Positions and The Diminishing Value of Formations

It’s Christmas Eve, so what better time to highlight an article by Jonathan Wilson of the UK Guardian which talks a little about formations and the future of positions in soccer?!

As positions become more specialised, as we divide the holder into destroyer, regista and carrier, and all points in between, so the importance of formations has diminished. Terms like 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 are useful as a rough guide, but only that: the higher the level, the more teams are agglomerations of bundles of attributes; the key is balance rather than fitting to some abstract designation, even if that shape can be useful in the defensive phase.

This is something that Drew, Matthias and I have mentioned on past podcasts and something that I believe is a true within the “modern era” of soccer. Players are increasingly versatile, and as such are able to handle more duties on the pitch, as well as the fact that it’s being more expected of them. The reality is that we see players put into areas of the pitch based on what they are able to do and what makes them unique to the roster. Wilson speaks of position rather than an interpretation of what I assume is a role.

Parreira’s 4-6 vision of the future has been overtaken by a 3-7, either as three centre-backs or two centre-backs with a destroyer just in front of them. That is another discussion, but what is true is that to speak of a holding role is merely to describe a player’s position on the pitch and not how he interprets it.

Wilson here is speaking of Brazilian national team coach Carlos Alberto Parreira and his prediction that soccer would migrate to more ambiguous roles. Also this article was speaking specifically to the roles of midfielders, but I think we can safely apply his words to the attack as a whole. There is a possibility we may be seeing something of this prophecy come about in Major League Soccer in 2014. Teams such as Portland, Chicago, Columbus, New England, and even Seattle with some of it’s recent moves, have the pieces to move towards a 4-6 where they have a lesser-defined striker, or “false nine,” at the top of their formation. These teams’ capable scorers like Darlington NagbeMike Magee, Federico Hinguian, Diego Fagundez and Clint Dempsey aren’t relegated to striker positions by convention, where they probably wouldn’t play best anyway.

This isn’t to say that strikers or players of those specific roles and old time “mentality” is absolutely wrong or trash now. No, I think this is something that you incorporate. As Wilson said in his post, “it’s about balance,” and it’s about putting together a group of players that are able to A) create good shots on the opponent’s goal and B) defend and attempt to prevent shots against its own goal.

This goes further into building a roster and down through a rabbit hole of discussion which I’m sure that we could have any time, and which would eventually eclipse my knowledge base. That said, I think this is real. I don’t think this is a fad but something that will be realized as a changing of the guard and a new way of thinking.

I’ll excuse myself as I mutter something about idealism, while trying not to have the door hit me in the hindquarters as I woke out.


Sporting adds Gruenebaum to twiddle thumbs

After Jimmy Nielsen retired on a high note, Sporting Kansas City wasted little time trading for Columbus’ starting No. 1, Andy Gruenebaum. SKC gave up a second-round draft pick to acquire Gruenebaum. Though a second-round pick in MLS is probably not as valuable as it is in, say, the NFL, Sporting has now essentially spent a draft pick on a backup goalkeeper because Vermes named Eric Kronberg the starter for 2014.

“The last two years, [Kronberg’s] been more than ready to try to assume the position,” Vermes said. “The difference is that Jimmy’s been on top of his game.”

Now, I haven’t seen Kronberg play at all because, well, who has? He’s only played 382 minutes over eight seasons—about the equivalent of four full starts. But Vermes’ decision still perplexes me. For instance, Kronberg has played behind Nielsen for some time, and based on 2013 data, Nielsen was not a very good goalkeeper. This from our own Will Reno and this from our shot locations data both suggest that Nielsen was basically “replacement level” this past season. Kronberg is not likely to be much better, if at all, since he was playing behind Nielsen.

Then there’s Gruenebaum. I talked about him on the podcast last week, but here’s the short of it. That same data up there suggests Gruenebaum was one of the better goalkeepers in MLS last season. Both Will and I independently arrived at our statistical ratings, and Will ranked Gruenebaum as the second-best keeper on a per-game basis, while I ranked him as the third-best in the league (among regular starters, by “Goal Ratio”). Nielsen was something like 16th. Kronberg watched Nielsen from the bench.

Obviously, I haven’t been watching Kronberg train as I am not Peter Vermes. But two independent sets of keeper ratings make Gruenebaum sound like a top shelf No. 1, making this a puzzling decision from my, admittedly limited, perspective.

How to Build a Roster: Chad Marshall vs. Bobby Boswell

A topic that I’ve been exploring this off-season for myself is how to go about building a successful roster in MLS given all the various mechanism that are involved and a salary cap to work around. It’s not just how to build a successful roster, but how you would go about building one with sustainable success—a task that many clubs find an incredibly difficult given the methodology of the league. The question I ask aloud is whether or not it’s a problem of being stubborn and trying to go about acquiring talent the way most in the world do, or using the system in place.

This may or may not be a series that takes place over the course of the off-season. But last week there were a couple of transactions that occurred that struck my fancy in terms of how each front office went about it. Obviously there are factors that you have to consider, such as table placement, which in turn dictates allocation money and a various assortment of other little details. I think, overall, finding and acquiring defensive talent is a really tough task and I’m not entirely certain that you can go about trying to build for multiple years all in one off-season. Committing too much money to a single player can complicate roster moves for mid-season acquisitions, but can be easily cleared up in a single off-season with the help of the re-entry draft, various trades and the SuperDraft.

The re-entry draft is a basic way to spread some of the talent across the league when clubs aren’t able to incorporate the players price tag under their cap. The draft—if you aren’t familiar—functions in two different stages, with teams selecting players working in reverse order of the seasons table. Stage 1: players selected have to either have their options exercised, or teams are required to offer. Stage 2: a team can offer the player basically a “genuine offer” meaning that there is potential that you can get the player a discount rate. Should a player not sign with team, the club holds the player’s league rights.

Over the last week we saw what a team with allocation money can do in the re-entry draft. D.C. United acquired a hand full of players to upgrade their roster situation. One specific player of note is Bobby Boswell, a former MLS Defender of the Year, selected in the second round of the first stage. This means that D.C. United will offer a contract to Boswell that equates to 105% of his salary from the previous season and likely will be in the range of $235,000.

Likewise the Seattle Sounders were also looking to upgrade their defensive options. They worked out a trade with the Columbus Crew to acquire another former MLS Defender of the Year, this time in the form of Chad Marshall. The Sounders surrendered allocation money and a 1st round draft pick to the 2015 SuperDraft. We can’t be certain how much allocation money was exchanged between the two teams but my understanding is that it’s somewhere around $75,000.

Both players despite being in their late 20’s are solid individuals that will help their new clubs in a specific manner. Looking at the numbers, Seattle was one of the worst defensive teams that made the playoffs with a 0.95 shot attempt ratio that indicates they allow more shots against their goal than they produce for themselves.  D.C. United was just simply abysmal on all fronts, and that fact needs no objective proof. They just sucked. You know it, I know it, and everyone knows it.

Chad Marshall and Bobby Boswell both finished in the top-10 of defensive actions ranking 3rd and 7th overall. This doesn’t necessarily imply any value, as I’ve yet to find any studies that can correlate blocked shots with goals saved, though I think it would be an interesting study. That said, any time you can spend money to potentially reduce the amount of shots your team faces is a good thing.

Either way Marshall and Boswell are very similar players in age, style and tactics. But they were acquired by different methods as the Sounders basically spent $125,000 in controlled assets to obtain his rights. DC spent and extra 5% on top of Boswells previous salary to pluck him from the Houston Dynamo and the re-entry draft.

Boswell will cost United roughly $235,000 in total numbers to put him on their squad. Assuming Marshall doesn’t negotiate his contract any further down, he’ll cost the Sounders $485,000 in both salary AND the assets they spent to acquire him. I think it’s funny how many people criticized the United’s front office in their move to select Boswell in the first stage, but the truth is they got a better value for the same piece as the Sounders giving up only half the assets.

It’s easy to make fun of those that are already calling D.C. United “an early favorite” for the MLS Cup. It’s impossible to know if any of these changes really help either Seattle or DC.  Admittedly it’s hard to not see the Red and Black improve from where they were last year, and adding the handful of upgrades across their roster and full season of a healthy Chris Pontius should help—at the very least making their starting XI that much more handsome.

Does last season matter? – Follow Up

I wrote a few weeks ago about the weak predictive information contained in a team’s previous season of data. When trying to predict a team’s goal differential in the second 17 games of a season, it was the first 17 games of that same season that did the job. The previous season’s data was largely unhelpful.

@sea_soc tweeted me the following:

Ask, and you shall receive. Here’s the weird shit I found when trying to project a seasons second-half goal differential:

Stat Coef. P-Value
Intercept -33.6 0.86%
AttemptDiff (first 17) 0.1 0.00%
Finish Diff (first 17) 90.6 0.12%
Attempt Diff (first 17 last season) 0.1 2.88%
Attempt Diff (second 17 last season 0.0 20.00%
Finish Diff (first 17 last season) 115.0 7.08%
Finish Diff (second 17 last season) -23.5 28.81%
Home Games Left 4.0 0.81%

Translation: Strangely, it’s the first part of the previous season that is the better predictor of future performance. Not the second part of last season, which actually happened more recently. In fact, information from the second part of each team’s previous season produced negative coefficients (negative relationships). Weird.

Now let’s change the response variable slightly to be a team’s goal differential from its first 17 games. Which does better at predicting, last season’s first half or last season’s second half?

Neither. In fact, there was nothing that came close to predicting the first halves of 2012 and 2013.

Stat Coef. P-value
Intercept 18.9 20.3%
Finish Diff (first 17 last season) -5.5 94.5%
Finish Diff (second 17 last season) 5.9 60.9%
Attempt Diff (first 17 last season) 0.01 26.6%
Attempt Diff (second 17 last season) 0.04 32.5%
Home Games (first 17 this season) -2.2 20.3%

With such small sample sizes, it could be there is just something really weird about the first halves, especially 2013. I say “especially 2013” because 2011 and 2012’s first halves seemed to do a fair job of projecting the next season’s second halves, so it’s 2013 that seems screwy. Portland and Seattle performed opposite of what would have been expected for each, for example, while D.C. United and Montreal did the same confusing switcheroo in the Eastern Conference to kick off the 2013 campaign. So it could have just been weird randomness.

In the end, I’m quite certain of one thing, and that’s that I’m still confused.

ASA Podcast XXXIII: The one where we talk Re-Entry Draft

First and foremost, I want to pre-apologize for you having to tolerate terrible audio on the podcast. We’ve generally had good quality with just a few quirks in the system. This time around my microphone had an issue, and we couldn’t figure it out with the limited time that we had to record. Second, because we had limited time to record the podcast feels a bit rushed, and I’m sorry for that. I really wanted to get something together since it’d been a couple weeks since we last recorded, and I felt there were some good topics for us to touch on.

Today, we talk Portland, DC United, Seattle, while touching a bit on the Columbus and Sporting KC keeper trades. We roll into the SKC-versus-RSL MLS Cup and just give a few spare thoughts. It’s only 30 minutes and I think, despite the short time, we stay on topic and hit a lot of good highlights.

We’ll be back after the start of the new year and we’ll have our act together then. I still think today’s has some pretty good stuff, though!

MLS Cup Thoughts and General Goalkeeper Roundup

Three things in this post:

1. MLS final
2. Goalkeeper of the Year Award
3. MLS Goalkeeper Final Destination

1. MLS final

We were all made aware of the conditions before the game. The ice on the field, the cold temperatures, the effects on the ball… but then again, it’s the final in your sport so maybe it’s not the best time to come up with excuses.

The final featured two of the three finalists for Goalkeeper of the Year so we should expect an exciting display between both set of posts. This was not the case. Let’s walk through the video

  • 0:58 – Nick Rimando makes a half-falling/half-diving save in the twenty-fifth minute. It’s enough in his mitts that he can hold it, but he pushes it wide and almost bonks his head.
  • 1:28 – Nielsen gets a little too far under a punch and sends it straight up in the air, almost setting up a gift of a goal.
  • 2:20 – If you notice, this is the third highlight and we’re almost through the first half. That might tell you something. Rimando stays alert, and the bouncing ball isn’t in complete control of Dwyer. It’s a needed save but not that tough. Rimando has time to get there and Dwyer has a limited shooting angle on goal.
  • 2:40 – Start of the second half sees CJ Sapong with the ball in front of goal yet again. Rimando gets caught going the wrong way when Sapong cuts off the cross. He tries to scramble to the post but luckily (for Rimando) the shot skies over.
  • 3:25 – RSL gets the first goal of the game from a nice no-look-pass from Beckerman to Sabario who chests then volleys it home. But check out Nielsen’s starting position on the shot.
    Screen Shot 2013-12-08 at 12.30.50 PM
    So far from the line! He could have chipped him if he tried (foreshadowing, wooOOoo!). Sabario takes the trap and Nielsen (who starts calling for a handball) is so far from the line he can’t get into position well enough (notice the green triangles below). If he’s closer to the line he can get into position better and he’ll have more time to react, likely making the save.
Screen Shot 2013-12-08 at 12.26.32 PM


Screen Shot 2013-12-08 at 12.26.38 PM

Shooting angles

  • 4:50 – Beckerman takes a shot from distance. On the replay (5:12), check out Nielsen’s left foot: cemented into the ground. His right foot does all the moving. This is not good. Just turning your body to make a save really limits the distance you can cover. A quicker shuffle to Nielsen’s left can get a hand on that shot.
  • 5:25 – Possibly the biggest “LOL” of the match. Nielsen is so far off his line that the most casual chip almost beats him. The ball doesn’t even clear the crossbar, if that tells you how non-chalant the chip was.
    Screen Shot 2013-12-08 at 12.59.41 PM
    Nielsen turns around, surprised the ball is still in play, chases it out and eats snow hard. Woof.
  • 6:40 – SKC equalizes with a questionably fair header…Rimando bounces over but can’t make the extension.

    Screen Shot 2013-12-08 at 1.03.38 PM

    If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

  • 7:20 – Ninety-third minute and Rimando makes the “Allstate Good Hands Save of the Match”. A simple tip over from a blast eight yards out.
  • 7:50 – Sapong with another chance while being mauled.
  • 8:25 – I’ll just leave this picture to sum up the events here:Screen Shot 2013-12-08 at 2.44.10 AM
  • Apparently nothing happened for the next fifteen minutes and the penalties ensue. Here are the tendancies for Nielsen and Rimando:Screen Shot 2013-12-08 at 1.19.58 PM
    The “n’s” and “y’s” are if the keepers guessed the correct way or not. A “y” means yes he did, obviously, and the asterisks mean that while he guessed correctly the ball missed the goal frame. The green represents all the times the shooter did not score (after five rounds it was 3-3, three reds each). Both goalkeepers guessed the right way four of the ten times. The last two columns are where the keepers were guessing. Rimando was 5-2-3 (left-middle-right) and Nielsen was 6-0-4. So if you needed any more proof that shootouts are more determined by the shooters than goalkeeper then… well I don’t know. This games looks pretty clear to me. Nielsen is painted as the shootout hero but almost has the exact same stats as Rimando, not to mention all his follies from the run of play. Also he’s about five feet off his line on the eighth-round shot. (I know the ball is well-past kicked at this point, but he was in the process of planting his foot so it was blurry. Also balls kicked travel faster than feet move.)Screen Shot 2013-12-08 at 2.34.30 AM

At least it was a fun game. We can all agree on that.

2. Goalkeeper of the Year Award

If you’re not going to assign numbers to winning an award then you basically can give it to whomever you want. Call it heart, call it leadership… whatever. Everyone has highlights/lowlights that anyone can recall, but you can’t give a season award off one event. Complimenting a player with the title of “best” over a year’s play implies they affected their team in the most positive manner for the entire season. If you’re not using some numerical attribute to rank goalkeepers, I can’t convince you that Rimando was the best. But coming from someone who has watched A LOT of film, I know he was and I quantified it. If you want to disagree, you have to have numbers somehow, or else you’re just saying “Nu uh. You’re wrong.” I know I haven’t made my stats extremely transparent. And, yes, I know they’re not completely finished at this point (believe me I would have loved to finish it if I could have), but it’s better than the current alternative of either blasting Ricketts for not being able to hold a ball (which people can only remember this specifically happening a handful of times) or praising Ricketts for being the best goalkeeper in the league because they think they saw his name in the Save of the Week a lot.

I’ll take it a step further, there’s a reason why a bunch of goalkeepers end up with very similar stats at the end of the year: current goalkeeping stats are too simple and don’t gauge anything of real value. Isn’t it weird that Jimmy Nielsen had a phenomenal GAA (.88) and an average save percentage (68)? Was Nielsen only getting long-range bombs that he struggled with, or did he do a great job with only facing 1-v-1s? These stats don’t tell us anything.

3. MLS Goalkeeper Final Destination

All that to say, the end of the season is nigh, and thus the goalkeeper shuffle begins! Actually it’s entirely less exciting than that, but I needed to spice it up a bit. Here’s a team-by-team guide. I know some teams (FC Dallas, ahem) have youngsters in USYNT camps so I’m putting a minimum requirement of being 18 years old to make any mention. (Because I think we all remember what we were like at 17, so let’s not add anymore pressure to them.) I also included potential homegrowns just for fun.

Here are some reserve league stats. I just tallied minutes and games played. (Paolo Tornaghi played 765 minutes in nine games.) I only marked minutes played at 45 or 90 because, come on, it’s the reserve league. I didn’t even bother with goals allowed because I didn’t want to fool you with misleading stats.

Screen Shot 2013-12-07 at 11.13.32 PM

Chicago Fire

Starter:Sean Johnson (23)
Back Up: Paolo Tornaghi (25)
In Reserve: Alec Kann (24)

We all know Sean Johnson, blah blah blah. Tornaghi played six times for Chicago (not great, not awful) but did not get re-signed. Kann sat the bench a handful of times and being two years out from Furman has yet to play an official match (from what I can find) but did get five reserve matches.

Outlook: Johnson will likely have at least one more year in the MLS but a transfer to another league is definitely in the cards. Or perhaps that is just the outrageous expectations from the media. Kann has some promise but look for Chicago to sign a late 20s veteran as backup for some more stability and fill Tornaghi’s void.

Chivas USA

Starter:Dan Kennedy (31)
Back Up: Tim Melia (26)
In Reserve: Pat McLain (25), Jake McGuire (19)

Kennedy matched his age with his games played at 31 but honestly he had a noticeable drop off this year. McLain and Melia both played two games this season to about the skill of a backup would be. Freshman McGuire had a good season at Tulsa.

Outlook: It depends a lot on Chivas’ outlook. If they’re content with Kennedy they’ll sign another backup or snag a young goalie in the Superdraft. If they’re worried about Kennedy, which they honestly should be, they bring in some competition for him. McLain should see some reserve league action at another club.

Colorado Rapids

Starter:Clint Irwin (24)
Back Up: Matt Pickens (31)
In Reserve: Steward Ceus (26), Andrew Epstein (17)

Wow what a weird season. Apparent starter, Matt Pickens, fractures his arm second game of the season and Clint Irwin has such a good year that “fear the beard” is starting to sound kinda weird. Ceus started the opener but let a ball bounce over his head into the goal (oh it’s much worse than it sounds). I did include Epstein despite being sub-18 because he did get one reserve game. He is a freshman at Stanford.

Outlook: I wouldn’t be surprised if they stick with this batting order. I don’t think any teams are impressed with Pickens, which is unfortunate because he was pretty decent. Colorado has no plans for Ceus, I’m sure. Also he was not re-signed so I’m pretty confident in this assumption.

Columbus Crew

Starter:Andy Gruenebaum (30)
Back Up: Matt Lampson (24)
In Reserve: Daniel Withrow (23)

Another team with an injured goalie position. Gruenebaum started 21 games (and played excellent) but hip problems held him out for the back half. Lampson started 13 games and did around the “eh” level. Withrow made the bench nine times.

Outlook: Columbus signed Brad Stuver in the waiver draft so now Columbus has three goalkeepers from 22-24. Of course Lampson has the experience but I could see them all seeing bench time behind a healthy Gruenebaum. If Gruenebaum does stay healthy, he will start. I doubt Columbus will ship him because Lampson and company aren’t quite there and the Hebrew Hammer still has some gas in the tank. But it’s all centered around Gruenebaum’s health. If he’s not 100% going into the season, I could see Columbus making a move like Galaxy did with Penedo.

D.C. United

Starter:Bill Hamid (23)
Back Up: Joe Willis (25)
In Reserve: Andrew Dykstra (27)

Hamid made great saves and awful mistakes but (apparently) showed enough potential to get some NT call ups. Willis saw nine games with Hamid’s in and outs. Dykstra is on loan in Richmond but he’s as reliable as can be.

Outlook: The situation with Willis is interesting because typically a 25 year old who shows he can play at the MLS level would look to move out from second string but I think Hamid won’t be in D.C. for too long. So if Willis sticks around he could be starting in the MLS at 26, 27, which isn’t a bad deal. For a goaltender who skipped college to go pro, Hamid will surely scoot in a few years to a better. Willis will likely sit for another year and then be given a chance to start in the future. Dykstra might stick around but he’s another great backup so a team might try to steal him for a year.

FC Dallas

Starter:Raul Fernandez (28)
Back Up: Chris Seitz (26)
In Reserve: Richard Sanchez (19), Kyle Zobeck (23), Jesse Gonzalez (18)

You’d think losing the one of the best goalkeepers in MLS history would be a sign of a rebuilding year for FC Dallas but this is easily the strongest goalkeeping core in the MLS. Fernandez, the starter for Peru’s national team, was in the top five for most goalkeeping discussions. Seitz is the best backup in the league. And of course we have the young Richard Sanchez who shined during his loan to Fort Lauderdale. Zobeck, a first year out of Valparaiso, sat the bench for ten times for the Burn [sic] and while he never saw the field with the senior team, he did finished well in the reserve league. I can’t find anything substantial on Gonzalez outside that he does appear to exist (sorry Jesse).

Outlook: Fernandez was great in the midst of a not so great year from FC Dallas. I think Seitz could start at a handful of clubs and with Sanchez coming up in the ranks, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Seitz not in the Dallas stripes. For those that are calling Sanchez’s name, MacMath has a very similar path to the MLS and I think starting at such a young age (20, 21) really stunted him. So no need to rush it with Sanchez. This leaves Zobeck under Sanchez in the pecking order. I expect nothing to happen for 2014 but then see Seitz exit before 2015.

Houston Dynamo

Starter:Tally Hall (28)
Back Up: Tyler Deric (25)
In Reserve: Erich Marscheider (20)

You may remember Tally Hall’s few call ups to the national team this year. (Canada in January and the Germany-Belgium series, if I’m remembering correctly.) Although he didn’t get playing time it’s still a pretty nice honor. Houston bounced between Deric and Marscheider for sitting the bench and reserve time.

Outlook: Houston looks pretty content with their situation. Deric has five years on Marschy but with the constant switching it almost implies that Houston has more invested in Marschskis. Houston may sign Notre Dame senior Patrick Wall to a homegrown contract. Other than that option, I wouldn’t expect anything else.

LA Galaxy

Starter:Carlo Cudicini (40) / Jamie Penedo (32)
Back Up: Brian Rowe (25)
In Reserve: Brian Perk (24)

What a year for the Galaxy. Fans quickly lambasted Cudicini (141 appearances with Chelsea, don’t forget) for easy goals. Eventually Penedo was brought in while Rowe saw a couple of games on the field before Penedo took over completely. The Brians spent some time in the reserve league as well. And Will Hesmer almost was in the picture to, for those who were paying attention to the re-entry draft.

Outlook: Well Cudicini is surely done starting. Penedo’s contract only goes through 2014 so I think LAG is trying to groom Rowe for 2015. Perk is a big question mark, however. I’m not sure what is going to become of him. But all-in-all LAG look set in goal moving forward.

Montreal Impact

Starter:Troy Perkins (32)
Back Up: Evan Bush (27)
In Reserve: Maxime Crépeau (19), Dominic Provost (20), Samuel Dufort (19)

Perkins had a very underrated year and Bush plays the backup role fine enough. Maxime looked really bad in these highlights from over a year ago. I can’t find anything that says Provost and Dufort has been with the Canadian YNT (all three are Canadian).

Outlook: Perkins doesn’t look like slowing down but Bush isn’t going to compete for his spot. The other three worry me because while Montreal might like to get Canadians on their team for their fan base, I don’t think any of these three are the answer. I would love to be wrong on this, though.

New England Revolution

Starter:Matt Reis (38) / Bobby Shuttleworth (26)
Back Up: (above)
In Reserve: Luis Soffner (23)

Another club with an interesting goalkeeper situation. Reis and Shuttleworth battle for the spot all season (with 12 and 23 games played, respectively). Soffner only made the bench three times early in the season. Reis gets the start in the playoffs and is a part of one of more bizarre plays I’ve ever seen. He comes out of his box to collect a long ball, volleys it over someone, chests it, and as he’s about to pass it out he tears his quad and is unable to finish the game. Andrew Farrell finishes in his stead.

Outlook: Well currently not so much. Shuttleworth is the only goalkeeper under contract for the Revolution. Both Soffner and Reis’s options weren’t picked up by the Revolution so they have some holes to fill. I’m still a little confused on how confident Jay Heaps is with Shuttleworth (think Jim and Pam will-they-won’t-they drama). My guess is they try for a better option but if nothing is cheaply available they’ll go with Shuttleworth.

New York Red Bulls

Starter:Luis Robles (29)
Back Up: Ryan Meara (23)
In Reserve: Kevin Hartman (39), Santiago Castano (18), Keith Cardona (21)

Robles, who was in the running for goalkeeper of the year for some reason, played every MLS minute while Castano and Meara traded off back up roles mid way through the season. Hartman retired after two reserve games and Cardona is currently not starting at Maryland as a junior.

Outlook: Similar to Los Angeles, New York seems invested in Meara and (clearly) willing to ride the Robles train as long as they can. Castano also might figure into the picture as he leads the US U20s goalkeeping pool at the moment. Cardona has a long road to recovery.

Philadelphia Union

Starter:Zac MacMath (22)
Back Up: Chris Konopka (28), Oka Nikolov (39)
In Reserve: Zack Steffen (18)

MacMath played every minute in league play. Konopka was traded to Toronto in September and Old Man Oka sat the bench for the last ten games. Steffen finished his senior year at Akron, helping them get to the second round. Nikolov’s contract wasn’t picked up so now MacMath sits alone in Philadelphia.

Outlook: I really wish Philadelphia would give MacMath some competition if not let him sit for a bit. Putting someone through the fire early is such a high risk scenario. Look for Philly to pick up a goalie in the re-entry draft and another Joe before the start of next season as they try to see what MacMath can do in 2014.

Portland Timbers

Starter:Donovan Ricketts (36)
Back Up: Milos Kocic (28)
In Reserve: Jake Gleeson (23), David Meves (23), Blake Hylen (23), Justin Baarts (23)

Ugh okay besides that, Kocic played two games for Portland and there are a plethora of twenty-three year old goalkeepers in Portland. Not exactly sure what’s going on here but Gleeson seems to have the lead. Although New Zealand is not the most highly regarded international squad, he still has six caps as a 23 year old.

Outlook: Portland hasn’t shown consistency in their short history with goalkeepers and I don’t think this will change. Because of this, I will make a not-so-bold prediction: Ricketts to starts next season but by the end of 2014 things will look disordered. Kocic won’t be any better of an option. They’ll want to stick with Gleeson but he’ll still have some kinks to iron out and there won’t be another option mid-season. So 2014 will be a disarray in the back with a huge question mark going into 2015.

Real Salt Lake

Starter:Nick Rimando (34)
Back Up: Jeff Attinella (25)
In Reserve: Josh Saunders (32), Eduardo Fernández (20)

Yes, you could say Rimando was robbed with a +10 GSAR on the year. I think most people forget that Attinella is a success story from the NASL. Only 25, he is in a good position to start in the MLS before 30. Fernandez will be a success but his time is still 2-3 years away. And of course we have the man who popularized the Saundersault.

Outlook: Saunders will likely continue to bounce around and RSL will stick with Rimando until he’s dust. The future is in decent hands with Attinella and Fernandez.

San Jose Earthquakes

Starter:Jon Busch (37)
Back Up: David Bingham (24)
In Reserve: Evan Newton (25)

Busch is 37?? Wow. Bingham played four games (3 CONCACAF CL games) including the last game of the season.

Outlook: Bingham is ready to go and will be starting by the end of 2014. Journeyman Busch will be on his way out but should still get a good portion of the games. Newton was not resigned.

Seattle Sounders

Starter:Michael Gspurning (32)
Back Up: Andrew Weber (30) / Marcus Hahnemann (40)
In Reserve: Josh Ford (26), Earl Edwards (21), Zac Lubin (24)

Gspurning did better than most think: not awful but the door is definitely open. Hahnemann did very well coming off the bench (six matches, including playoffs), Weber did alright on a reverse loan (three matches) and Ford was useless with an injury.

Outlook: If there’s one club that needs competition at the goalkeeping spot it’s Seattle. I’d say Seattle brings in not a backup but someone to push Gspurning for the starting spot. Hahnemann plays one more year then retires. Perhaps they sign Doug Herrick from the pool. Edwards might sign a homegrown contract coming out of UCLA. Who is Zac Lubin?

Sporting Kansas City

Starter:Jimmy Nielsen (36)
Back Up: Eric Kronberg (30)
In Reserve: Jon Kempin (20)

Nielsen plays every game. Since 2006, Kronberg has had 13 apperances (four this year in Champions League play). Jon Kempin received nine appearances on his loan to Orlando City but never established consistent playing time.

Outlook: Nielsen salvages his reptuation by saving some penalty kicks but make no mistake he needs to be replaced. I would love to say Kansas City would be trying to move forward but I’m sure they are content with the Danish goalkeeper in the back. He will likely take a Cudicini-path soon enough. Kronberg looked really warm on the celebration stage at the final and Kempin might go on loan again.

Toronto FC

Starter:Joe Bendik (24)
Back Up: Stefan Frei (27)
In Reserve: Quillian Roberts (19), Garret Cypus (21), Angelo Cavalluzzo (20), Chad Bush (19)

Toronto traded for Bendik right at the end of 2012 so even though Frei was coming back from an injury they wanted to be set in the goal. As TFC raced towards the bottom of the table, Bendik did very well in goal. Frei played late in the season to give him some marketability, I assume. Roberts made the bench a few times.

Outlook: Toronto traded for Chris Konopka from Philadelphia so it is almost positive that Frei is on his way out. Konopka should be challenged by Roberts for the bench spot but the real question is how long Bendik stays in Toronto. If he continues his streak, he’ll be a top goalkeeper in 2014 but will he be getting enough exposure to move to a higher league?

Vancouver Whitecaps

Starter:Joe Cannon (38) / Brad Knighton (28) / David Ousted (28)
Back Up: (above)
In Reserve: Simon Thomas (23), Callum Irving (20), Sean Melvin (19)

Who wasn’t a starter/back up this year in Vancouver? First Cannon played ten games, then Knighton played eleven games, then Ousted finished the season with thirteen. Thomas actually spent more time on the bench for Canada’s National Team than he did for Vancouver, if that tells you anything about Canada’s situation.

Outlook: I don’t think even Vancouver knows. Cannon and Knighton are out, we know that, but Ousted didn’t exactly ring confidence. But I imagine they’ll try Ousted at the start of the year and go from there.


Goalkeepers able to move to a better league in the next couple years: Sean Johnson (CHC), Bill Hamid (DCU), Joe Bendik (TOR)

Second string goalkeepers that are able to start in the MLS now: Matt Pickens (CLR), Joe Willis (DCU), Chris Seitz (FCD), Brian Rowe (LAG), David Bingham (SJ), Stefan Frei (TOR)

Backups that need some more time but could start in the future: Alec Kann (CHC), Brian Perk (LAG), Ryan Meara (NYRB), Santiago Castano (NYRB), Eduardo Fernandez (RSL), Jon Kempin (SKC)

Free Agents (best to worst in my opinion): Pat McLain, Luis Soffner, Evan Newton, Doug Herrick, Brad Knighton, Paolo Tornaghi, Joe Cannon, Evan Bush, Matt Reis, Oka Nikolov

Teams that could really use another potential starter: Chivas, Vancouver, Sporting Kansas City, San Jose, Portland, Seattle, Philadelphia

Teams looking to pick up a goalkeeper in the SuperDraft: Vancouver, Philadelphia, New England

Collegiate goalkeepers that might make the jump: Andre Blake (Connecticut), Patrick Wall (Notre Dame), John McCarthy (La Salle), Spencer Richey (Washington), Earl Edwards (UCLA), Adam Grinwis (Michigan), Omar Zeeni (UC Davis), Phil Saunders (UMBC), Alex Bono (Syracuse)

World Cup Draws: United States, Mexico, and the Netherlands

Of those three teams, it’s the United States’s draw that incites the least of my frustration.

Search for “world cup draw” on Google, and you’ll find mostly opinions that the U.S. Mens National Team found itself in the group of death, as if there can only be one. But as many pointed out before the draw, the USMNT was not likely to get into an easier group. Coming from Pot 3, the USMNT was at a disadvantage already due to being in the weakest pot. Using ratings from Nate Silver’s Soccer Power Index (SPI), here are the average ratings by each of the four pots:

Pot Rating Standard Dev.
1 85.9 5.0
4 79.7 3.3
2 76.2 8.0
3 73.7 3.5

Since teams from the same pot could not meet in the group stage, the USMNT couldn’t draw any teams from its own pot. Thus it automatically got zero chance at playing some of the weaker teams in the opening round, leaving us praying for one of Switzerland or Belgium from the ranked Pot 1 to ease our path to glory (no such luck).  Additionally, all Pot 3 teams got a slightly higher chance of meeting two European teams in the group stages due to that additional UEFA team moving from Pot 4 to Pot 2. Pot 3 teams eluding a European team from Pot 1 may still have gotten Italy or England (I can’t tell which one) from Pot 2. Costa Rica drew the short straw on that one.

If you look at Nate Silver’s  ratings, you’ll notice that most Pot 3 teams got pretty raw deals. Below are the chances that each team advances to the knockout round, as well as the average ratings for the other teams in their respective groups. Pot 3 teams are bold and italicized, and data came from Silver’s own model.

Team Difficulty Knockout   Team Difficulty Knockout
Australia 86.6 2.0%   Italy 81.0 44.2%
Algeria 77.1 11.4%   Mexico 78.9 45.3%
Iran 81.8 18.9%   Ivory Coast 78.7 49.8%
Honduras 81.2 20.4%   Bosnia 79.3 52.6%
Cameroon 80.6 22.3%   England 80.3 57.5%
Japan 80.4 24.2%   Ecuador 78.2 64.7%
Costa Rica 82.2 28.8%   Uruguay 79.6 69.5%
Ghana 81.9 28.8%   Russia 71.6 72.6%
Nigeria 80.6 31.2%   Chile 79.9 74.3%
Croatia 79.7 32.9%   France 77.3 78.4%
Switzerland 79.7 36.5%   Belgium 71.1 79.1%
South Korea 73.8 36.9%   Spain 79.4 82.8%
United States 81.2 39.3%   Colombia 76.2 86.5%
Portugal 81.1 39.3%   Germany 78.0 91.8%
Greece 79.3 39.5%   Argentina 75.6 97.3%
Netherlands 81.3 41.0%   Brazil 73.9 99.6%

Relative to its stature in the world—17th best according to the SPI—the United States drew arguably the second-hardest group of opponents, second only to the Netherlands*. Though the USMNT may be in a group of death, the Netherlands are definitely in the group of death—and on the outside looking in. But it’s our neighbor to the south that draws the most frustration. In terms of average group difficulty, the only North American side to get a relatively decent draw was Mexico. Mexico will just have to be better than Croatia and Cameroon in the group stage. Even after pissing all over themselves in CONCACAF qualifying, the Mexicans now have the easiest path of any Pot 3 team.

The Dutch side is the ninth-best in the tournament by the SPI, and yet it drew two of the best teams in the Cup, Chile and Spain. The Oranje, the team of my birth country, have been left sadly with just a 41-percent chance at making the knockout stage. The Mexican side is ranked 26th in the world, finished fourth in qualifying, and has a better chance to advance than the Netherlands.


*While Australia, Iran and Costa Rica all drew harder opponents on average than the USMNT, they were not as highly ranked themselves as the USMNT. In other words, it was expected that worse teams would get tougher opponents because they don’t get to play themselves.

ASA Podcast – XXXI: The One Where We Talk MLS Cup

MLS Cup, if you hadn’t heard, is this weekend and the World Cup draw today (11:30 EST, ESPN) there is a bit to talk about this week on the podcast. We go over the probabilities of the draw and how that works and then we break down both RSL and Sporting KC in this weekends Cup Finale. Have a listen, I’m sure you’ll enjoy.

Sporting exceptional at home; RSL lame on the road

It is true that Sporting has had trouble getting points at home. SKC earned 30 points at Sporting Park this year, good for 13th in a league of 19 teams. Based on that information alone, some will argue that Sporting is not a good home team. One of those people is Simon Borg, who justifies his viewpoint by pointing out that SKC lost five times at home, as though that matters.

It doesn’t.

I’ve shown that past points simply don’t correlate well to future points. With information like shot ratios and expected goal differentials (xGD), points are essentially a meaningless indicator of team ability—or at the very least, a meaningless predictor. I see “predictor” and “indicator” as near-synonyms in this instance, but you may not. Regardless, Sporting’s home points total should not even be considered in the discussion of who will win on Saturday. Why not? In addition to out-shooting its opponents in every single home game this season, here is how SKC did relative to the league in xGD this season:

Team GF GA GD xGF xGA xGD “Luck”
LA 32 8 24 32.1 11.0 21.1 2.9
SKC 29 15 14 28.7 11.6 17.1 -3.1
PHI 23 17 6 28.8 16.0 12.8 -6.8
NYRB 32 15 17 26.8 15.4 11.4 5.6
SEA 28 15 13 26.5 15.6 10.9 2.1
COL 28 16 12 25.3 14.5 10.7 1.3
HOU 23 16 7 28.0 18.9 9.1 -2.1
RSL 31 16 15 24.6 16.4 8.2 6.8
CHI 28 19 9 27.0 19.4 7.6 1.4
SJ 23 13 10 28.8 21.2 7.6 2.4
POR 28 11 17 23.9 16.6 7.2 9.8
CLB 19 13 6 25.6 18.8 6.8 -0.8
NE 29 15 14 22.2 17.4 4.8 9.2
MTL 31 19 12 25.1 20.5 4.6 7.4
FCD 28 21 7 24.2 19.8 4.4 2.6
VAN 32 18 14 23.7 19.5 4.2 9.8
DCU 16 27 -11 23.5 21.3 2.2 -13.2
TOR 22 21 1 18.5 19.1 -0.6 1.6
CHV 16 28 -12 18.9 26.0 -7.1 -4.9

SKC has a decent goal differential at home, but more importantly, it has the second-best expected goal differential at home. xGD is an excellent predictor of future success, and a better indication in my mind of true team skill.

Borg goes on to talk about the “road warriors” from Salt Lake City:

“They love playing on the road. Playing at home is too much pressure; they do it better when they’re away from home.”

No team is better on the road than at home, but whatever. RSL did tie for third in MLS this season with 22 away points earned, but again, we don’t care. RSL out-shot it opponents in just five of 17 road games (29.4%), and, well this:

Team GF GA GD xGF xGA xGD “Luck”
SKC 16 15 1 19.3 18.2 1.1 -0.1
SJ 11 29 -18 20.5 21.3 -0.8 -17.2
LA 20 30 -10 18.5 20.2 -1.7 -8.3
FCD 18 28 -10 19.9 23.6 -3.7 -6.3
HOU 17 23 -6 21.7 25.4 -3.8 -2.2
POR 25 22 3 18.9 23.5 -4.6 7.6
COL 15 22 -7 19.9 24.9 -5.1 -1.9
NYRB 24 24 0 19.5 25.6 -6.1 6.1
PHI 19 26 -7 19.4 26.7 -7.3 0.3
NE 19 21 -2 16.1 23.7 -7.6 5.6
CLB 22 33 -11 17.1 26.0 -8.9 -2.1
SEA 11 27 -16 17.9 27.2 -9.4 -6.6
CHI 18 30 -12 20.5 30.0 -9.5 -2.5
MTL 19 29 -10 16.1 26.0 -9.9 -0.1
VAN 21 23 -2 16.6 27.7 -11.0 9.0
TOR 6 25 -19 15.9 27.3 -11.4 -7.6
RSL 25 25 0 17.4 29.7 -12.3 12.3
DCU 5 28 -23 11.9 26.2 -14.3 -8.7
CHV 12 38 -26 12.0 28.9 -16.9 -9.1

Real Salt Lake finished 17th in the league in expected goal differential on the road. Ouch. The fact that their actual goal differential was tied for third in MLS means very little, since xGD makes for a much better Nostradamus.

Unless expected goal differential completely falls apart in home-away splits—which is not likely—we can conclude that Sporting is a good home team, and RSL is a bad away team.

Our current model gives Sporting 72 percent probability of a win. An xGD model—which we don’t use yet because we only have one season of data—increases those chances to 88 percent. There is a lot of evidence that Sporting is the better team, and that home field advantage still applies to them. Regardless of Saturday’s outcome, those two statements are still well supported.

*Note that these goal statistics do not include own goals, which is why my figures may differ slightly from those found at other sites. 

MLS Cup: Sporting KC vs. Real Salt Lake…It’s Finally Here

I wish I could write this long-winded and amazingly-thought-out post. This just won’t be the case. I’m mostly missing the vocabulary to mark the occasion of the biggest match of the American soccer season. Without really prolonging the post or trying to set it up by way of a specific perspective: I was digging around through Squawka and Whoscored data in preparation for tonight’s podcast and found some things that I thought were interesting, and I thought that I would share them with you.

First thought: Sporting Kansas City pretty much owns the defensive metric counting stats that are available to us, as well as those that I took the time to put together. They rank first in defensive actions recorded, which is simply blocked shots, interceptions and clearances. There isn’t anything that I’ve seen or read that correlates any of these numbers to being a successful team in terms of collecting points.

That being said, it’s reasonable to suspect that their ability to prevent shots and produce them at a higher ratio has something to do with these defensive statistics. I personally would associate SKC’s shot ratios with two specific abilities : their possession—which we will get in first—and then prevention.

Possession doesn’t tell us whether or not a club is successful, but we have mentioned that it mostly just explains how they going about being successful. Sure, a lot of people take it that when a team is holding onto the ball, that reduces its own opportunities to score. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t reducing their opponents’ opportunities, though. In fact a club that holds on to the ball and makes a lot of successful passes does exactly that.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are good at defense or preventing the opposition from generating shots. It just means that they might potentially reduce the number of chances that an opposing team gets. Again, that doesn’t necessarily correlate to earning points, but that does lead to us to the topic of prevention. Sporting is dominant in MLS with intercepting and clearing balls from their attacking third. Controlling possession 58% of the time at home and completing 81% of their passes, they are mitigating opponents’ opportunities, and the same can be said with clearing balls off the backline and preventing the ball from coming into the attacking third at all.

Clearing the ball obviously presents the chance that the open play becomes “reset”. That the pressure applied by the opposing attack has to reposition themselves in an manner that would create another chance against the goal. Sometimes that happens quickly sometimes it leads to a turnover in possession.

I’d really like to know the percentage of how many times a team got the ball into the final third and then created a shot. I suspect that Sporting Kansas City isn’t necessarily any better than any other team at actually stopping a team from creating chances once they get into the attacking third. Possibly it just limits those entries.

However, if a team isn’t getting many opportunities to possess the ball, and their chances of breaking into the attacking third are repelled by clearances, it has to limit the creation of shots. This is my theory on how Sporting KC has produced that positive shot ratio and why their defensive counting stats matter. I don’t really know if any of it actually holds up.

Second Thought: Real Salt Lake is basically the best litmus test for this theory. A club that has superior passing talent, that also maintains the ability to possess the ball, and doesn’t inadvertently turn it over with the frequency that others do.

Again, for like the thousandth time, this doesn’t relate to obtaining points. However, it maybe the specific method they go about for shot creation which does lend itself as predictor. Creating shots is the name of the game, and RSL is one of the better road teams in MLS who matches up well with SKC in that regard.

If SKC’s deterrence method for shots is more about mitigation of possession to specific areas of the pitch which potentially lends itself to preventing shots, then the counter is that RSL is third in away goals from outside the box with 4 converted shots by way of 74 shots.

RSL is one of the better teams at converting from distance—and while that could be as much by the way of luck as it could be by the talent of the line-ups they’ve fielded—the importance of this is that they aren’t afraid of taking attempts from distance, and that maybe one of the best ways for them to manage a goal against SKC.

That leads into this final thought:

Looking at shots, it’s a duh statement to say that SKC creates a lot of them. Unfortunately for Real Salt Lake, Sporting creates even more at home than what it normally creates on the road. What is more surprising, though, is that of those shots, the majority come from outside of the 18 yard box.

Why would it matter if a team creates more shots from a far than closer to the box? The obvious answer is that it decreases the probability of a goal scoring opportunity. Taking shots is important, regardless of where it’s taken from. Without the shot there is a lack possibility that the ball actually goes into the back of the net…well, unless you are D.C. United and the rest of the league leads your team in goals scored.

I certainly approve of most shots because they creates chances. A shot that is parried or even deflected back into a crowd is another chance, a better chance, to score a goal. The problem is when you take a shot you are also conceding possession, as well as position in the attacking third. Better position equates to a higher possibility of a scoring chance and ultimately that’s what your trying to do: increase the odds of scoring a goal. Despite taking 164 shots from outside the box at home, Sporting only scored 5 goals, opposed to 29 goals from 105 shots inside the box.

Taking shots from better locations is going to improve your odds, but it’s more than that. It’s about finding the opportunity to win games. Saturday will simply be about finding those moments, finishing them and then, hopefully, winning.

Both teams have remarkable similarities and they both possess the ability to expose the others weaknesses. This has the potential to be one of the best MLS Cups in recent memory. That isn’t to say that LA and Houston pounding on each other hasn’t been somewhat entertaining.

But SKC and RSL bring to the table a style of soccer that is pleasing to watch, and each procures shots—which is one of the biggest complaints from people who are infrequent viewers. It also will, hopefully, attract some of those individuals who usually are less inclined to watch American soccer, relegating themselves to the European versions.

Here is just hoping the game is just interesting.