBs of Boswell and Opare in this one?). I think they’ll try to simplify things and keep the ball in front of them, which may include Hamid kicking it over them.
How it could play out
Soccer’s hard to predict, and I feel pretty uncertain about how this game will look. Atlanta has played just 2 games at home, and few games at even strength. When I watch highlights of the DC matches to date, I see centre backs struggling to stay with attackers on crosses and set pieces, which doesn’t necessarily match up unfavorably with how Atlanta attacks (though Kenwyne could have a say here). DC United is dead last in the league in pass completion percentage (70%), but again, that might not be a problem if they are disciplined in their own half and play direct.
All that being said, fitness permitting, I see Atlanta as having overwhelmingly more talent and attacking threat, and winning the chance creation battle on Sunday. I could absolutely see Bill Hamid bailing the visitors out over and over again, but that’s just one of those things. We’ll have to wait and see. But, if DC try to build out of the back (like RSL did), I don’t see it going well for them.
DC seem like disciplined shooters as well, with only 34% of their shots coming from outside the 18 yard box (4th best in MLS), and 75% of their shots coming from central areas (3rd best in MLS). Their shots on target to blocked shots ratio, which i discussed earlier this week, is also quite high, similar to Atlanta, which further suggests they are taking good shots. By no means a hot take, but an early goal here will probably make the difference either way.
I’m going with 2-1 to ATLUTD, again with anxiety.