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

 

Week 9 PWP-Pick-List – My stunner this week? Columbus taking 3 at Sporting?!?

My thoughts on the Sporting v Columbus match a bit further down; for now let’s get started working from left to right based upon kick-off times:

Toronto entertains New England:  Toronto has been the odd one out in PWP this year and they’ve had injuries to go with – it doesn’t appear that is the case this week.  Both teams are at full strength.  So how might this game go?  Will the Revolution ‘turtle-up’ in defense like they have in some other away games?  Toronto has been a side that is willing to yield large amounts of possession…  Normally the run of play drives the intent where one team will want to play  ‘keep-away’ (sustain and maintain possession to increase better chances).  I’m not sure about this game though.  Without trying to be to cynical might this game be a game of ‘hot-potato’; you take it – no you take it???    …. Probably not, but there’s a fair chance that large chunks of this game will be start-stop with plenty of second chance balls and seeing-eye switches/through-balls/counterattacks against the run of play driving opportunities.  Or…. Nelson pulls a surprise with a possession based attack?   I don’t know…  However that balances out I see Toronto taking three points – perhaps 2-1 as a final score?

Vancouver how to San Jose:  Have the earthquakes put themselves together now after that win versus Chivas – perhaps?  But enough to beat an aggressive Vancouver squad at BC Place – not likely.  Vancouver wins this – in my view what remains is how many goals they score against a slower San Jose defense.  If history has any say it’ll be at least 2-1 Vancouver – my opine is the Whitecaps could score as many as three as the woes for San Jose continue.

Real Salt Lake travel to Chicago:  For some reason RSL struggles a wee bit in Chicago – in the last 5 matches RSL have never scored more than a goal but… this year may be different.  Chicago still don’t have a strong defense and Jaoa Plata is back from injury for Real.  I see this game as being one of a few games where an away team will win this week.  Real Salt Lake are beginning to gel a bit better and as much as I like Chicago it’s hard to see them taking three points against Real; RSL wins…

Colorado home to LA Galaxy:  This is a big test for the Rapids – especially after getting smacked down so badly in Seattle.  No major injuries or suspensions for either team and it’s likely the team who has the edge in possession is the team who takes this one unless early goals signal a blowout.  The Galaxy are (if you can believe this) even more formidable in attack than Seattle and like the RSL v Chicago game I see this one being won by the away team – LA Galaxy wins – against the odds most likely.

Philadelphia travel to Seattle:  The Union are on a bad run of late – win-less in six while Seattle are simply pumping with energy since that come from behind 4-4 draw with Portland.   Can anyone stop the Sounders as they continue to pound their opponents of late?  With them in the friendly confines of Century Link Field and no major injuries (I’m aware of) to their top 12 or so it just doesn’t seem likely the Union can come together to win this one.  Perhaps another multiple goal game for Seattle – but with a back-four that can be slow at times I don’t think they get a clean sheet — we’ll see – Seattle wins.

Portland at home to DC United:  If you looked at this game before the season started you mighta thought this one a no-brainer; not so fast now though.  DC United are taking shape as a strong attacking team that is no slouch in defense.  My view here is this one is a battle of possession with the critical time being spent defending United crosses into the box on one side and finding the right striker to score on the attacking side.  Total possession percentage might not mean that much with two teams like this – what will matter most is the quality versus quantity issue in the Final Third.  The Timbers are beginning to show last year’s habits and DC United are no where near the doormat this year.  I see this as a tight one but, really, can the Timbers afford to drop points at home again?  Even a draw here would be a big disappointment.  Timbers take three.

Chivas USA at home to Houston:  Two teams looking to change direction – Chivas can score and Torres has shown that.  The confidence of the Dynamo has to be shaky after getting hammered by New York and then turning around and dropping 2 points with that draw versus Portland.  All told neither team has a win in their last six games and a ‘draw’ is begging to be called here but I won’t.   At the end of the day the team who attacks better, as whole, usually wins.  And so far this year Chivas have attacked better, as a team, than Houston.  Chivas Win…

FC Dallas at home to New York:  If there was ever a time to play Dallas it’s now – they took a heavy and costly loss in DC United and New York are riding a wave that should remind many of how well they performed last year in winning the Supporter’s Shield.  New York wins… especially with Diaz unlikely to start and Michel, as well as Loyd, on a red card suspension — I just don’t see the home team winning this game.

Sporting KC at home to Columbus:  Of all this games this weekend this is the biggest one I’d like to watch and THANKFULLY this one is on NBC Sunday afternoon 4:00 PM Eastern!  Columbus have been one of the stronger teams to start this year and even with 3 draws on the trot they remain at the top with Sporting one point behind.   The challenge for Sporting this game is who starts at center-back; if I recall Opara is still injured and Collin is on a red card suspension.  And with Columbus being one of the top attacking teams in MLS this year I’m seeing the Berhalter bunch take three points – though if putting money on this game a draw is more likely.

In closing…

In case you missed it I did some research on team defensive activities this past week and after 71 games teams who average more Clearances, Interceptions and Blocked Crosses generate more Unsuccessful Passes against their Opponent’s and are more likely to win… so if you get a chance today watch the wings and hopefully your team will do a better job in those key performance areas.

So far I’m at 44% and staying there will be a challenge given I’m not offering up draws anymore – a team might consider a draw a great result but no-one goes into a game with a plan that expects to get a draw as an outcome.  Only the game state as the game is played might drive decisions that push for one point instead of three…

Best, Chris

Possession with Purpose: My MLS thoughts and the Indices through Week 5

An editorial comment before starting: In case you missed it, there is no flash and dash to my headlines for Possession with Purpose. My intent here is not to create a misconception about what the Indices and corresponding statistics show.

Statistics, when effective, are not based upon emotion; they have value because they lack emotion. The trick has always been, from a management standpoint, to balance the value of metrics with the value of knowledge in how the game of soccer is played.

With that said there are a few changes (as expected after just five weeks) to these Indices – I’ll dig into those, but first as always, here’s a link to my original article on American Soccer Analysis in case you aren’t familiar with my methodology.

PWP COMPOSITE INDEX CUMULATIVE THROUGH WEEK 5 2014

PWP COMPOSITE INDEX CUMULATIVE THROUGH WEEK 5 2014

Observations:

It’s still early so teams may move around quite a bit. Consider how last year took shape: it wasn’t until the 15-17 week time-frame where teams settled in, and even then we saw FC Dallas take a marked nose-dive in PWP.

Put another way; by Week 17, last year, eight of the ten teams to make the MLS Playoffs were in the top ten and pretty much stayed there the rest of the way. By 2013 season’s end this Index had correctly identified nine of the top ten teams with only Houston as the outlier at 12th.

The grist between Week 4 and Week 5…

  • The Capt. Obvious here is FC Dallas have moved up top while Columbus, who lost 2-nil to Toronto have slid back to 2nd.
  • As for the bottom dwellers (somebody has gotta be there)… San Jose, Chivas and New England – more to follow there when digging into the Attacking and Defending PWP Indices.
  • Houston was off to a good start this season (4th in PWP last week) but they’ve dropped to 10th best this week. Much of that had to do with a red card to center-back David Horst and the three goals scored by Dallas less than 15 minutes after his exit.
  • This drop is one of those early season moves that might be expected with such a low sample size – by Week 12 or so a one-off game like this for a team might not create such a large impact in the Index rating.
  • Real Salt Lake completely hammered Toronto two weeks ago – yet this week, a big surprise for me, Toronto turned around and beat Columbus, in Columbus. That great result for Toronto saw them move up from 17th to 12th.
  • Other movers include Ben Olsen’s squad. DC United was dead last after four weeks and are now tucked in at 12th, behind Portland.
  • Another big mover this week was New England, albeit the wrong way, who moved from 12th best to 17th. More to follow on the Revolution a bit further down…

What to Look for Next Weekend…

As the year progresses I will begin to offer up a few snippets for your consideration on the upcoming games while leveraging the PWP Indices.

I’m not sure if you want to call these prognostications or not – that’s up to you – but in looking at the Indices and understanding all the analysis behind how they are created here’s my thoughts for this weekend.

I call it my (PWP-Pick-List): I have no idea how this will play out so we can all watch together…

  • Real Salt Lake at Philadelphia – Given the PWP pedigree of Salt Lake I’m not seeing Philadelphia win this game; as for the addition of Wenger and how he influences things – hard to say. In my view it is more likely Edu and/or Okugo lend more value than Wenger at this time. RSL wins…
  • Colorado at Toronto – Tough one here but I am going with a win to Colorado. It’s early yet and the Rapids remain a strong attacking team, even on the road (4 points on the road already). That coupled with numerous injuries in Toronto I see the Rapids taking 3 points against the depleted Reds.
  • Chicago at Montreal – Truly an interesting game between Yallop’s style and Klopas’s style. I had originally considered this might end in a draw but after thinking a bit more about how weak the PWP Defense was in Chicago last year (under Klopas) and how weak the Montreal defense is looking this year (under Klopas) I think Chicago takes 3 points.
  • Houston at New England – That red card really hurt Houston and perhaps Brunner? gets the head nod to replace Horst. As for the Revolution – they have a solid defense but can they score? I think Houston can get at least one goal up north – I’m just not seeing the same for New England… Houston wins.
  • New York at DC United – A real early test for both teams. The defense for New York really hasn’t been that good and DC are beginning to take shape. New York wins if Sekagya and Olave pair up as center backs with Eckersley returning to partner Miller as the fullbacks. If Kimura starts at right back I think DC United wins. Rumor has it Miller is injured – does that put Convey as the left fullback? If so don’t forget the 4-1 loss to Vancouver with Convey playing left fullback…
  • Seattle at FC Dallas – Another tough road match for the Sounders coming off a lucky tie against Portland last week. In all fairness the Timbers dominated large parts of that game and they exposed the weak center of Seattle. But FC Dallas also have a weak center – this could be another 3-3 draw but the edge goes to Seattle with Traore returning as center-back in place of a very weak defending Anibaba.
  • Chivas at Portland – Can I really opine anything different than 3 points to Portland? I’ll put it this way: if they don’t get three points against a very disorganized defense like Chivas there may be major issues in Soccer City USA.
  • Vancouver at Los Angeles – I’m not sure anybody beats LA in LA this year. LA wins.
  • Columbus at San Jose – Challenging home game for San Jose and they need three points against a strong Eastern Conference team. For now, I don’t see them doing that regardless of how many crosses they put into the box. Most likely a draw here…

I wouldn’t bet the house on any of these offerings – I’d suggest they are no more or less valuable than what others following MLS soccer might consider.

For the record though – after Week 15 completes I will begin to keep official track of my prognostications leveraging the PWP Indices.

Moving on to my PWP Attacking Index…

PWP ATTACKING INDEX CUMULATIVE THROUGH WEEK 5 2014

PWP ATTACKING INDEX CUMULATIVE THROUGH WEEK 5 2014

Observations:

Here’s where it gets interesting. Note that Philadelphia, New York and Chicago Fire are fairly high up in the rankings while Toronto and Sporting KC are a bit lower.

This is where you can get an idea on what teams tend to focus a wee bit more in attack and what teams might not.

So for example, when looking at New England, they have had just one home game so far this year. They’ve been shutout by Vancouver and in three of their four road matches they didn’t score a goal.

The only team they have beaten this year is San Jose, a current bottom dweller for most of the first five weeks. It’s that overall Index rating that helps me shape my pick that Houston will beat New England given their current performances.

As for New York, they have four draws so far this year after getting hammered at home by Vancouver. Their attack has gotten better with Peguy Luyindula and his efforts working with Steele and Sam were pretty good in Montreal. All that happened without Henry, Cahill or McCarty starting (albeit McCarty did come on as a sub later on). Don’t forget Luyindula missed that PK as well…

Chicago… This team does not resemble the attack pattern of old Chicago that Yallop left behind and abandoned in San Jose. There is more grist on the ground this year and if the defense gets better they should be pretty good.

My PWP Defending Index…

PWP DEFENDING INDEX CUMULATIVE THROUGH WEEK 5 2014

PWP DEFENDING INDEX CUMULATIVE THROUGH WEEK 5 2014

Observations:

The LA Galaxy have moved into the top spot in place of Columbus while Houston took a huge nose dive with the red card to Horst.

Four goals against (one being an own goal) to FC Dallas will significantly influence this Index that early in the season… note Houston went from having the second most effective defense to the 12th most effective defense.

Creeping up further this week was Sporting KC. Last year they were tops for the 34 game regular season and this week they climbed from 5th up to 2nd with that game against Real Salt Lake. It’s quite an achievement for Sporting to get a clean sheet against that wicked-good Diamond 4-4-2.

So how about New England? Two years ago their defense was solid and their attack was shaky; have they digressed? Hard to say, their back-end looks good (ooh err missus) but their front end leaves a wee bit to be desired…

Vancouver continues to stay in the top 10 for Defending PWP. Last year they were horrid in defense and every week they stay in the top ten is every reason to consider betting they will make the playoffs.

Last but not least Toronto are sitting in 7th place in Defending PWP. Defense will win you championships. The rebuild, though looking more geared to improve the attack, has had a strong influence on the defensive side of the pitch.

As noted earlier it appears they have a number of injuries — to long to list — so here’s a link in case you are interested.

In closing…

Clint Dempsey had a great 20+ minutes for Seattle this past weekend and it looks as if Schmid may have found the right area for him to operate in. That’s bad news for the Western Conference as a whole and in particular for Vancouver and Portland as they also vie against the Sounders for the Cascadia Cup.

How Dempsey settles in will be interesting especially if Kenny Cooper returns to his goal scoring days while in New York. The system might be a wee bit different but Cooper does well when there are others around him who can score and create good space by their mere presence on the pitch; Dempsey does that like Henry does that for New York.

All else considered the only teams I really haven’t talked about that much about are Montreal and Chivas.

I have no idea how Chivas will do this year. Their match this weekend in Portland is an early statement match for both teams. If Chivas takes it on the chin it is likely they retain the doormat award in the West again this year.

As for Montreal, I’m not a fan of Klopas (not because I don’t like him, I don’t know him) but I think the poor defense in Chicago will translate to Montreal. It’s hard to say though now that they have McInerney as well as Di Viao…

Five games in, Montreal are 5th worst in Defending PWP and 6th worst in Attacking PWP. Bottom line here is they aren’t good on either side of the ball, yet.

If I had an early season prognostication it would be Montreal will be the doormats of the Eastern Conference unless Jack McInerney brings some magic with him.

All the best, Chris You can follow me on twitter here @ChrisGluckPWP.

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

mtl4

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

clb4
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

MLS PWP: Team Performance Index through Week 4

With just four weeks of play in the books, it’s unlikely that the bottom feeders by the end of this year are those at the bottom right now. But this analysis should be an indicator on who needs to get better in attacking (and in defending) when it comes to Possession, Passing Accuracy, Penetration, Creation of Goal Scoring Opportunities and converting those opportunities into goals.

As a reminder here is the initial PWP article offering up an introduction and explanation to the PWP Strategic Index, if this is a new approach for you to consider.

For the future – please get used to the abbreviation and hashtag #PWP-TPI. I will refer to my cumulative analyses on MLS team performance this way.

And in case you missed it here is a link to the Week 4 PWP Analysis.

Here’s how they stand after Week 4:

PWP Cumulative Strategic Index After Week 4

Observations: (click to enlarge)

For me it’s no surprise that Columbus remain atop considering they have 9 points after three games and have done pretty well in all phases of PWP. They rank 3rd in Possession percentage at ~57%, 1st in Passing Accuracy at ~81%, nearly half of all their shots taken have been on goal (41.48%), and they’ve converted 62.86% of those targeted shots into goals. Only FC Dallas has a better rate in converting targeted shots on goal to goals scored (71.25%)… Conversely, DC United have only converted 7.41% of their shots on goal into goals scored.

What is somewhat surprising is how far down Toronto have dropped after their 3-nil loss to Real Salt Lake. As noted in my Week 4 Analysis Toronto did well in getting results their first two games, but when going up against a traditional powerhouse in MLS their tactics and strategies were simply dominated.

Again, to drive home some points about PWP – Passing Accuracy and Possession Percentage will influence the bottom line, and in the first three games Toronto have simply been very poor in passing accuracy (67%, 59%, and 54%), and their highest amount of possession percentage came against RSL at 46%, while they had 38% against DC United and 32% against Seattle.

We already know that DC United has not started with a bang–and given Seattle’s loss to Columbus–it isn’t quite so surprising after all.  (Perhaps?) the league table position for Toronto is more a reflection of luck and good fortune than a comprehensive approach to attacking and defending with purpose?

I’m not alone in ranking Toronto a bit further down the scale…  Whoscored.com currently ranks Toronto as 11th. I also checked Squawka.com, but their data currently only go out to week 2 for team comparisons.

So enough about Toronto. Dallas, Salt Lake, Houston and Vancouver round out the top 5. In considering those other four, the new kid on the block for me here is Vancouver. Why?

Well last year they had issues in defending while clearly having a very strong attack. Early indications are that the defending side of the equation has been fixed… does that hold true as the grind begins in April and the heat of summer sets in?

As for Dallas, Salt Lake and Houston – Pareja is no stranger to fielding a top team in MLS when it comes to Possession with Purpose (Colorado was in the top ten last year), and Houston has done what it needed to do (at least so far) to get tighter in defense and offer up better balls for Barnes and Bruin to score.

The boring team in the top 5 goes to Real Salt Lake. Simply said, they just keep doing what they need to do – polish their Diamond 4-4-2 and let it shine, regardless of who plays up top – be it Garcia, Plata or Saborio. Then there’s the ever present and dominating defensive central midfielder, Kyle Beckerman, who controls the back.

Speaking of the Diamond 4-4-2 – as the year continues, I’ll be able to offer up additional analysis on what teams run what basic formations with the intent to really peel them back to see if specific team performance indicators increase or decrease based upon that simple filter.

In considering the bottom feeders outside of Toronto so far…

DC United – Aye – great weekend in that game against Chicago, and there remains no question DC United like a possession-based attack. The difference this week was a highly engaged Johnson and Espindola in attack that also included a steady stream of pretty good crossing and wing penetration.

How well that holds up is hard to tell. Head coach Frank Yallop has been known to cede possession, given his days in San Jose, but the direct attack for the Fire is more ground-based this year given the types of strikers. Has everybody by now realized that Yallop was sacked because he wanted to change the attacking approach in San Jose, and Watson–along with the front office–didn’t?

To be sure – look no further than what team sits just above DC United – it’s San Jose. For now, that’s not an indicator that the Earthquakes are a bad team… no… I’d offer that it’s more of an indicator that their approach in attack needs refinement as does their back four being a bit unlucky with that own goal against New England.

Not last and not least are Portland and Montreal… For me, seeing Montreal on the low end is not surprising – head coach Frank Klopas ran a pretty weak defensive team in Chicago last year, and it seems to have translated over to Montreal. It’s true that Di Vaio was missing in games 1 and 2, so this will be a team to watch as well.

As for Portland,  here’s a possession-based team that simply hasn’t clicked yet. And in all that there remain holes in the defending side. One might say that there are distinct instances of distinction where they have instinctively distinguished themselves as lacking instinct in where to defend. Or – in other words – the back four have been better at ball watching than defending the ball…

Mid-table: Sporting, Colorado, LA, New York, Philadelphia and New England

It’s early days and given some top activities in defending and attacking for Sporting it is likely their run of games inside and outside of the MLS Regular season will now give them a breather to prepare for Month 2; the same can probably be said for LA as well as the Earthquakes (who a lower at this time).

As for New York – I’ll touch more on them in another article but for now I’m still not sure Petke has found the right mix. Philadelphia, from what I have seen, has some dangerous players in the Midfield (Edu and Maindana come to mind first) – so how they fare in April will be interesting to see in contrast with New England.

With all those observations I’ll simply offer up these two diagrams to give you an idea on where each team stands in the PWP Strategic Attacking Index and Strategic Defending Index.

PWP CUMULATIVE ATTACKING INDEX AFTER WEEK 4

As a reminder here are the individual players who have been highlighted as the PWP Attacking Players for March – they might be reasonable targets for your MLS Fantasy team if funds are available…

1. Federico Higuain
2. Jaoa Plata
3. Bernardo Anor
4. Graham Zusi

On to the Strategic Defending PWP and the PWP Defenders of March.

PWP CUMULATIVE DEFENDING INDEX AFTER WEEK 4

Top Defenders for the Month of March:

1. Michael Parkhurst
2. Corey Ashe
3. Ike Opara
4. Kyle Beckerman

In closing…

Remember that the season is still young – but in about 4 weeks time it won’t be as young, and in 16 weeks time this Index should begin to settle in and hopefully, like last year, paint an early picture on who’s up for the Playoffs and who might be making some summer transfers to bolster chances for a late season push.

Teams to watch in this Cumulative Index are numerous.

In the bottom end let’s see about Toronto, Portland, San Jose, and DC United – will the rest of MLs figure out the way to beat the Toronto approach of counter attacking? Will the return of Donovan Ricketts after the Seattle match spell a recovery in the back four for Portland? Can DC United really make better use of the accuracy and possession based approach? And finally, can Watson continue to make use of his aerial attack in getting penetration through the air as other teams seem to build greater strength in the midfield?

On the top side can Columbus continue their early run and does the sleeping giant residing in Houston awaken even more to clinch dominance across the East? Can FC Dallas hold it together this year under the new guidance of Pareja?

How about the other money bag teams like New York, Seattle and LA Galaxy – have other teams in the mix figured a way to bypass the top-flight DP approach used by those guys or are they real challengers for the Cup and the Shield?

Last but not least – the Champions from last year – Sporting continues to show well in defending, and Zusi has lifted his game on both sides of the pitch. Will the World Cup really be his time to shine? For the sake of the USMNT I hope so.

As always my thanks to OPTA and the MLS for continuing to provide free information in order to conduct this analysis.

If interested here’s a link to my latest article on New Sports Hub about the Red Bulls of New York, including their PWP Attacking and Defending Players of the Week 4.

You can follow me on twitter here: Each week I look to offer up twitter comments for the MLS nationally-televised games as well as those for the Timbers.

All the best,
Chris