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D.C. United's recent form continued on Saturday night when they drew 0-0 on the road against the Chicago Fire. The draw means that United have now won just two games of their last 12 in the league, dating back to the middle of May.
They've temporarily managed to stay in third place in the Eastern Conference, just three points behind the table-toppers, the Philadelphia Union. NYC FC trail the Black-and-Red by just one point with four games in hand, and United are only four points ahead of the eighth-placed team, Toronto FC. With just 10 games remaining in the season, the Black-and-Red are in a precarious position, which wasn't helped by the result on Saturday.
Usually going on the road, keeping a shutout, and getting a point is a measure of success. But against a team whose playoff picture doesn't look promising — and knowing that a win would help ease some of the pressure in a crowded conference — the Black-and-Red just couldn't get it done.
Here's a couple of things that stood out to us about United's performance against the Fire.
Possession Doesn't Equate To Success
Sometimes, possession numbers for a given game can give a snapshot of how a contest played out. A team with 55 percent of possession might dictate that play, create more chances, and win the game based on their possession. Other times, a team might have the majority of the possession but might not be able to make the most of it. In that sense, sometimes, possession numbers can be misleading.
United were the second instance on Saturday night when they controlled the ball for 53 percent against the Fire. That number favored the Black-and-Red even more in the first half, but there was never a sense that United made the most of their possession. Most of the possession for D.C. came in their own end of in midfield, and some of the other passing stats make that even clearer.
Both D.C. and Chicago completed 62 percent of their passes in the final third, but the hosts attempted 59 more final third passes, completing more than the 89 that United attempted.
This was the Black-and-Red's passing chart for the first 45 minutes of the game on Saturday night. The second half was more of the same, as United ended up without a goal for the second game in a row.
Though United weren't in the 4-2-3-1 formation that worked so well for them at the beginning of the year, this was a game in which D.C. had Wayne Rooney, Luciano Acosta, Paul Arriola, and Lucas Rodriguez starting. It might have been promising to see United go on the road and enjoy a majority of the possession, especially against a team that seems to be fading away from the playoff picture quickly.
But if you can't turn possession into genuine scoring chances, it's going to be tough to pick up wins in MLS.
Goal Scoring Continues To Plague United
Of the 14 teams currently occupying a playoff spot in MLS, only the LA Galaxy have fewer goals than United's 31 tallies, with 30 on the season (FC Dallas and the Montreal Impact also have 31). After putting away foes with ease at the end of the 2018 season, scoring goals left and right, United have never been able to find the same sort of consistency in 2019.
And it appears to be less about finishing than it is in creating the opportunities to finish off chances. Here's the expected goals model from D.C.'s game against Chicago. Ten shots isn't a bad output in a game on the road, but with only four of those shots coming within the penalty box and none from the six-yard box, it's easy to see why United ended up without a goal.
That's against a Fire defense which has only been average in 2019, conceding the 10th-most goals this year. They were also playing with Jonathan Bornstein at left back, making his team debut after recently joining the club.
D.C. have kept nine clean sheets this year but have only managed to win five of those games, with four scoreless draws to their name. And in 24 contests this year, United have been kept without a goal on nine occasions. After Rooney's arrival in 2018, D.C. were held without a goal in just four of his 20 games.
Something has to change for D.C. offensively over the next couple of months for them to keep hold of their playoff spot. The defense and goalkeeper are playing well enough to get wins for the most part, but United's goal output has to improve for them to be a contender in the playoffs.