USA versus Ghana: Gamestates Analysis

In analyzing MLS shot data, I have learned that—with small sample sizes—how a team plays when the game is tied is a strong indication of how well it will do in future games. The US Mens National Team spent just four-and-a-half minutes tied Monday evening, the epitome of small sample sizes. In case you were curious, the US generated two shots during that time worth about 0.13 goals. Ghana did not generate a shot over those 4.5 minutes.

The next most-important gamestate for a team is being ahead. With at least 17 games of data in MLS, knowing how well a team did when it was leading becomes an important piece of information for predicting that team’s future success. Almost 95 minutes were spent with the US in the lead, a time in which the USMNT took six shots worth 0.5 goals to Ghana’s 21 shots worth 1.7 goals.

Though MLS is definitely far below the level of even a USA-versus-Ghana match, I think a lot of the statistics from our MLS database still apply. I wrote a few weeks back about how away teams that were satisfied with the current gamestate went overboard with their conservative play. I think that could apply to the World Cup, as well. By most statistical accounts, USA versus Ghana was a fairly even matchup going in, yet the US played an annoying conservative style after going up a goal early. It gave up a majority of possession to Ghana in the attacking third, completing just 81 passes to Ghana’s 171 in that zone—not to mention the US being tripled up in Expected Goals when it was ahead.

Granted, Expected Goals likely overestimates the losing team’s chances of scoring. But not by much. In even gamestates in MLS, we see that teams are expected to score 1.29 goals per game, and they actually score 1.30 goals per game. Virtually no difference. However, when teams are ahead they are expected to score 1.79 goals per game, yet they only score about 1.60—an 11-percent drop. This discrepancy is likely due in large part to defenses being more packed in and capable of blocking shots. Indeed, teams that are losing have their shots blocked 27 percent of the time, while teams that are winning only have their shots blocked 22 percent of the time.

All that was simply to say that Ghana’s 1.7 Expected Goals are still representative of a team that was in control—too much control for my comfort level. Even if we assume it was really about 1.5 Expected Goals against a defensive-minded American side, that still triples the USA’s shot potential. Either the US strategy was overly conservative, or Ghana is really that much better. I’d like to believe in the former, but it’s picking between the lesser of two evils.

It just doesn’t make sense to me to play conservatively to maintain the status quo. It invariably leads to massive discrepancies in Expected Goals, and too often allows the opposition an easier way to come back.

How it Happened: Week Eleven

Another weekend of games, and another weekend of contradictions from teams across the league. I thought I’d write today about the six teams in the three games I watched through the lens of huge differences between those teams. Without any further ado, here’s how it happened last weekend.

Toronto FC 2 – 0 New York Red Bulls

Stat that told the story for Toronto: 6 through balls, 3 key passes from middle third

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Toronto and New York are both flawed teams. Toronto doesn’t particularly well with possession in the middle third of the field (especially without Michael Bradley), and they tend to set their defensive line of confrontation dangerously deep in their own half. But there’s one thing they excel at that helps neutralize both of these weaknesses: they attack swiftly and directly through the middle third with through balls to a striker who’s not bad at putting them away, Jermain Defoe. Take a look at that map above: three key passes from TFC midfielders and six more through balls, all coming from the middle third and springing dangerous attacks very quickly. For sake of comparison, New York had exactly zero through balls or key passes from the same part of the field in the match.

Stat that told the story for New York: 4 successful crosses, 34 unsuccessful crosses

If Toronto’s greatest asset is their direct attacking speed through the midfield, it’s one thing that the Red Bulls commonly lack. I already noted that they had no key passes or through balls from the midfield recorded against Toronto, but that number of crosses is fairly absurd as well. I’m not one who believes crossing is a terrible gameplan at all times: Lloyd Sam has maybe been the best Red Bull this year, and they really should’ve scored at least one goal from those 38 crosses on Saturday. But the lack of variety and speed in their attack is stunning for a team as talented as New York. Hopefully this improves when Peguy Luyindula returns and adds some spark to the midfield, but right now New York looks about as flawed as Toronto.

Real Salt Lake 2 – 1 Colorado Rapids

Stat that told the story for RSL: first 50 minutes of the game: 93/110 passing in center of field vs. 61/84 for Colorado

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The Rocky Mountain rivalry is always a hotly-contested one, and in years past has been a game with a clash of styles, too. That was less the case in the first half of Saturday’s game: both teams came out with narrow midfields looking to control the center of the field. The Rapids have tried out these tactics this season, but RSL has been using them for years, and to be frank, it showed early in the game. Salt Lake’s diamond midfield (even without Kyle Beckerman) had little trouble passing the ball around Colorado like a church congregation with the offering dish. The lead-up to their first goal was absolutely beautiful to watch, and they created oodles of other chances in staking themselves to a 2-0 lead.

Stat that told the story for Colorado: 5 out of 7 successful crosses, 11 of 16 total crosses, 10 of 16 shots came after going behind 2-0

Pablo Mastroeni was a really good central midfielder in his playing days, and he has a couple of very good ones in his current squad (especially Dillon Powers). But his insistence on lining his team up with 3 or even 4 natural center midfielders on the field has confused me all season. Colorado was one of the surprise stories of the league last year, and a lot of their success was due to a fairly direct style of play. It certainly wasn’t all long balls and crosses a la Stoke City, but they made a lot of good things happen by getting the ball into the box to Edson Buddle and Deshorn Brown. In this one, after falling behind 2-0 in the 50th minute, Colorado reverted a bit to their 2013 ways. They lumped in significantly more crosses, and not coincidentally they had more success getting legitimate chances, shots and goals. I hope the Raps were taking notes on some of what made them successful in the second half.

Seattle Sounders 1 – 0 San Jose Earthquakes

Stat that told the story for Seattle: Obafemi Martins was/is really good

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So far this year, Clint Dempsey has (deservedly) gotten a lot of attention for being the best player in the league. Obafemi Martins has gotten less attention for being just about as good. Martins and Dempsey are absolutely the most fearsome attack combination in the league right now, and it’s very much because of how well they play off each other. Dempsey’s success has come very much thanks to Martins’ passing and hold-up ability, while Martins has sacrificed some of his goal-scoring to do the dirty work for Seattle. In this one without Deuce, Oba unleashed the fury with a pretty incredible goal that you’ve probably seen already. He’s been everything you could ask for of a Designated Player this year: making plays each and every game that have helped the Sounders to the top of the league.

Stat that told the story for San Jose: Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi was/is really boring

If Seattle’s DP additions from last season have been the most fearsome duo in the league this season, San Jose’s recent signings have been about as scary as the Odd Couple. Let’s run them down: Yannick Djalo looked super exciting, then got hurt. Andreas Gorlitz didn’t look very exciting, then got hurt. Brandon Barklage, Atiba Harris and Khari Stephenson have all been basically the best any Quakes fan could hope for: extremely average MLS journeymen. But the one guy that I want to mention is the one who’s been most disappointing: Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi. I mean no offense to Pierazzi at all, but he came in from French club AC Ajaccio with nearly 180 career appearances in France’s top league and a lot was expected of him. From what I’ve seen of him so far, he’s struggled to fit in with the team as well as the physicality of MLS. He’s hardly been a bad player, but he’s definitely not made the impact you expect of a high-profile addition from a top European league.

 

Agree with my assessments? Think I’m an idiot? Let me know. @MLSAtheist

How it Happened: Week Ten

Another weekend, another bunch of ones and zeroes on the scoreboards for the games I checked out. The season’s a quarter done now for just about every team, and reality is starting to set in that playoffs are only going to be a dream for some this year. Still, MLS is a league of incredible parity and almost everyone still harbors dreams of the postseason, no matter how realistic they are at the moment.

Portland Timbers 1 – 1 LA Galaxy

Stat that told the story for both teams: 2 goals, 1 uncalled red card on a breakaway in 2nd half stoppage time

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It’s nearly impossible to analyze this game without spending a bulk of your attentions on second half stoppage time, when both goals were scored. Not only that, but LA’s Juninho had a breakaway chance to put the game away and was bundled over with no foul called. All in all, it was a pretty incredible conclusion to a game that was fairly entertaining, if not particularly well-played. To some degree, it was more of the same for both teams: the Galaxy struggled to finish the chances they were able to create, and Portland looked out of sorts and a little slow compared to last year’s high-octane outfit.

I want to spend a paragraph here talking a little about the apparent tactical trends of the league at the moment. For the last couple years, it seemed like the formation en vogue was the high-pressing 4-3-3: Kansas City and Portland were the most notable success stories using this setup. But this year, it appears the trend has shifted to the 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield, a la Real Salt Lake. It seems like every team in the league has at least experimented with it this year, from LA to Colorado to DC. The MLSSoccer.com March to the Match podcast did a great feature on this tactical trend a few weeks back detailing some of the pros and cons of the formation.

Anyway, this game seemed like a pretty decent case study with these two formations facing off with one another: Portland’s 4-3-3 against LA’s diamond midfield. It’s my opinion that the narrow diamond midfield does a great job of neutralizing what made the Timbers’ 4-3-3 so effective last year – that’s part of why RSL just seemed to have Caleb Porter’s number last year. Portland was at their best last year mainly because of two guys: Diego Chara and Will Johnson, who played as a double pivot and covered more ground than the Trans-Pacific Railroad. However, the Galaxy’s narrow midfield boxes that double pivot in with four central mids who are all tucked inside, limiting the number of balls Chara & Johnson can win and thereby limiting Portland’s possession. There are plenty of other reasons the Timbers haven’t been great so far this year, but it’s a trend worth watching as they try to turn their season around.

Columbus Crew 0 – 1 Vancouver Whitecaps

Stat that told the story for Columbus: 90.33% of minutes this season have been played by starting eleven

It’s no secret that Columbus started out this season like gangbusters and have since played more like busts. The reason for this is inherently simple: they only have one way of playing. Every single game from Columbus is basically the same: they play the same guys in the same roles and try the same things. It caught teams by surprise in the first few games, but now that the opposition knows what’s coming (short passes out of the back, fullbacks getting way forward, etc.) it’s gotten a lot easier to beat. And now it’s up to coach Gregg Berhalter to make some adjustments and at least give the Crew a plan B so this losing skid doesn’t continue.

Stat that told the story for Vancouver: average age of midfield and forward: 23 years old

Vancouver has sneakily been one of the surprise stories of the 2014 MLS season. Everyone knew they had a good deal of young talent on the squad, but nobody was sure how the chemistry would work out under first-year coach Carl Robinson. So far, returns have been impressive. Not only has Robinson set the team up in a position to be successful tactically, but he’s handed over a ton of responsibility to the youngsters to great effect. With veterans Kenny Miller gone and Nigel Reo-Coker perhaps on the way out, even more of the load is going to be heaped onto the 25-and-under players. During this victory, the only midfielder or forward in the starting eleven over 25 was Pedro Morales (28). And even when they made subs, they brought on 20-year-old Omar Salgado and 21-year-old Russell Teibert – I’d say the future is bright in Vancouver.

Philadelphia Union 0 – 1 DC United

Stat that told the story for DC: wide presence of the forwards

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It’s interesting that a lot of season previews of DC United focused on if the wide play would be good enough to get quality service for new striker Eddie Johnson. I say this because DC has been as good, if not better, as anyone could’ve hoped, despite the presence of roughly zero wide midfielders and zero Eddie Johnson goals. There are obviously a few reasons they’ve been so good, but chiefly among them is that this is Fabian Espindola’s team. He’s played better this season than I ever remember him looking in Salt Lake as the focal point of United’s attack, orchestrating everything and creating a lot of chances. He does this by floating to the wide areas of the field to provide some width to DC’s narrow formation, as his heat map above shows (EJ’s actually pretty good at this too, particularly when holding the ball up).

Stat that told the story for Philadelphia: 647,428 times caught ball-watching this season*

Philadelphia was everyone’s darling in the first few weeks of the season. All their new acquisitions looked really impressive, they had a young and improving defense and some talent up top that was sure to start banging in the goals soon. Fast forward a couple months, and the bottom has fallen out. This loss was their ninth game without a win, they’ve switched formations like four times hoping for a spark, and their coach might get fired soon. So what’s wrong? Lots of things. But #1 in my book is simply that the Union didn’t seem that interested in playing soccer against DC this weekend. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Philly midfielders or defenders or really anyone just watch an opposing player run by them or pass the ball by them with little to no contesting. And this isn’t a problem for one or two players, it’s the entire team. Sorry to be such a rah-rah coach type who says they just need to try harder, but the Union need to be more active, or engaged, or try harder….whatever wording works best.

*this is only an approximation because I couldn’t find Opta’s information on this

How it Happened: Week Nine

Welcome to my few-days-old review of the weekend in MLS, where I recap three games that I watched in their entirety (well, usually) by picking a stat or Opta image that tells the story of the game for each team. This week I fell short of my usual three games, and I apologize to the legions of Red Bulls and FC Dallas fans who will no doubt be disappointed to read the following paragraph.

FC Dallas 0 – 1 New York Red Bulls

Stat that told the story for both teams: 26 minutes for which I was able to watch this game

This game was hideous. Not necessarily soccer wise: Thierry Henry will be fun to watch when he’s pushing a walker around on opposing half, and this was a very competitive match, from what I saw. But I couldn’t even make it past 26 minutes of this game before I had to give up and turn it off. Between Je-Vaughn Watson’s karate kick of Tim Cahill, the referee’s less-than-stellar control of the game, and players, fans and coaches alike going insane showing their indignation at every whistle, it was absolutely painful.

Sporting Kansas City 2 – 0 Columbus Crew

Stat that told the story for SKC: the ability to switch the ball in one pass

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First, an aside: re-capping the national TV game from NBCSN is next to impossible, but for a good reason. Kyle Martino on the broadcast team does such a fantastic job breaking down the tactics of the match, that it’s incredibly difficult for me to pick out anything that hasn’t been said yet. So I’m going to just roll with something he mentioned, and that Matthew Doyle also mentioned in his weekly column. One of the major differences between KC and Columbus is Matt Besler’s ability to switch the field of play with one ball. It’s an ability that led straight to the first goal (buildup pictured above according to Opta), and it’s one that USMNT fans have to hope pays off in the World Cup. Columbus, for all their admirable qualities, don’t really have a player with the quality to hit that ball. Federico Higuain can do it, and Wil Trapp will from time to time, but with SKC if it isn’t Besler switching fields, it’s Graham Zusi or Benny Feilhaber or Seth Sinovic. All in all, they’re just a more complete team at the moment.

Stat that told the story for Columbus: Jairo Arrieta’s actions

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There’s one other really big difference between the Crew and Sporting KC that spells out why Columbus doesn’t measure up, at least not yet. Jairo Arrieta plays as a lone striker for Columbus. This probably isn’t the greatest role for him, because he’s at his best when combining with others. Sometimes this works well with him and Higuain, but sometimes (like Sunday), he ends up isolated and completely ineffective. Seriously, his action that was closest to the goal against SKC was still about 30 yards away from the endline. The Crew did have some solid moves, generally involving Josh Williams overlapping and sending in a dangerous cross, but the lack of a quality striker really did Columbus in.

Chivas USA 1 – 4 Houston Dynamo

Stat that told the story for Houston: interchanging midfield in the new formation

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I’m gonna play a little trivia game here and see if you can guess which heat map belongs to which midfielder from Sunday’s game for Houston. The telecast called Dom Kinnear’s formation a 4-3-3, but it looked a whole lot like a 4-1-4-1 to me, taken straight out of Jay Heaps’ playbook from last season. I really liked the move: the Dynamo have multiple midfielders who can tuck in or pose a threat out wide, and Giles Barnes and Will Bruin just haven’t worked well together up top. So, might as well drop Barnes into the midfield. It was only Chivas, but the early returns were pretty tough to argue with: the midfield dominated every facet of the game from winning balls to creating chances. We’ll see if the Dynamo stick to the formation, but I liked the innovation from Kinnear. By the way, the answer from top left to bottom right: Davis, Garcia, Driver, Barnes, Carrasco.

Stat that told the story for Chivas: first half midfield struggles: 16/19 recoveries/interceptions in their own half

I’ve written about Chivas a few times in recent weeks, focusing mostly on the midfield. Against the LA Galaxy, they got run over and never stood a chance. Against San Jose, they held their own and really made it a game (seeing the Quakes’ struggles against Vancouver this weekend makes that seem like less of an accomplishment). Against the Dynamo on Sunday, it was back to getting run over. The five midfielders put together a total of 19 recoveries + interceptions in the first half, but 16 of them were in their own half and the other three were miles from the attacking goal. Basically, the Goats couldn’t make up any ground and just got pushed around by the more talented Houston midfield. On the bright side: the second half started better, until another goalkeeper red card finished off any Chivas hopes at a comeback.

How It Happened: Week Eight

The scorelines of the three games I caught this weekend had a very “binary solo” feel to them: 1-0, 1-1, 1-0. There were impressive performances from young wingers, outstanding goalkeeping, and irresponsible defending – and that was just in these three games. Here’s how it happened for six teams last weekend.

Columbus Crew 1 – 1 New York Red Bulls

Stat that told the story for New York: 5 terrific chances in the first 10 minutes

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This was certainly the premier game I tuned into this weekend: two teams fighting to stay near the top of the Eastern Conference and who play entertaining soccer. Both teams played pretty well, too, for the most part – a notable exception was the first ten minutes when Red Bulls were terrific and Columbus was sleepwalking. NYRB would look back on these first ten minutes with great angst, as great saves by Steve Clark and near misses by Eric Alexander and Thierry Henry made them all go for naught. New York would eventually get their goal through the red-hot Bradley Wright-Phillips, but also gave up their share of great chances that required big saves from Luis Robles. All in all, this was probably a game where both teams left fairly content with the result and how they played.

Stat that told the story for Columbus: 7 first time crosses from wide players

I went over the game from both team’s perspective above, so I’m going to use this space to talk a little general soccer strategy. Each and every game I ever watch, a wide player will receive a ball in the attacking third with forwards and attacking midfielders streaking into the box. And probably 80% of the time, the winger slows down and takes a touch to steady himself before crossing it, thereby forcing his teammates crashing the box to stop or delay their runs, and allowing the defense a chance to get set and defend the cross. Every time this happens, I get inexplicably angry. Crossing the ball with the first touch is admittedly more difficult and not always the right play, but it overjoys me to see Crew wingers (especially Hector Jimenez and Josh Williams) send in these first time crosses. Of the 23 the team recorded against New York, I counted 7 that were on the wide player’s first touch. Oh, and the one that led to the team’s lone goal? First time.

Montreal Impact 1 – 0 Philadelphia Union

Stat that told the story for Philadelphia: 15 giveaways in their own half by Union defenders

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I used this stat for one of the games last week, and it’s a bit of a tough one to quantify. I included the above image to show how I figure: 15 of the unsuccessful passes by Philly defenders ended in their defensive half (one of which led directly to the game’s lone goal). For a team who have as impressive moments as the Union have early in the year, this kind of sloppiness out of the back really hurts. I don’t want to heap all the criticism on Amobi Okugo, Sheanon Williams and the other defenders, because the truth is part of the problem stems from the midfield. As good as Maurice Edu and Vincent Noguiera look at times, there’s often a conspicuous lack of anyone getting open in the middle of the field for the back line to pass to. The point is this: Philadelphia has certainly looked like a playoff team at times and probably deserves to have more points than they do, but at the same time are usually their own undoing.

Stat that told the story for Montreal: only 41 passes in attacking half by defense/midfield; 51 by four attackers

When watching the Impact this weekend, I was struck by the fact that four attackers in their formation were actually pretty creative and fun to watch. Jack McInerney, Marco Di Vaio, Felipe and Justin Mapp do a lot of good work interchanging and creating chances (especially on the counter). But their defense is fairly fragile, and because of that they play two central midfielders who concentrate on defending first and foremost. This leads to Montreal never really pushing up the field and keeping possession in the attacking half, which ends up putting a lot of pressure on them to defend for heavy minutes. This is one of many reasons that Montreal are near the bottom of the standings; on the other hand, those four attackers can be good enough to win some points on their own at times.

San Jose Earthquakes 1 – 0 Chivas USA

Stat that told the story for Chivas: 7/17 crosses completed by Leandro Barrera

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Chivas had to be disappointed to lose this game. They outplayed the Earthquakes, particularly in the first half. They had more possession and more chances than San Jose on the whole, but they were really lacking in quality for the final ball/shot. A prime culprit on this was also one of their best players on the day, young electric winger Leandro Barrera. He mostly plays with the same strategy as guys like Fabian Castillo or Teal Bunbury; that is, run really fast past the defender and try to cross or shoot. Unfortunately, the end of that sequence is a struggle for Barrera: you can see from the image above that his crosses were as likely to fly well over the goal as they were to find a teammate in the box. If he can improve his service, Chivas should see an uptick in their goal scoring.

Stat that told the story for San Jose: 12 midfield recoveries + interceptions in the first half; 17 in the second

San Jose wasn’t overly impressive in earning their first win of the year, but the second half was markedly better than the first. Admittedly, some of this was due to Chivas playing the last portion of the game down a man, but I think the largest reason for the second half improvement was the introduction of Yannick Djalo to the game. Bringing in a true wide threat stretched Chivas’ midfield quite a bit, which was stocked with 3 center mids and two wide players who were wont to tuck inside. This led to the Goats controlling the midfield and winning a lot of balls in the first half, but they were spread thin and had a harder time in the second stanza. To wit: Chivas had 20 recoveries/interceptions to San Jose’s 12 in the first half, but were out-dueled 17-14 by that measure in the second. Once Djalo is healthy, he needs to be on the field all game: it’s clear that his presence brings a threat not only on the ball, but it also helps the team in other ways.

 

Agree with my ideas on these games? Think I’m an idiot? I love to hear feedback. @MLSAtheist

 

How it Happened: Week seven

I hate to be a disappointment, but Easter weekend means I only got to review two matches instead of the usual three. One was a doozy: a premier matchup of Western Conference powers, while the other had a pretty incredible final five minutes. On to the show (and if you’re really jonesing for some analysis of Chivas-Seattle from Saturday night, I’ll probably tweet some thoughts when I catch up on it later this week).

Real Salt Lake 1 – 0 Portland Timbers

Stat that told the story for Salt Lake: 23/37 passes in attacking center of the field

Stat that told the story for Portland: 7/12 passes in attacking center of the field

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We’re breaking new ground with this one: I’m combining both teams’ stats for this game. These two teams have had drastically different starts to the season, with RSL grinding out results against a very difficult schedule and Portland failing to do the same against an easier slate. Still, the margin of quality between these teams is pretty slim, and that fact was borne out this weekend.

From a Real Salt Lake standpoint, this game was pretty much par for the course for 2014 and really the last five seasons. Aside from a few surprising miscues in possession that gifted chances to the Timbers, RSL’s diamond midfield was good in possession and solid in defense. They found a weakness in Portland’s defense by attacking the channel to the right of the Timbers’ centerbacks (that’s where all the incisive passes above, and Ned Grabavoy’s goal, came). Even though they weren’t at their clinical best, using tiki-taka passes to break through the backline, RSL did their job and got three points at home.

As a Timbers fan, it’s yet another missed opportunity for Portland to get that elusive first win of the year. Theories of what’s plaguing the 2014 Timbers are abound, and like ghost stories or craft beers, I have my likes and dislikes. I’ll say two things on PTFC here: (1) their demise is overstated. Portland has hit the post like a million times already this year,* and the Timbers have only been outscored by four goals (coincidentally the number of penalties they’ve given up). Once those two areas regress to the mean, it’s likely the Timbers will start to earn points and earn them fast.

*Portland leads the league in posts and crossbars hit during even gamestates with four.

But that brings me to (2): the Timbers aren’t playing as well as they did for much of last season. They are a team that thrives on possession when at their best, yet they’ve been out-possessed in each of their last five games. It’s like Portland is always flooring the engine, pushing the ball vertical to rush into shots instead of occasionally using cruise control and slowing the game down. A huge issue for them in this game was their lack of penetration in attack, as illustrated by the image above. Still, the game went back and forth with Portland and RSL both controlling the game for portions, and only the quality finish by Grabavoy instead of the fluffed chances by Maxi Urruti decided the result.

Chicago Fire 1 – 1 New England Revolution

Stat that told the story for New England: Teal Bunbury playing out of position in his position

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That stat above makes no sense, so I’ll let someone much wiser than me explain.

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Bunbury has been playing up top for New England for the entirety of this season, and while he’s always been thought of as a striker, he fits better as a winger in the Revolution’s system. His speed is his greatest asset while his finishing leaves something to be desired, two sure signs that lone striker isn’t necessarily your best fit. At center forward in this one, Bunbury gave a lot of great effort and the team tried to set him off to the races behind Chicago’s backline. But it was never particularly successful. Late in the match, Bunbury was shifted out wide as Jerry Bengtson came on, and he promptly created a chance out of nothing by simply running really fast around Chicago’s left back. I’d love to see more of that and less of Bunbury struggling up top in the future for New England.

Stat that told the story for Chicago: 11 turnovers in their own half by Bakary Soumare and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado

Chicago played well enough to win this game, and probably should have. If not for a poor penalty kick in stoppage time that was easily saved by Bobby Shuttleworth, the Fire would’ve left with three points instead of yet another draw. The draws are getting to be ridiculous for Chicago (6 in 7 games!), but they really have no one to blame but themselves. In addition to the penalty fiasco, the goal they gave up immediately followed one of those 11 turnovers by Chicago centerbacks. Patrick Nyarko was the one who gave up the penalty, but Soumare and Hurtado deserve at least a share of the blame. This was hardly an isolated incident for Chicago – their centerbacks have been shaky all season. Think they regret trading away Austin Berry right about now?

 

Agree with my ideas? Think I’m an idiot? I love to hear feedback: @MLSAtheist

ASA Podcast XLIII: The one where Matty Makes the Call

Hey everyone, here is our latest terrible exhilarating podcast for your listening pleasure. The delay this week in posting was largely due to us switching to ‘Mixcloud’ for the conceivable hosting future as we move way from our current site and into a domain of our own. Admittedly, we ate up a good 15 minutes in the start of the podcast talking about the Seattle-Portland match, but you saw that coming…right? The rest of the podcast is also solid, and perhaps more importantly, less Cascadia-specific, so don’t give up on it just because of that segment!

How it Happened: Week Five

Another great week of MLS games went down this past weekend. Even though I didn’t have the pleasure of watching all 90 minutes of Cascadia bliss from Portland (I do my best to mix up which teams I watch for this post, and this wasn’t a Seattle or Portland week), there were still plenty of solid rivalry matches to go around. Without further ado, here’s how it happened for six teams last weekend:

Houston Dynamo 1 – 4 FC Dallas

Stat that told the story for Houston: Ricardo Salazar’s heat map

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If you don’t recognize Ricardo Salazar’s name from the Houston roster, you aren’t alone. He was the referee for this one, and while I refuse to rip on officials because they have a really difficult job, it’s impossible to deny the influence he had on this game (image above shows all the fouls called – three of which turned directly into goals). I actually don’t think Salazar did a terrible job given the circumstances: this game was a true rivalry match where both teams came out and played super physically from the opening whistle. But Houston and Dallas were neck-and-neck until the red card was doled out to David Horst, and the Dynamo almost immediately capitulated once they went down a man. Sure, the red card was a debatable decision, but Houston has to show better composure after going down a man.

Stat that told the story for Dallas: 11 set pieces taken by Mauro Diaz and Michel

It would be easy to pick a stat from the last half hour of this one, when Houston had basically given up and the Dallas midfield had full control of the park. But what’s arguably more impressive from this one was how Dallas was still in this game for the first hour, despite being on the road to a tough opponent in the Dynamo. Truthfully, FCD hadn’t been playing particularly well; Houston was successful in limiting space for Diaz and they had control of the midfield. But even playing mediocre, Dallas had created a number of really good chances and a goal, all from set pieces. Both Diaz and Michel are wizards over a dead ball, and any set piece in the attacking half is a chance waiting to happen for the Hoops.

Sporting KC 0 – 0 Real Salt Lake

Stat that told the story for Kansas City: 16 key passes

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For me, this stat/image is more about where the key passes took place than how many of them there were. KC and RSL have a bit of a history now, and the teams definitely know what to expect when they faceoff. I thought Sporting did a really good job of a couple things: (1) pressing RSL into turnovers and (2) attacking the Salt Lake diamond midfield. I’ll talk more about #1 below, so here’s my take on KC’s attack. They created most of their shots or chances by either playing wide around the narrow midfield or by bypassing it entirely and going over the top. While it didn’t result in any goals for Sporting, that was more of a function of RSL’s great goalkeeping and KC’s mediocre finishing. Overall, I liked the gameplan of Peter Vermes this weekend.

Stat that told the story for Salt Lake: 257/282 (91.1%) of completed passes were in the first two thirds of the field

Real Salt Lake is a possession team, and everyone knows it. They try to pass all over the field, and when they’re at their best they control the ball into and around the penalty area before getting chances. In this one, Kansas City really let them have it with their high-pressing defense. RSL couldn’t find much space anywhere in the middle third of the field, let alone the attacking third, leading Salt Lake to play mostly in their own half. This was particularly the case early in the game: in the games first 40 minutes, 76/113 (67%) of RSL’s completed passes were in the defensive half of the field. It was a bit surprising that a veteran team like RSL didn’t seem prepared for this one, but given the makeshift lineup Jeff Cassar fielded, a scoreless draw has to be seen as a point gained rather than two lost in Utah.

 

Chivas USA 0 – 3 LA Galaxy

Stat that told the story for LA: 131 completed passes in the center of the field by midfielders

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Bruce Arena did something that was pretty unexpected this Sunday, deploying a diamond midfield of four nominally central midfielders: Juninho, Stefan Ishizaki, Marcelo Sarvas and Baggio Husidic. The move was a clear message that despite their best attempts, the Galaxy had been unable thus far to find any decent wide play in the midfield opposite Landon Donovan. Instead of trying yet another option out there, LA played their four best overall midfielders in a diamond, and instructed them to figure it out as they went. As the scoreline suggests, this was hugely successful as the Galaxy just overran Chivas in the midfield time and again. The starting midfield completed 131 passes in the center of the field compared to the Goats’ midfield’s 79, and that’s to say nothing of the 2 goals on 8 shots that the midfielders also added. As I’ll note in the next paragraph, Chivas’ midfield is hardly a force to be reckoned with, but early signs on the diamond midfield are strictly positive.

Stat that told the story for Chivas: 1 weird starting lineup

OK, this isn’t a stat, but it’s hard to find anything in particular to focus on when most of the game was Chivas getting run over. There were some decent attacking combinations when the Goats were able to possess the ball and get forward, but those times were few and far between. From looking at the team that Wilmer Cabrera put on the field, it’s hard to imagine a much better result. I know the general narrative surrounding Chivas is that the club is much improved since Cabrera’s come onboard, but this is still a weirdly constructed roster. Trying to fit this team of very few fullbacks and a ton of attack-minded midfielders into a 4-4-2 is quite a task, which is why this week’s lineup looked so weird. The strange fits included featuring midfielder Eric Avila and centerback Andrew Jean-Baptiste at fullback, and Agustin Pelletieri* and mostly attack-minded Carlos Alvarez in central midfield.

*I think Pelletieri is supposed to be more of a holding midfielder, but all I’ve seen of him is an early red card vs. Vancouver and getting run over by LA. Too early to pass judgment, but he wasn’t impressive this weekend.

Agree with my assessments? Think I’m an idiot? I always appreciate feedback. @MLSAtheist

How It Happened: Week Four

Week four was a great week for MLS fans. It seemed like nearly every game ended with a stoppage time goal to rescue a draw or clinch a victory, and there were plenty of great goals and saves to go around. On a personal level, week four was less great: between a car breakdown, being super busy at my real job and the USA-Mexico friendly happening at 11 PM EST, I come to you for my weekly column a day late and a game short. Sincerest apologies to my loyal readers (both of you).

 

Philadelphia Union 1 – 1 Montreal Impact

Stat that told the story for Montreal: Long passes and counter-attacks

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So this isn’t necessarily a stat, but watching Montreal is a clear lesson in direct attacking with long passes. The image above shows all the completed passes by Montreal in the middle third of the field, and you can tell that they tend to be pretty long. And these are only the completed passes – long passes have a higher tendency to be incomplete, so in fact Montreal attempted way more long passes than are in the picture. On the bright side, Montreal has some guys who are pretty darn good at those long passes (and another who’s pretty darn good on the end of them: check out this beauty that Mapp hits to Marco Di Vaio for the Impact’s lone goal. This isn’t new for Montreal: it’s exactly how they played last year when they rolled to a hot start and then struggled mightily down the stretch. The hot start hasn’t exactly happened this year; will the rest of the season play out any better?

 

Stat that told the story for Philadelphia: 3 blocked shots by Amobi Okugo Aaron Wheeler

What hurts for Philadelphia fans is that if the centerback pairing of Okugo and Wheeler had managed to block a fourth shot, the Union probably would’ve snatched three points instead of just one. From watching Philly a couple times now this year, it seems like their backline, particularly Okugo, blocks a ton of shots. MLS fantasy stats say Okugo is averaging 9.5 CBIs (Clearances, Blocks & Interceptions) per game, and he tallied 9 against Montreal. But only two were blocked shots, and if he had closed Marco Di Vaio down just one step earlier on that goal…. Still, MDV is a class player even at his advanced age, and Okugo has saved enough goals this year that one slip up is hardly enough to pile on the guy.

 

Seattle Sounders 1 – 2 Columbus Crew

Stat that told the story for Columbus: Location of Federico Higuain’s touches

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If you haven’t watched any Columbus Crew games yet this season, you’re missing out on the most entertaining team in the league. This tweet from Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle sums it up better than I ever could: the Crew is so fluid and so good at creating space in possession that they create a ton of chances. The straw that stirs the drink for all this is their talisman, Federico Higuain. In the past, Higuain has floated all over the attacking half of the field to get on the ball, but this year he’s extended his meanderings to the entire field (see exhibit A: heat map above).

Another part of what’s making Columbus so successful this year is how well the rest of the team plays off his movement. For example, when Higuain slides onto Bernardo Anor‘s flank, sometimes Anor or Dom Oduro or Tony Tchani makes a run off the movement to create an attacking chance. This kind of interplay is awesome to watch, and if Gregg Berhalter can keep his team’s creative spark alive then Columbus could not only make the postseason, but make some noise once there.

Stat that told the story for Seattle: 20 recoveries + interceptions in attacking half

After writing an opus to Columbus’ early play, it’s time to bring them back down to Earth a little bit. If it weren’t for the red card issued to Djimi Traore, the Crew’s perfect start would’ve been seriously in jeopardy. Sigi Schmid came out with a good tactical plan to counteract Berhalter’s attacking possession style, pressing high up the field and trying to win the ball off Columbus’ defenders.

Before going a man down, the pressing led to a number of balls won in the attacking half which led directly to dangerous Seattle counterattacks. Some of this high pressing could also be attributed to the 4-3-3 that the Sounders employed in the absence of Clint Dempsey. I might be alone in this opinion, but I wouldn’t mind seeing Dempsey in that formation alongside Obafemi Martins and one of Lamar Neagle/Kenny Cooper. I know Sounders fans want Dempsey to be the focal point of this team, but he might just be more effective as a complimentary piece in a balanced formation.

Agree with my assessments? Think I’m an idiot? I always appreciate feedback. @MLSAtheist

How it Happened: Week Three

In the three games I watched this week, five goals were scored. Two were from penalty kicks, and two were off corner kicks. Needless to say, offenses around the league are in early-season form, i.e. not exactly clicking in front of the net. On the bright side, there was a decent amount of combination play leading to chances….it’s just that whole putting them away thing that MLS teams are still working on. Onto the main attraction:

Chicago Fire 1 – 1 New York Red Bulls

Stat that told the story for New York: 350 completed passes; 68% of which were on the left side of the field*

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It’s hardly inspiring for the Supporters’ Shield holders to sneak away from Chicago with a draw, but I actually thought they played pretty well on Sunday. Like I said above about the league as a whole, quality was missing on the final ball/shot, but New York fans shouldn’t be too worried about the team’s winless start. In this one there was quite a bit of good linking-up, particularly on the left flank. Given that midfielder Matt Watson was starting in a pinch as a nominal right back for the Fire, it seemed like a concerted effort from RBNY to expose a weakness on that side of the field. Between Roy Miller, Jonny Steele and Thierry Henry, there were some encouraging sequences down that side in particular; unfortunately for New York it didn’t lead to any actual goals.

*This stat/image is blatantly stolen from the Twitter account of MLS Fantasy Insider Ben Jata, @Ben_Jata. After seeing it this weekend, I was unable to think of anything better to include, so thanks, Ben!

Stat that told the story for Chicago: 24 total shots + key passes, only 2 of which were from Mike Magee

I’m not sure if this one is a good stat for Chicago fans or a bad one, but Mike Magee was conspicuously absent from a lot of the action this weekend (unless you count yelling incessantly and childishly at the ref as your definition of ‘action’). But seriously: last year Chicago had 377 shots the entire season, and Magee either took or assisted on 116 of them (31%)*. Oh, and he only played 22 of their 34 games. The fact that he was involved in only 2 of the team’s 24 shots (both of his shots were blocked, for what it’s worth) could certainly be viewed as concerning for Chicago fans expecting another MVP-caliber season out of Magee. But on the other hand, it’s easy to chalk up the struggles to the fact that this was his first game of the season after a maybe-contract-hold-out related hiatus. Also, the fact that Chicago managed to create 22 shots without Magee’s direct influence (or Patrick Nyarko and Dilly Duka, both also out this weekend) has to be a good sign for a team that was often a one-man show last season: youngsters Harrison Shipp and Benji Joya in particular both seem capable of lightening the load.

*Numbers from Squawka.

 

Toronto FC 1 – 0 DC United

Stat that told the story for Toronto: 38% possession, 3 points won

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TFC captain Michael Bradley made headlines this week saying something along the lines of how possession was an overrated stat, and his team certainly appears to be trying to prove his point so far this season. The Reds didn’t see a ton of the ball in their home opener, instead preferring to let DC knock the ball around with minimal penetration in the final third. And then when Toronto did win the ball, well, check out the Opta image that led to the game’s lone goal for Jermain Defoe (or watch the video). It started with a hopeful ball from keeper Julio Cesar. The second ball was recovered by Steven Caldwell, who fed Jonathan Osorio. Osorio found his midfield partner Bradley, who lofted a brilliant 7-iron to fellow DP Gilberto. The Brazilian’s shot was saved but stabbed home by the sequence’s final Designated Player, Defoe. Balls like that one were played multiple times throughout the game by both Bradley and Osorio, as TFC has shown no aversion to going vertical quickly upon winning the ball. And with passes like that, speedy wingers, and quality strikers, it’s certainly a strategy that may continue to pay off.

Stat that told the story for DC: 1/21 completed crosses

This stat goes along a bit with what I wrote about Toronto above: they made themselves hard to penetrate in the final third, leading to plenty of incomplete crosses. Some of this high number of aimless crosses also comes from the fact that DC was chasing an equalizer and just lumping balls into the box late in the match. Still, less than 5% on completing crosses is a bit of a red flag when you look at the stat sheet. Particularly when your biggest attacking threat is Eddie Johnson, who tends to be at his best when attacking balls in the air. You’d think Ben Olsen would expect a better crossing percentage. To be fair to United though, I thought they were much better in this game than they were on opening day against Columbus. They looked about 4 times more organized than two weeks ago, and about 786 times more organized than last season, and their possession and link-up play showed signs of improvement too. Still a ways to go, but at least things are trending upward for the Black and Red.

 

Colorado Rapids 2 – 0 Portland Timbers

Stat that told the story for Portland: 1 Donovan Ricketts karate kick

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I admit that I’m cheating here and not using a stat or an Opta Chalkboard image. But the above grainy screenshot of my TV that I took is too hilarious and impactful not to include. Colorado and Portland played a game on Saturday that some might call turgid, or testy, or any number of adjectives that are really stand-ins for the word boring. The most interesting parts of most of the game were Ricketts’ adventures in goal, which ranged from dropping floated long balls to tipping shots straight in the air to himself. In the 71st minute it appeared Ricketts had had enough and essentially dropped the mic. Flying out of his net, he leapt into the air with both feet, apparently hoping that if he looked crazy enough the ref would look away in horror instead of red carding him for the obvious kick to Deshorn Brown‘s chest. The Rapids converted the penalty and then added another one a few minutes later, and that was all she wrote.

Stat that told the story for Colorado: 59 total interceptions/recoveries/tackles won; 27 in the game’s first 30 minutes

Alright, I was silly with the Portland section so I feel like I need to do a little serious analysis for this paragraph. The truth is that this game was fairly sloppy on both sides, which is particularly surprising considering how technically proficient Portland was for most of last season. But cold weather combined with early season chemistry issues makes teams play sloppily sometimes, and it didn’t help that Colorado came out and looked very good to start this game. Their defensive shape was very compact when the Timbers had the ball, and the Rapids were very proficient in closing down passing lanes and taking possession back. The momentum swung back to Portland’s side and back a couple of times throughout the match, but Colorado’s strong start set the tone that Donovan Ricketts helped carry to the final whistle.

 

Agree with my assessments? Think I’m an idiot? I always enjoy feedback. Contact me on twitter @MLSAtheist or by email at MLSAtheist@gmail.com