5 Reasons Why You Should Watch Major League Soccer

So you’re excited about the US Men’s National team breaking through the group stage? It may even be that you find yourself liking this whole soccer thing. That’s not surprising; most Americans you talk to that follow soccer, including myself, have had that specific moment that sealed commitment, a moment often from a past World Cup. Whether that be the 2002 World Cup run in South Korea or the 2010 heart break against Ghana that brought you to the “beautiful game,” because of the placement that soccer has in the standings of American culture, it’s just common to have these iconic moments associated with the sport.

The thing that distinguishes people like us from the rest of the excited US supporters across the nation during this time is that, once the World Cup tournament concludes, we’ll still want more.

Well, fear not because there is a serious and thriving league here in the US. If you are or have ever been called a ‘Euro snob’, then you can probably stop reading now. You’re going to argue and just generally disagree with most everything I have to say. So what’s the point? I’m not trolling you and it’s great that you like soccer in Europe. But we’re to talk to these new recruits about soccer in the United States. So here we go. Here are five reasons and examples about soccer in the US, and why you should follow it after the World Cup.

 

1)   Soccer in the United States is actually good.

Once upon a time Major League Soccer was viewed as a retirement league. A place where aged stars came for one last pay day once they were out of their prime. It was viewed as such simply because it was exactly that. It wasn’t that long ago, and because of that there some pretty common misconceptions about MLS.

“It used to be that just CONCACAF [The Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football] internationals and retirees came here. In 2014 Brazilians, Spaniards, Englishmen (that just miss out), Australians, Persians (Iran), and Irish all play in MLS, and they also play roles for their home countries in the World Cup, or are of World Cup quality.”

Look, most people that don’t like MLS likely have not watched more than a couple of games; which is silly considering they base all their opinions on those few games. It would be like me basing the entirety of the NBA on a Cleveland and New Orleans games or New Jersey and Phoenix. Neither of which are what we would call riveting match-ups.

The quality of MLS is improving every year. If you believe MLS still to be a ‘retirement league’ or a ‘first division with watered down depth’ you haven’t really invested any time in getting your facts straight. Truth is most people are forming opinions based on a small sample size from years ago.

Looking at numbers produced by Dave Clark and the statistician known by the handle Sidereal, one finds strong indicators that MLS has just continued to improved over the last few years. The league is gaining traction to being near par with some quality European soccer leagues.

2) MLS is on the verge of getting even better and it starts with increased wages.

“Although not often addressed, there’s no question that achieving that vision will require increasing MLS player salaries to attract more top players. It’s just a question of how fast, and the salaries may need to increase much sooner than 2022.”

“…”

“What could the future MLS look like? Or what would it need to look like for the Don Garber to see his vision meet reality? Let’s build the reality. Let’s assume by 2022 the MLS will pay their players 50% of total revenues, in line with the current Bundesliga level. MLS won’t need to reach revenues of the Bundesliga to be considered a top league in the world, but they will need to be close to be paying quality players closer to market rate. Let’s assume that MLS can achieve Don’s dream by reaching Ligue 1 revenues but paying Bundesliga salaries. Finally, let’s assume that Ligue 1 revenues grow at a modest 4% per year until 2022.”

“…”

“The target MLS revenue growth of 16% is very aggressive but Don Garber has a good amount of low hanging fruit to pick. The new rumored TV deal is for about $100M in 2015 and would increase the 2012 revenues (the basis for these numbers) by nearly 15%. The next TV deal might fetch the same 15% growth or more. MLS has also announced a five-team expansion plan which will bring at least 26% growth as the teams come on. Without doing much, MLS can get almost a third of the way to the goal according to my calculations.”

Okay, I pray that Jared will forgive me for lifting so many of his brilliant words from the following article. Go read the whole piece because it’s great. Unfortunately it’s a bit of an involved article, and I just wanted to frame a great thought from his head.

The United States first division is growing, and growing at a substantial rate. That is due to the injection of money and the fact they can start paying players what their worth. This brings in more players from all over the place that can use the league as not just a place to end their career, but really to start it.

A new Collective Bargaining Agreement will be negotiated this year after the season is over. I get that most of us sports fan are sick of labor talks and news of player strikes. I read you loud and clear. The thing that makes this different is simply that the league gets better with increase salary caps for clubs and the increase of minimum player wages. I don’t want there to be a work stoppage, but with the increased revenue from the TV deal that MLS just signed, they owe it to the players and fans to further the cause of soccer in this country.

 

3a) It’s not just about overpaying old guys to get eyeballs, MLS is acquiring young and exciting talent…

The main example you could probably point to for young guys coming into the league is Fredy Montero. Montero has transitioned over the last 18 months from one of the MLS top scorers to being a perennial talent in Portugal. Montero, who spent four very good seasons in Seattle, had the opportunity to make mistakes in a league that pushed his abilities enough even four years ago.

Montero’s arrival was followed by an influx of young international talent.

Darlington Nagbe, for example, is an international and former collegiate star at the University of Akron. He has been a critical piece for the Portland Timbers, is one of the most creative and eccentric talents in all of MLS.

Fabian Castillo, the Columbian winger with plenty of technical prowess, passed up opportunities in Europe for a stable playing environment and a chance for consistent playing time in Dallas.

Deshorn Brown is a high-end prototypical speedster from Jamaica. In his first season with the Colorado Rapids, he lead his club in goals scored and took them to the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.

For every Montero, however, there will always be a player that just doesn’t work out. The examples are many. In spite of that, MLS has begun the reverse transition from retirement league to what many would call a feeder league. While many, if not most, would not purpose to spend the prime of their careers in MLS (see point: 3b), they can still make a fine career for themselves and good wages because of how the league has grown to reward these players.

More and more young players are coming here in the vein of Montero, now viewing the US as an opportunity to get on the radar of European scouts and develop a pathway to launch a more lucrative career while still having stability and having the chance to prove them in a physical league.

“The increased visibility in M.L.S. is attractive to the players, who also benefit from the league’s financial stability compared with some leagues in their home countries.” (Leander Schaerlaeckens, NY Times)

It’s true that MLS still has more players retire at the end of the year from soccer than will transfer out of its league, but the players that are being transferred out are going to better and better clubs.

 

3b) …and some of that league talent is even in its prime.

As I said, there aren’t many who look at MLS and think “gosh, I could have a good living in the US in the prime of my career.” However there are a few where the stars lined up perfectly and they’ve chosen to play in America rather than going abroad with their talents. Such examples are:

Diego Valeri, the creative midfielder from Argentina, has been a force since arriving in Portland. And teamed with their young budding star, Nagbe, they’re a spectacular pair just to watch.

Juninho, the Brazilian, is often glossed over in terms of the whole league, but his consistency in LA and his ability to play both ways centrally is fantastic. He could be earning much more abroad but the allure of being on an iconic franchise and coached by one of the best US coaches in the business, Bruce Arena, keeps him in LA… for now.

Osvaldo Alonso is a unique case. His heroic escape from Cuba and passport situation limit his options abroad, but believe me… he has them. Yet, he loves Seattle and MLS. He’s easily a top-3 midfielder in the entire league and still has a couple prime seasons left in the tank.

Matt Besler, the Sporting KC and USMNT centerback has had chances to go abroad, and yet here he is in his prime. This has happened by way of MLS introducing retention funds to pay for… well, people whom they define as worthy of using it. His salary relative to the cap has been kept manageable because of those funds and he loves playing in Kansas City. He’s possibly and probably the best defender in MLS.

 

4) It’s not just about foreign talent; we have a thriving league to grow future US national team talent.

Players like Shane O’Neil (Colorado), Luis Gil (Real Salt Lake), Benji Joya (Chicago) and DeAndre Yedlin (Seattle) are just a few names that play significant roles on their MLS clubs, and they still can’t drink legally in this country. You could almost have thrown Will Trapp (Columbus) on this list too, but he busted the beer-drinking landmark at the beginning of the year.

All four have been featured in U-23 matches gearing up for the Olympics, just two short years away, and all look to be prominent members of future World Cup teams. There are others worth mentioning also, but the point here is that MLS is starting to become a facilitator of growing US talent. That’s important.

That doesn’t even highlight players such as Gyasi Zardes or Jack McInerney, who are both big-time names in the league and may not qualify as members of the Olympic roster. It also doesn’t include 19-year old striking sensation Diego Fagundez, who just graduated from high school two weeks ago and just entered his fourth season as a member of the New England Revolution. Sadly enough, he is still technically not a US citizen…yet.

 

5)  There is parity, and possibly more so here than in any other relevant league in the world.

“The three factors above were weighted equally and assigned a standard deviation (either + or -) for each league and each metric. Add them up and MLS is indeed the most competitive league in this 15-league sample. Interestingly, Brazil was not far behind. Of course, there are multiple ways one can measure parity and competitiveness, and this is just one of many approaches.”  – Alex Olshansky

 

“This consistency, when combined with MLS’s overall lower variation, results in a lower proportion of the MLS’s points variation resulting from actual talent differences. The overall impact is that MLS table results are nearly a 50/50 split between talent and luck.” – Zach Slaton

Everyone hates the Yankees and yet wants to be them. It’s one of the greatest catch-22’s in sports. We all hate the winner—unless, of course, it’s us. MLS has developed a single entity program that just doesn’t lend itself to helping clubs that win, but it helps those that do not. In fact it’s worse to finish middle of the pack in the league than to finish at the back.

The league subsidies the salary cap of certain teams based on the order in which the teams finished. Teams towards the bottom get certain stipend (called allocation money) that assists in pay down contracts for cap purposes. Teams at the top also are awarded this money as a means of deepening the team for international competition in CONCACAF Champions League. This enables them to compete against the Mexican League teams that often tend to be superior in talent depth.

This all creates an environment on a yearly basis that creates volatility in casting predictions and makes the whole process rather difficult. A team can be good and have bad luck (see: LA Galaxy) or it can be mediocre with good luck (see: Real Salt Lake, according to Matthias), or it can have best of both worlds (see: Seattle Sounders). The beauty is that teams are never that far out of it, and never that far ahead.

The team that serve as the best example of this anything-can-happen league is DC United. Our readers had predicted prior to the season that they would miss the play-offs and would be generally sit near the bottom. In fact 15% thought they would end up dead last, opposed to the less than 1% that thought they would win the conference. Currently sitting nearly halfway through the season, they are in good position to fight for that very chance. And last year, this is the same club that nearly set all types of records for being anemic and generally pathetic in their overall performance.

There are few, if any, instances in which you can point to a club going from worst to best in a single season. The 1990 Atlanta Braves come to mind for me, but thinking abroad in the world of soccer, that seems improbable if not all together impossible. In MLS, it’s a yearly event.

——-

These are just a few reasons on why you should turn your attention to Major League Soccer after the World Cup. I’m sure others could add to this list, and generally speaking I know I missed things that others would include. But in talking with so many people down here in the South, I felt compelled to at least try to provide a this motivation to get involved in a dynamic league right here in the United States.

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Top 50 Total Shots Created: MLS Week 13

I’ve been terrible with trying to keep up with this quantitative metric, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to throw out an updated version in a vain attempt to try to play catch up with the status quo, being that the league is crawling towards the World Cup break.

Really, the point of this exercise is to try and capture how often players are creating shots–not just for themselves, but for teammates. It’s still pretty simplistic, and by no means the definitive answer to who the most valuable attackers are, but it’s a start in moving away from basing value judgements on goal totals.

To be as clear as possible this is not a metric that measures quality or success of the shot. It’s purely about opportunities to score. Either by way of putting mates* in position to score through passes that lead to shots–key passes–or to create a shot by himself–assisted or not–are the ways I count shots created.

*Editor loves word choice.

One thing I did do to include the best available and least luck-influenced player was to set a threshold of 700 minutes played. That limit was arbitrary and selected merely based upon the results of compiling the list. For that reason, and no other, you won’t see individuals such as Michael Bradley, Gilberto, Brad Davis, Joao Plata, Marco Di Vaio and Kekuta Manneh on this list even though their shot creation rates merited a position in the top 50. I am very high on both Plata and Manneh, and I would love to see both surpass the 600-minute mark and really fly beyond 2,000 minutes this season so we can see what their stable versions look like.

50-33:  The Above Average

Rank Name Club Position Minutes Key Passes Assists Shots ShC ShC/90
50 Blas Perez Dallas FWD 899 6 2 24 32 3.20
49 Nick DeLeon DC MF 1026 12 2 23 37 3.25
48 Vincent Nogueira Philadelphia MF 1348 17 2 30 49 3.27
47 Juninho LA MF 962 9 3 23 35 3.27
46 Benny Feilhaber KC MF 1260 26 3 17 46 3.29
45 Erick Torres Chivas FWD 1186 8 1 37 46 3.49
44 Jack McInernery Montreal FWD 844 11 1 21 33 3.52
43 Baggio Husidić LA MF 761 13 1 16 30 3.55
42 Dillion Powers Colorado MF 825 21 3 9 33 3.60
41 Lamar Neagle Seattle MF 987 10 2 28 40 3.65
40 Teal Bunbury NE FWD 1170 15 3 30 48 3.69
39 Felipe Martins Montreal MF 996 15 2 24 41 3.70
38 Jairo Arrieta Columbus FWD 818 9 0 25 34 3.74
37 Max Urruti Portland FWD 744 5 0 26 31 3.75
36 Justin Mapp Montreal MF 949 17 4 19 40 3.79
35 Travis Ishizaki LA MF 735 20 1 10 31 3.80
34 Andrew Wenger Philadelphia FWD 1012 11 1 31 43 3.82
33 Diego Fagundez NE MF 1086 8 2 37 47 3.90

I’ll admit there is quite a bit of disparity between Diego Fagundez (#33) and Nick DeLeon (#49). This group does however hold a few names seems that, to my mind, seem to fit together. Blas Perez (#50), Erick Torres (#45), Jack McInerney (#44) and Andrew Wenger (#34) all are viewed a bit differently in terms of success, but, again, this isn’t about results-based productivity so much as process-based productivity. We’re merely looking at how much they’re involved in creating goal scoring chances, regardless of the quality of those chances or where they are located. In that context it makes more sense.

The lone surprise for me in this tier is Justin Mapp. I would have assumed he’d be much higher on this list being that he’s been on the few bright spots for Montreal a long with JackMac.

 

32-10:  The Good.

Rank Name Club Position Minutes Key Passes Assists Shots ShC ShC/90
32 Chris Wondolowski San Jose FWD 810 6 0 30 36 4.00
31 Obafemi Martins Seattle FWD 1246 19 6 31 56 4.04
30 Michel Dallas MF 740 14 2 18 34 4.14
29 Lee Nguyen NE MF 1032 24 0 24 48 4.19
28 B. Wright-Phillips NYRB FWD 1051 8 0 41 49 4.20
27 Edson Buddle Colorado FWD 707 10 1 22 33 4.20
26 Shea Salinas San Jose MF 916 32 4 7 43 4.22
25 Sabastian Fernandez Vancouver FWD 654 10 0 21 31 4.27
24 Will Bruin Houston FWD 1221 20 1 37 58 4.28
23 Graham Zusi KC FWD 794 24 3 11 38 4.31
22 Alvaro Saborio Real Salt Lake FWD 869 5 2 35 42 4.35
21 Leonardo Fernandez Philadelphia FWD 701 13 1 20 34 4.37
20 Giles Barnes Houston FWD 1335 12 2 51 65 4.38
19 Gaston Fernandez Portland FWD 757 19 0 18 37 4.40
18 Mike Magee Chicago FWD 714 9 2 24 35 4.41
17 Harry Shipp Chicago FWD 894 23 4 17 44 4.43
16 Marco Pappa Seattle MF 751 12 1 24 37 4.43
15 Mauro Diaz Dallas MF 646 16 2 14 32 4.46
14 Bernando Anor Columbus MF 718 11 0 25 36 4.51
13 Cristian Maidana Philadelphia MF 871 23 2 20 45 4.65
12 Quincy Amarikwa Chicago FWD 880 15 4 28 47 4.81
11 Dom Dwyer KC FWD 1050 7 0 50 57 4.89
10 Deshorn Brown Colorado FWD 902 6 0 43 49 4.89

Two other names that are notable here. Edson Buddle (#27)–whom everyone thought was done two years ago when he was traded to Colorado–and Marco Pappa (#16), who was kind of a last minute signing before the start of the season, and who was a serious question mark considering his lack of playing time in the Netherlands.  Now both of these individuals that were stamped as likely non-essentials are two of most involved in the creation of their clubs attack. Lee Nguyen (29) coming in higher than Obafemi Martins (31) makes me laugh, simply because Martins is second in the league in assists and most people still hold that to being the truest or, perhaps, the most obvious sign of team goal contributions. Yet Nguyen has been a catalyst for New England and is simply their most valuable player when it comes to finding the ability to create chances. This is the meat and potatoes of the list.

9-4: The Elite.

Rank Name Club Position Minutes Key Passes Assists Shots ShC ShC/90
9 Javier Morales Real Salt Lake MF 1154 41 5 21 67 5.23
8 Fabian Espindola DC FWD 1086 30 4 30 64 5.30
7 Diego Valeri Portland MF 1117 28 5 37 70 5.64
6 Landon Donovan LA MF 802 24 2 25 51 5.72
5 Thierry Henry NYRB FWD 1170 23 4 49 76 5.85
4 Federico Higuain Columbus FWD 1080 39 5 27 71 5.92

So there that is. There shouldn’t be any argument here with any of these names. Fabian Espindola (#8) is the sole reason DC even has a shot at the playoffs. He is going to get every opportunity to be ‘the man’ in black and red. Landon Donovan (#6) despite his uncanny snubbery from the US National Team is still clearly a major factor for the Galaxy and their attack. Sticking with the theme of decline in skills, Thierry Henry (#5) is still one of the greatest to ever play in MLS.

Oh, and I’m just biding my time for Higuian to get past this “slump” and jet into the MVP Candidate category… because that’s simply where he belongs. More on that down the road.

3-1:  The MVP Candidates.

Rank Name Club Position Minutes Key Passes Assists Shots ShC ShC/90
3 Robbie Keane LA FWD 990 19 2 45 66 6.00
2 Clint Dempsey Seattle MF 751 14 2 43 59 7.07
1 Pedro Morales Whitecaps MF 821 31 4 38 73 8.00

Clint Dempsey (#2) has had the kind of year that is simply bananas. It’s been so crazy that it’s somehow eclipsed the Pedro Morales (#1) show that is going on just a few short hours north of him. Sure, these guys take penalty kicks, but that’s only a small fraction of their shots generated. If these two take this same show into the later stages of the season I can’t think there would be much reason to consider anyone else for MVP.

Oh, I guess you could probably throw Robbie Keane‘s (#3) name in that list, too. People forget about ol’ faithful, but even without his P.I.C. (read: ‘Partner in Crime’ for those that aren’t as hip as I am) for a game or two here and there, he’s still been incredible. Currently he ranks third in individual expected goals, proving that he also finds dangerous places to take his shots and doesn’t hesitate to pull the trigger. Oh, and despite the angry looks and words AND finger wags, he gets his teammates those same opportunities.

And here’s the Excel File for the top 50.

Season Preview: New England Revolution

A franchise empathetic to the Buffalo Bills, Atlanta Braves, and every team that chased the Chicago Bulls in the 90’s, the Revs have shown over their 16-year history in the league that they are perpetual contenders and forever runners-up—a key member of the ‘almost was there’ club. That was harsh, but I don’t mean to be. The club, with just a little bit of support from Robert Kraft, could have been—and still could be—a super power in MLS. The trio of Clint Dempsey, Shalrie Joseph, and Steve Ralston, and then the often forgotten (outside of New England) prowess of Taylor Twellman dominated the mid 00’s period of MLS, and New England reached the MLS Cup finals on four different occasions between 2002 and 2007. Now, after a couple of down years, the franchise has reloaded and found itself a new era of young up-and-comers a decade later.

2013 Review: 51 Points, 3rd in the Eastern Conference, lost to Sporting Kansas City in Conference Semis

newenglandXI

Player Added Position Acquired from: Player Lost Position To
Paulo DelPiccolo M Waiver Draft  Chad Barrett F Option Declined
Brad Knighton GK Trade (Vancouver) Ryan Guy M Option Declined
Charlie Davies F Free (Randers) Tyler Polak D Option Declined
Steve Neumann M/F SuperDraft Matt Reis GK Retired
Patrick Mullins F SuperDraft Clyde Simms M Option Declined
Teal Bunbury F Trade (Kansas City) Juan Toja M Option Declined
Jossimar Sanchez D Supplemental Draft Bilal Duckett D Waived
Daigo Kobayashi M Trade (Vancouver) Matt Horth F Waived
Alec Sundly M SuperDraft Gabe Latigue M Waived
      Juan Agudelo F Out of Contract

2013 opened for the Revs with expectations of justhoping to make the Wildcard round. Really, anything better than finishing above Toronto was the end goal, and while maybe I’m slightly exaggerating the situation a bit, I don’t think many thought they would finish 3rd in the East. Jay Heaps definitely sat upon a seat of growing embers, and fans were gradually getting more and more anxious to see progression from their second-year manager after replacing long-term icon Steve Nicol.

2013 will be remembered for many things across MLS, but Revs fans will, perhaps paradoxically, be hard-pressed to think of many good things outside the breakout year of teenager Diego Fagundez—who is being heralded as the foundation of many great, wonderful scoring-type things for the Revs in the future, and one of the future stars of MLS — and the addition of Defender of the Year Jose Goncalves. Let me be one of the first to throw that “it may be a bit premature” out there. Fagundez is a great talent, but it’s probably a bit unfair to place such expectations on an 18-year-old at this point. Scoring 13 goals at that age is going to get you attention, but doesn’t guarantee stardom.

NEINFOWhile it’s been pointed out that his goal tally was impressive— partly because it was fifth in the league and not inflated by penalty kicks—I’m not yet convinced that he’s bound for all the glory people think. In fact, I’d wager that he won’t likely equal his tally from last season for a couple of reasons.

A) An observance I’ve made over the last few days suggests that he creates many of his own shots at the goal off the dribble. I’m not sure that if he continues this trend he can be as successful.

B)  He creates below-average shots-per-90 minutes rates. Among the top 50 goal scorers, the average shots-per-90 is roughly 2.6. Fagundez averages a paltry 2.0 in comparison.

C) Over half those chances (52%) he fired off hit the target (29 of his 55 shots). While that is above-average, it may be a less-stable metric year-to-year, as is finishing rate. He needs to continue to create a high volume of chances before I’m ready to get on the bandwagon.

Now, there is some hope. The addition of Teal Bunbury gives the Revs someone who is going to take shots at a better-than-league-average clip. This could take some of the pressure off Fagundez, allowing him to be slippery with his electric speed, getting into dangerous locations, and keeping his finishing rate high.

There is also the case that New England has quite the creative midfield core, which only got deeper this week with the addition of Daigo Kobayashi. Adding him to the grouping of Kelyn Rowe and Lee Nguyen is rather intimidating and could help the young attacking midfielder, as he may not have to create so many shots for himself.

I’m not trying to be a wet blanket and ‘poo poo’ everyone that is drinking the Fagundez Kool-Aid. The youngster is an incredible talent, both on and off the ball, and he’ll probably be a large contributing factor to why I watch so many Rev games this year. I do think there could be some undue pressure on him at this stage in his career, and it’s crazy to think this club is going to live and die with him.

Outside of Fagundez, the Revs have been stock piling young and exciting talents, such as the aforementioned Rowe, with Andrew FarrellScott Caldwell  and even Dimitry Imbongo. They’re a young team that has a lot of helium at this stage. Add to it the top-scoring collegiate talents of Patrick Mullins and lesser heralded (yet equally exciting) Steve Neumann, with the recently acquired Bunbury, and maybe the long-awaited break out season of Jerry Bengston–who seems to save all his goals for the Honduras national team—and you realize ‘holy crap’ they’ve got weapons in abundance. Truth is, they shouldn’t struggle to find the back of the net this year.

A good indicator for their offensive success last year was, of course, Chris Gluck’s Possession with Purpose (PWP Index) stat that ranks them in the upper half (9th) in MLS and 4th among their Eastern conference foes. The loss of Juan Agudelo is a bit disappointing to some of their supporters and certainly with their front office that seemed pretty determined to keep him around against all odds. But with the quality and quantity of the youth available, as well as the off-season additions, this club could very well take a step forward in the attack.

The real question for me is going to be the defense. Jose Goncalves came out of pretty much nowhere to have a lights out season and win defensive player of year honors for MLS. It’s not so much a question of whether he’ll regress so much as I wonder what the likelihood of the defense as a whole regressing.

The backline should remain, for all intents and purposes, intact from last year. The big question is whether we’ll see Bobby Shuttleworth or Brad Knighton between the pipes as a goal keeper. This is an entirely different conversation, and I want to set it aside of the time being. The defense wasn’t necessarily great so much as it was a bit lucky in some cases. Sure their PDO as a whole is under the 100 mark, indicating that they have actually gotten a bit unlucky as a whole, but they earned just 95 percent of the shot totals of their opponents, and their overall xGD was negative, which both imply that they not only surrendered more shots than they created but also surrendered shots in more advantageous locations for the opposition. Neither are good things, and both are critical points for the defense. Now those numbers don’t tell us that New England will regress or that they will certainly allow more goals than what they last year, but simply what they did produce was not as we expected and that they played above what they likely should have.

Now, as for the Shuttleworth vs. Knighton—WWE Royal Rumble face off—I’m a bit torn. Personally, I know Matt Reis had been there for a decade, but Shuttleworth was—in my opinion—a good keeper, and there was an argument for letting him stay in the net after Reis returned from injury. Now with Reis retired and the Revolution acquiring Knighton, it becomes an interesting battle. Our early advanced indications point to the fact that Brad Knighton, despite only seeing 540 minutes, was a better keeper. Now those numbers are only indicators, and they do come with a clear set of caveats. Neither keeper has enough empirical evidence that one is necessarily better than the other. That said, I expect that Brad Knighton will win the job, and his performances will stick right in and around what we thought of Matt Reis.

Overall I could see really two vastly different scenarios playing out with New England. The first is that they come out like gangbusters. Their defense holds, the youngsters take another step forward, and they overtake New York, who I believe may be somewhat overrated, and possibly even Sporting Kansas City (don’t tell Matthias I said that), staying in contention for a supporters shield for most of the year.

The other side is that, with all the significant improvements that other clubs  have made compounded with some struggles by the a young core, it could leave the team in an early hole. Early disappointing results could very well culminate in them missing the playoffs entirely.

The East going to be a dog fight, more so than what the Western Conference is thought to be. Because of that, clubs such as Toronto FC, Chicago, Houston, D.C. United and New England are all fighting for the last three spots, assuming that New York and Sporting play up to their potential. Though, given the strange inconsistencies of both of those franchises, anything remains possible. Youth lends itself to variability, making New England’s projection hard to pin down.

Crowdsourcing Results

New England received a wide range of votes, earning at least 10% of all votes for every placement between 4th and 10th in the Eastern conference. Overall, just 34.4% of voters felt that New England was a playoff team.

Positions and The Diminishing Value of Formations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Closer Look At The MLS MVP Race

Editor’s Note: This was the first of many articles by Jacob, who can be found at @MLSAtheist on twitter. It’s quite amazing, and I encourage you to read it. He’s one of several wonderful writers that we are adding to the site in the coming weeks. Please give him a follow and good feedback, as you have for Drew, Matty, and me. This is all part of putting together newer, better site content.

Not long ago, I saw a piece on ESPN handicapping the MLS MVP race, featuring the one and only Alexi Lalas. Say what you will about Lalas, but what he said on this topic got my mind jogging. The season was still a couple weeks from being complete, but the Redhead tipped Marco Di Vaio over Mike Magee for the award, based mostly on his higher goal total. He explained that goals are the rarest and most important event in soccer, so the guy who scores the most (and in the most games, giving his team a better chance to win) is the best candidate for the award. But here at American Soccer Analysis, we know that just because a guy puts the final touch on a goal doesn’t necessarily make him the most valuable component of that play, let alone that season.

Anyway, Lalas had a point: goals are important. And whether you like it or not, goal scorers and creators are always going to be the award winners in this sport. But still, looking solely at goal totals seems far too simplistic when handicapping the race for MVP. So, as we are wont to do around here, I tried to delve a little deeper.

First of all, you can contribute to goals without being the one to actually kick it into the net. I’ll do the most obvious thing possible, and just add assists to the equation. Additionally, not every player gets to play the same amount. Especially in MLS, where some of the top players are constantly called away for international duty, some MVP candidates only play in two-thirds of his team’s games. But if the premise here is that the award is intended to go to the most prolific goal creator, we should really look at how many goals they create when they’re actually on the field.

Here are the ten top MVP candidates (I know they probably aren’t all that deserving, but ten is a good round number and I’m a little OCD), and how many goals they’ve created, as well as their per 90 minute rate.

Player

Goals

Assists

G+A Per 90

M. Magee

21

4

.806

M. Di Vaio

20

2

.698

R. Keane

16

11

1.22

J. Morales

8

10

.710

Camilo

22

6

1.04

D. Valeri

10

13

.909

F. Higuain

11

9

.694

D. Fagundez

13

7

.742

T. Cahill

11

5

.642

G. Zusi

6

8

.535

It’s no surprise to see Keane and Camilo leading the way with over one per game, as they have the highest sum of goals and assists, and Keane did his work in fairly limited minutes. But again, goals and assists are a little too superficial for us here at ASA. After all, some goals are the fault of terrible defending, goalkeeping, or just some really fortunate bounces; instead it’s preferred to look at chance creation. If a player is consistently creating chances, it’s nearly inevitable that it should lead to more goals. Now rather than just the shots that actually end up in the net, we’ll run the numbers regarding shots, as well as passes that lead to shots (key passes) for the same players:

Player

Shots

Key Passes

Shots Created Per 90

M. Magee*

114

65

5.77

M. Di Vaio

89

25

3.62

R. Keane

54

53

4.86

J. Morales

33

94

5.01

Camilo

95

37

4.91

D. Valeri

55

59

4.51

F. Higuain

69

115

6.39

D. Fagundez

43

27

2.60

T. Cahill

47

19

2.65

G. Zusi

41

75

4.43

This time we’ve got a couple of different leaders, as Federico Higuain and Mike Magee take the lead thanks to their trigger-happy styles. Higuain’s incredible number of key passes, despite playing for a middling Crew team, should raise some eyebrows—the dude’s an absolutely fantastic attacker.

Still, I have an issue with just looking at shots created. After all, we know not all shots are created equal. Without looking up the shot location data of every one of the shots in the above table, I think there’s still a way to improve the statistics: add in a factor of accuracy.

For Higuain, creating over six shots a game is terrific. But from watching a lot of Columbus games, I can tell you that plenty of those shots were low percentage bombs from 30 yards out, and plenty of others were taken by other fairly inept Crew attackers. To try to factor this in, I’d like to look at how many shots on target each player creates – the ones that actually have a chance at becoming goals. While shots on goal stats for individual players are easy to find, it’s tougher to decipher when key passes lead to shots that test keepers rather than boots into the stands. To compensate, I used each player’s team percentage of shots on target to estimate how many key passes turned into shots on goal, leading to the final following table:

Player

Shots on Goal

Key Passes

Team Shot%

SoG Created Per 90

M. Magee*

50

65

48% / 51%

2.68

M. Di Vaio

56

25

54%

2.21

R. Keane

31

53

48%

2.56

J. Morales

19

94

52%

2.68

Camilo

56

37

49%

2.76

D. Valeri

31

59

49%

2.36

F. Higuain

36

115

43%

2.96

D. Fagundez

30

27

50%

1.57

T. Cahill

22

19

48%

1.25

G. Zusi

21

75

42%

2.00

There we have it. My endorsement for MVP this season, based on a combination of Alexi Lalas’ inspiration and my own twisted statistical mind, is Federico Higuain of the 16th-best team in the league, the Columbus Crew.

Just kidding, guys! Obviously the MVP debate should take more into account than who creates shots on goal. Defense, leadership, your team actually winning—all of these things should and do matter. But still, I think this was an interesting exercise and hopefully opened at least one set of eyes to how prolific Higuain is.

Finally, a few thoughts/takeaways in bullet form:

  • Higuain was held back by his team’s terrible shooting accuracy, but not as much as Graham Zusi. Now I understand why analytic folks like Sporting Kansas City’s chance creation so much, yet the team hasn’t always seen the results.
  • Diego Fagundez is incredibly selective about his shooting – almost 70% of his shots hit the target.
  • Javi Morales doesn’t shoot much for being so prolific at creating others shots. Reminds me of this post by Tempo Free Soccerreally interesting as far as categorizing attackers as shooters vs. providers.

*Since Magee was traded mid-season, his season total stats were harder to find. While I used Squawka for everyone else’s stats, I ended up having to tally Magee’s game-by-game stats from Who Scored. It’s possible that the two sites have different standards for what constitutes a shot or key pass, and that could’ve skewed the data for Magee. I’m not sure any of them look too far out of whack that I’m too suspicious, but it’s possible so I thought it should be noted.

Show Down: Juan Agudelo vs. Diego Fagundez

During our podcast on Thursday night, a short side conversation was sparked between Drew and me. Who would you take in a situation where you are starting a new team: Juan Agudelo or Diego Fagundez. While the question and how it’s presented matters (i.e. how many years of control do you have, salary cap situation, blah, blah, blah) because it gives us context, let’s not go there. The discussion here is more about the general response. We’ve all, myself included, just generally assumed that the answer to any question between the two is: “Agudelo now, Fagundez later”. But what makes us think that Fagundez isn’t the better option right now?

While doing our podcast I generally have between 9 and 15 browser tabs open with general bits of information. I’m sure my wife would argue that it’s more like 50. Whatever. It’s a lot. During that point in the podcast, I had Squawka up and quoted a total performance score of 452 for Fagundez, as opposed to Juan Agudelo and his shockingly low score of only 57.

So, the response then transforms itself from the answer that we thought we were sure of, to understanding what exactly Agudelo has done over the course of the season. Trust me, I get that numbers, especially in soccer, can’t tell an entire story. But they can help see us things that our brains don’t naturally keep track of.

Agudelo, in my mind, is a special case of a lot of talent doing one specific thing and being credited for far more than perhaps initially thought. I know the other side of that argument stresses his physical traits and goal-scoring ability. Sure, those are two HUGE things when it comes to this game. Speed kills and Agudelo knows how to turn it on.

Let’s take a look below.

Mins Goals Shots Goals pSh Chances Created
Fagundez 2419 13 43 0.30 27
Agudelo 1019 7 17 0.41 4

First, we can see one thing. And it’s quiet amazing. Together, the two players produced 20 goals on 60 shots. Take a second to think about that because that’s major. The Revolution took 37 shots and scored just one goal over their first five matches of the season. These guys get thrown into the line-up and procure 20 goals on just 60 shots. That’s special.

Second, what is most obviously the difference between the two is the number of chances created. You’ll see in a second that Agudelo still made a fine amount of passes. The issue isn’t that he’s a ball hog, or that he just wants the chances for himself. The problem is those passes did not become chances on goal. You’d hope that a guy who gets plenty of attention from the defense has the ability to find open teammates that can create goals.

Mins Pass p90 TO p90 Pass pTO Avg Length Dribbles DisPos per 90
Fagundez 2419 22.17 2.08 10.65 14m 0.86 1.71
Agudelo 1019 28.52 3 9.51 13m 0.53 2.91

Alright, onto the possession-based stuff. There are some interesting thoughts here. Such as Agudelo taking less dribbles, making shorter passes, and making more of them. It’s not something that I would have generally have thought of about him. I think of an individual who is looking to constantly run at defenders, but maybe that isn’t the whole picture. That said, he’s still losing the ball quiet a bit, and while Fagundez doesn’t make as many passes, he’s less error-prone and creates more pockets of space up the field with the ball at his feet.

Mins Fouls Cards Tackles Blocks Interceptions Clearances
Fagundez 2419 0.81 3 1.3 0.11 0.74 0.33
Agudelo 1019 3.53 2 1.4 0.09 0.35 0.71

The biggest number that stands out to me on this page is the number of fouls committed per 90 minutes by Agudelo. There is no way he makes that many fouls and continues to only pull about 6 cards over the course of a full season. That’s impossible. Outside of that, you see that each of these players is rather close to one another. One is a bit more on top of clearances while the other interceptions.

Really, that’s probably due to two random factors. 1) Agudelo is in the middle of the box more often for corner kicks, and 2) Fagundez works in the midfield where errant passes are more probable.

It’s important to realize these players aren’t like for like. Trying to compare them as apples to apples isn’t going to work and makes this work less productive. I am willing to acknowledge that. Agudelo did have some opportunities in the midfield this season, however, he was primarily featured up top in the striker role. Likewise, Fagundez had some exciting moments playing center forward, but was primarily used out wide as a left midfielder.

Because they don’t occupy the same space, certain statistical attributes that we associate with these players are going to be either more or less inflated. They have different responsibilities so they aren’t going to be the same player statistically. We don’t have a “Wins Above Replacement” calculator, as awesome as that would be.

There is no key that unlocks all events and makes them equal, as if to say this player is better than that player, regardless of position or team. Maybe this post was a complete waste because we should be comparing these two teammates to the rest of the league, rather than to each other. What I do know is that Fagundez is less a player of the future and more of an MLS standout now, but when Agudelo leaves for Stoke, he is still going to be missed by the Revs.