ASA Podcast XXXIX: The Band is Back Together!

For the first time in ages Drew, Matthias, and Harrison are reunited. They start by covering this weekend’s MLS action with a special focus on expected goals, talk some CONCACAF Champions League, and finish up with a discussion of +/- ratios for individual soccer players.

Season Preview: Portland Timbers

Like a hot new boy band busting onto the music scene, the Portland Timbers came out of nowhere last season to  improve more than any other MLS team, jumping from an eighth-place Western Conference finish and 34 points in 2012 to first place and 57 points in 2013. Expectations are high for 2013 Coach-of-the-Year Caleb Porter, and we will soon see which member of the band the Timbers are; a legitimate talent with true staying power like RSL, the Galaxy and JT, or the goofy one that is just along for the ride, like 2007 ChivasUSA, 2010 FC Dallas, and Chris Kirkpatrick. Do the Timbers have a model that will let them hang with the big boys, or will they regress to the mean with a vengeance? ASA readers see them as Nick Carter material, with a majority of voters picking the Timbers to win the Western Conference for a second season in a row.

PTFC2013squad

 Players In    Players Out  
Name Pos   Name Pos
Jorge Villafana D Trade from Chivas USA David Horst D Traded to Houston
Norberto Paparatto D Transfer from Tigre Ryan Miller D Option declined
Bryan Gallego D Homegrown player Dylan Tucker-Gangnes D Waived
Taylor Peay D SuperDraft Andrew Jean-Baptiste D Traded to Chivas USA
Steve Zakuani M Re-Entry Stage 1 Mikael Silvestre D Contract terminated
Schillo Tschuma M/F SuperDraft Sal Zizzo M Traded to Sporting KC
George Fochive M SuperDraft Brent Richards F Waived
Aaron Long M SuperDraft Sebastian Rincon F Loan expired
 Andrew Weber GK  Free Transfer Jose Valencia F Loaned to Club Olimpo
Milos Kocic GK Retired

Roster Churn: Portland returns 82.31% of their minutes played in 2013, 6th most in MLS.

 

2014 Preview

Median age: 25 *Designated player

Median age: 25
*Designated player

Coming off their first place Western Conference finish in 2013, the Timbers’ theme for the 2014 offseason has been “more of the same”. Led by new coach Caleb Porter and MLS Newcomer-Of-The-Year Diego Valeri, the Timbers were a surprise contender in 2013. Porter’s 4-5-1/4-3-3 hybrid system was a 180% turn from their philosophy under former coach John Spencer, and it brought the team immediate success. By controlling possession and maintaining the defensive pressure even in the opposition end, the Timbers brought a unique style that was both entertaining and effective. This attack based system saw them finish with the third most goals in the league last year, despite being only 9th in attempts. Not only were their attacks fruitful, they were dangerously efficient. Unlike last season’s roster overhaul, Portland made few big changes in the offseason for 2014, instead solidifying their depth and bringing in two Argentine veterans to shore up the back-line and attacking corps. Clearly, the Timbers are willing to ride Goalkeeper-of-the-Year Donovan Ricketts and playmakers Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe in the upcoming season.

The Attack

As in 2013, Valeri and Nagbe will be relied on to be the catalysts for the Portland offense. Led by their 12 and 10 goals respectively, the Timbers finished with the fourth best finishing rate (goals divided by attempts) in MLS last season. Being two of the most fouled players in MLS last season, and due to Valeri’s somewhat slow recovery from off-season hernia surgery, their health could determine if Portland can continue to finish with similar efficacy this season. Still, the additions of Gaston Fernandez and Steve Zakuani will alleviate some of the dependence on Portland’s playmakers. If injury isn’t an issue, the Timbers can expect to score lots of goals in 2014.

PORINFO

The biggest (and perhaps the only) major offseason subtraction was the loss of Jamaican international and Oregon State alum Ryan Johnson’s nine goals (third on the team last year), as he pursues a career in China. The departure of Johnson will certainly be felt, but late-season acquisition Maxi Urruti had taken over the starting striker position before an injury last year, and he looks to fit perfectly into Porter’s high-pressure defensive scheme. Also significant has been the addition of “La Gata” Fernandez. Besides having the best tribute video on the internet, Fernandez will fill some of the holes left by both Johnson and Rodney Wallace, who tore his ACL in the playoffs and isn’t expected to return until late summer. Fernandez is versatile as an attacking midfielder/forward, and seems likely to assume a utility role on the Left side of Midfield to start the season. Zakuani is an unknown quantity after excelling for the Sounders before enduring two years of injury and disappointment. Few things would be more welcome to Timbers fans than seeing a former Seattle player return to form in Portland, so any significant contribution from Zakuani will be considered a bonus. Couple those additions with first-round SuperDraft pick Schillo Tshuma, who has impressed in preseason, and the Timbers will expect to continue with their high-scoring output last year.

Still, requisite warnings about reading too much into the preseason aside, a lack of scoring (only 6 goals in 7 preseason games) in the lead-up to this MLS season is cause for some concern. For the Timbers system to work they’ll need to score goals in bunches.

The Real Bash Brothers

2012 Timbers Army’s player of the year Diego Chara and captain Will Johnson, who saw his career revitalized by a move to Portland last season, will again anchor a high-energy midfield that is likely to be among the league leading duos in minutes and fouls (Chara has finished in the top three in fouls committed in all three of his MLS seasons). While not as flashy as their attacking counterparts, Chara and Johnson are just as important to the Timbers’ success. Their hard-tackling, box-to-box styles are exemplary of Porter’s possession philosophy. The Timbers will expect to win the midfield battle in nearly every game they play this season, with Chara and Johnson expected to neutralize the opposition’s playmakers as a way to free up and start Portland’s multi-faced attack.

Defensive Questions

Despite a conference best 33 goals against last season, center back was a position in flux last year with six different players all getting starts there (Futty Danso, Pa-Moudu Kah, Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Mikel Silvestre, Rauwshan Mckenzie, and David Horst). Jean-Baptiste started the most games next to Kah, but lost his starting spot to Danso in the last couple months of the season. Still, Danso’s limitations were exposed in the playoffs last season, and priority number one for the offseason was to find a consistent starter to pair with Kah. Portland ultimately ended up bringing in contender for best-named signing of the MLS offseason, Argentine Norberto Paparatto. While little besides some YouTube highlight videos (especially dubious when judging a CB) is known about Paparatto, judging by his solid if mostly unremarkable preseason the starting spot next to Kah appears his to lose. The outside backs are likely to stay the same as they were for nearly every game in 2013, with Jack Jewsbury and Michael Harrington (fresh off a USMNT summer call-up) being active both as wing-defenders and initiators of the attack.

Ricketts silenced his doubters and skeptics last year by earning his second Goalkeeper of the Year award at age 36. While not getting any younger, the Jamaican did a lot to cover up for the mistakes of Portland’s defenders last year, having allowed only 83.2% of the goals a replacement MLS keeper would have, according to our goalkeeper ratings. Along with Nick Rimando, Ricketts was a head above the rest of MLS keepers, having prevented 6.27 goals  more than the average MLS goalkeeper last season. Still, the Timbers appear to be grooming young New Zealander Jake Gleeson (who they have sent on loan to Sacramento Republic FC) to fill Rickett’s shoes, so there will be a smooth transition when Ricketts ultimately retires.

2014 Predictions

The 2014 MLS All-Star game will be in Portland, but the Timbers’ organization and fans expect MLS Cup to be held there, too. Under the guidance and leadership of Caleb Porter and Diego Valeri, year two is primed for success. With the Timbers figuring to compete in all three major competitions – MLS, the US Open Cup, and CONCACAF Champions League – this is a team that expects success. Outside of the Cascadia Cup, the Timbers have never brought any silverware back to the Rose City, but this could be the year things change.

Our data suggest the Timbers drastically over performed compared their expected goals for and against last season. Did they just get lucky a season ago, or has the organization finally built a model for success? They return their three best players from 2013 in Ricketts, Valeri, and Nagbe, and hope the added experience and chemistry between these players continues to flourish. A lot is expected of the Timbers this season, and only time will tell if 2013 was a sign of things to come, or in the words of N’SYNC, it will be “Bye, Bye, Bye” for their championship hopes in 2014.

Crowdsourcing Results

1st place in the Western Conference; 204 of 404 (50.4%) readers projected the Timbers to win the Western Conference, and 386 (95.5%) projected them to make the playoffs in some capacity.

Season Preview: D.C. United

Few teams had more turnover in the offseason than DC United. With a slew of injuries last season, the worst record in MLS , and a deal for a new stadium on the verge of breaking down, things can only get better for United in 2014.

Fresh off of an appearance in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, and with another year of experience for young players like Perry Kitchen and Nick DeLeon, 2013 was supposed to be a return to contention for the club with more trophies than any other MLS team. Instead, they finished a full 10 (!) points behind Chivas USA for last in MLS. While their third US Open Cup trophy helped alleviate some of the pain (a consolation many supporters from other clubs would covet), the team has brought in some bigger names – including an entirely new defensive line – which they hope will turn things around in 2014.

2-25-2014 9-11-08 AM

Player Added
Position From Player Lost Position To
Davy Arnaud M Traded from Montreal Carlos Ruiz F Being Old (Option Declined)
Sean Franklin D
Re-entry Stage 1 (LA Galaxy)
Lionard Pajoy F Option Declined
Bobby Boswell D Re-entry Stage 1 (Houston) Marcelo Saragosa M Option Declined
Jalen Robinson D Homegrown Dwayne De Rosario M Option Declined
Nana Attakora D Re-entry Stage 2 (San Jose) Syamsir Alam M Option Declined
Jeff Parke D Traded from Philadelphia John Thorrington M Option Declined
Steve Birnbaum D
SuperDraft (California)
Daniel Woolard D Option Declined
Christian Francois D Waiver draft (Maryland) Dennis Ipichino D Out of Contract
Christain Fernandez D Free transfer (Almeria) Dejan Jakovic D Transferred to Shimizu S-Pulse
Conor Doyle F Tranfer from Derby County Ethan White D Traded to Philadelphia
Eddie Johnson F Trade from Seattle Casey Townsend F Waived
Fabian Espindola F Re-entry stage 2 (New York)

DCRosterRoster Churn: 55.48% of minutes returning (2nd fewest returning minutes in MLS)

It was an offseason of additions and addition by subtractions for United, which will need to see significant improvement if Coach and United legend Ben Olsen is to keep his job. United’s multiple offseason moves culminated with DCUINFOwinning the sweepstakes for US national team striker Eddie Johnson, a player everyone expects to outpace DC’s 2013 leading goal scorer “Own Goal” (seriously, though). Despite a -37 goal differential last year, our shot location data suggests that they were a bit unlucky to finish so low. Having EJ paired with MLS veteran Fabian Espindola, DC’s strikers should score many more goals than the three Linonard Pajoy and an over-the-hill Carlos Ruiz combined for last year.

The loss of Dwayne De Rosario will be felt in the midfield, but even the 2011 MVP lost his starting spot late last season. Stepping in will be former Impact captain Davy Arnaud, who will bring leadership to an otherwise young midfield. United will really hope for a healthy season from likes of Nick DeLeon and Chris Pontius who were both hampered by injuries last year, and will look to continue the progress of Canadian international Kyle Porter. Perry Kitchen returns as the backbone of a young midfield that remains mostly unchanged from 2013, but is poised to be more productive in 2014.

While Klinsmann favorite Bill Hamid remains in goal, United is likely to see a 100% turnover in their defensive backline from a year ago, having brought in proven MLS defenders Sean Franklin, Bobby Boswell, and Jeff Parke, as well as Christian Fernandez, a 28 year old who comes from Almeria in Spain. By drafting Steve Birnbaum #2 overall in the SuperDraft, they also added depth and potential for the future.

Franklin will provide them an attacking option up the right flank that they haven’t had since Andy Najar left the team to join Anderlecht in Belgium. Boswell and Parke will combine to bring 19 years of MLS experience to the central defense, which should give Hamid a stronger confidence in the leadership and organization in front of him. Fernandez has spent time in La Liga and Spain’s Segunda Division, and looks to bring bring a similar attacking style to the left back position, having scored 6 goals in 36 appearances for Almeria over the last two seasons. Finally, Birnbaum looks to be one of their players of the future, and will fill in for Boswell and Parke in the center of defense during a packed schedule that will include the CONCACAF Champions League in 2014.

DC has taken the anti-Toronto FC route, investing across the roster rather than adding big-name DPs at a few positions. While none of their backline is cheap – United picked up Franklin in the re-entry draft because the Galaxy deemed his salary too high, and Parke isn’t a bargain either – United was able to take three of their five highest paid players off the books with the subtractions of DeRo, Jakovic, and Pajoy (who was making an inexplicable $205k per year). They have invested heavily in more experienced, and simply better defenders. With no Designated Players currently on the roster, United have managed to endure more roster turnover than nearly every other team in MLS this offseason without breaking the bank.

All these significant changes make this a year of questions for United; after dominating MLS 1.0 for years, they played a middling role in more recent seasons, a short slump that seemed on the verge of ending in 2012. Was 2013 a regression to the mean, or an outlier as the club turns itself around? Will this be the year Perry Kitchen finally turns into an MLS star, or will he remain atop the list of players on the verge of a breakout season?  With a stadium deal being called into question, can they find a new home? Will Ben Olsen save his job, or make the ownership group look stupid for keeping him this long? Can the team begin to turn around record-low attendance numbers, or can they give their supporters something to cheer about?

At ASA we like to look prior data to help us understand what may happen for teams in the future, but the case of DC is a difficult one for us; no team is likely to look or play more differently than United next season. Because of their unpredictability, and because they have nowhere to go but up, the potential for DC’s season might be greater than any other team in the league this year. Will we see them do what the Timbers did last season, improving by over 20 points between seasons and going from conference doormat to MLS Cup contender? Or will they go the route of Chivas USA, and remain at the bottom of the table as the epitome of incompetence.

DC United hopes this will be a transformative season that returns them to the elite of the Eastern Conference. Crucial additions to the attacking and defensive corps have the potential to turn things around, and coach Ben Olsen’s job is riding on it. Supporters are cautiously optimistic, but the public (as evidenced by our ASA poll numbers) remains skeptical. The 2014 season is an important one for United, both on and off the field. We will soon see if one of the most storied clubs in MLS history can turn their form on the pitch around, and if their important stadium plans can get back on track.

Crowd Sourcing Placement: 8th place in Eastern Conference; 263 of 404 (65.1%) voters felt that D.C. United would not make the playoffs in 2014. 

ASA Podcast XXIX: Of flip phones, semifinals, USMNT, pass completions, and burrito folding.

This week we talked about how cool and hip we are, followed by a discussion of the first legs of the MLS Cup semifinals. We continued with potential changes to MLS’ CONCACAF Champions League births, Klinsmann’s 23 man roster for the upcoming friendlies versus Scotland and Austria, and the top 50 players in MLS by pass completion percentage. We concluded with a discussion of burritos and proper burrito folding practices.

Rosales, not Dempsey, is the clear choice for Seattle’s set-piece crosses

In Seattle’s 2-1 loss to Portland on Saturday, Clint Dempsey took all of the Sounders’ attacking set-pieces in the first half. He was impressive with his free kick shots on goal, clipping the crossbar and forcing Donovan Ricketts into multiple saves. But his corner kicks left much to be desired. Mauro Rosales subbed on in the 63rd minute and took the remainder of the set-piece crosses and created more chances.

With Lamar Neagle suspended for yellow card accumulation and Seattle needing goals in leg two, Rosales seems likely to start. Requisite warning about small sample sizes aside, based off of the results in leg one, the data suggest Sigi Schmidt would be wise to let Rosales take over set-piece crossing duties in the second leg.

Here’s how Dempsey’s nine corners and one free kick cross went in leg one:

DempseyLeg1FKs

3rd minute corner: To the near post, cleared by Diego Chara
6th corner: Near post, cleared by Will Johnson
20th corner: Near post, cleared by Will Johnson
25th corner: Near post, cleared by Chara
32nd corner: Near post, cleared by Chara
38th corner: Top of the six yard box, cleared by Pa-Moudou Kah
38th corner: Top of six, cleared by Kah
39th free kick: Cross from 18 yards out on the wing to the top of the six, cleared by Futty Danso
45th corner: Near post, punched clear by Ricketts

In the second half, Rosales took all three Seattle corners and two free kick crosses:

RosalesLeg1FKs

68th minute corner: To the penalty spot, shot by Djimi Traore, saved by Ricketts
69th corner: Top of six, Headed cross by Dempsey  blocked by Zemanski and eventually caught by Ricketts
82nd free kick: Cross from 38 yards in the center to the penalty spot, cleared by Danso
86th free kick: Cross from 28 yards on the wing to the edge of the penalty box, headed by Shalrie Joseph across the box
87th corner: Penalty spot, Headed shot by Dempsey off of the crossbar and out

In summary: Dempsey had 10 set-piece crosses, none of which reached a Seattle teammate. Rosales had five set-piece crosses, four of which found a teammate in the box, and three of which led to shots.

As you can tell, it was a tale of two halves. In the first, Dempsey’s crosses rarely cleared the first defender, and none found another Sounders player. In the second half, four of Rosales’ five crosses created chances, two off of the head of Dempsey himself.

If Seattle is going to win at Jeld-Wen Field on Thursday, they’ll need to do better with their crosses. Based on their chances in game one, it looks to be in the Sounders’ best interest to allow Rosales to take the free kick crosses in game two. Not only did his crosses create better chances than Dempsey in game one, but Deuce seems to be more dangerous getting on the end of crosses than he is at taking them.