ASA Podcast XLIV: The One Where We Talk About What We Write About

Harrison and Matty discuss their two most recent articles, respectively about Harrison’s Shots Created per 90 statistic and Matty’s obsessive need to put RSL down because its players are more gooder at soccer than he is. It’s a short one, perfect for your commute!

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MLS Possession with Purpose Week 1: The best (and worst) performances

Greetings one and all as the new season begins in MLS.

In case you missed it I published an article on here not to long ago that dives into my Possession with Purpose Indices to include a general introduction on what it is and means as well as some explanations behind the Indices. If you haven’t gone through the article before or if you need a refresh click here.

Here’s how the teams fared, compared to each other, in Possession with Purpose Week #1:

POSSESSION WITH PURPOSE STRATEGIC COMPOSITE INDEX WEEK 1 RESULTS

POSSESSION WITH PURPOSE STRATEGIC COMPOSITE INDEX WEEK 1 RESULTS

Observations:

This Index is not influenced by previous season results; it’s a new year and a fresh/clean slate for teams to build from as they all challenge each other to make the Playoffs. So all you supporters of teams that didn’t do so well this past year – fahgetaboutit!

Next thing to consider is that positive numbers indicate the team performed better in attack and defense than their opponent – in looking at the diagram note that Columbus is at the far left while their opponent is on the far right.  As the season unfolds these overall positions should change.  As noted Columbus had the best overall attack compared to all other teams this past week; here are their percentages in the six steps of PWP:

BEST PWP RESULTS FOR WEEK 1 IN MLS - COLUMBUS CREW

BEST PWP RESULTS FOR WEEK 1 IN MLS – COLUMBUS CREW

Another top performer was Houston – some consider, last year, they were a sleeping giant that simply didn’t wake up in time for a solid Playoff run – I do – in their first game this year they burst the flood gates with 4 goals and some solid and superb defense led by a guy I absolutely hated to see leave Portland – David Horst.

Some may gaffaw at this but this time last year – before his injury – I thought David had a superb chance to get a wee bit stuck in (some minutes) on some USMNT training like Michael Harrington did this off-season.

I still think David has great pedigree as a stand-up defender with great timing and good vision to see gaps and create gaps. So if you are a Houston supporter know that I have a special interest in seeing David do great things.

As for reading the diagram – there’s a note there to read it from left to right (best to worst). The composite Index is the difference between the team Attacking PWP Index and the team Defending PWP Index. The overall total represents the ratios of success each team had in performing the six basic steps, possession, passing accuracy, penetration, creation, targeting, and scoring a goal. It’s not perfect but last year it was very representative.

Before getting to the other PWP Indices…

This is the first week and like most things that are measured, to begin with, there may be wide variation in the first 10 or so samples analyzed – so like last year Chivas began with a good start.

Does that continue or do we see them tail off – likewise – DC United ended the season near bottom in almost every single PWP category – so far they are right where they left off. Will time show that Eddie Johnson was a good purchase – we’ll see.

As for the leaders from last year like Real Salt Lake, Sporting KC and Portland. It’s no secret now that RSL opened up with a solid three points away to LA Galaxy – is it rude to expect that Robbie Keane will miss another penalty shot this year?

How about that torrential downpour in Portland – rain is not unusual for that part of the country – does it rain a bit more on the Timbers this season or will the sun begin to shine as Fernandez, Valeri, Nagbe, Urutti and others really get there gears engaged with what many feel and think might be the most potent attacking system/scheme/player personnel package in the league?

In considering what Sporting KC has on their plate early in the season, 5 games in the course of 15 days I think – is it too much to expect that they will show early indication of dominance again?

In looking at the PWP Attacking Index here’s how those teams rated:

PWP STRATEGIC ATTACKING INDEX WEEK 1 2014

PWP STRATEGIC ATTACKING INDEX WEEK 1 2014

Observations:

It’s no secret that goals scored will heavily influence the outcome of a game – that’s to be expected – so those teams that scored a brace or more of goals this early in the season will rate higher than some that didn’t score as many goals.

Another new feature this year will be a PWP Attacking and Defending Player of the Week – where some key individual statistics are highlighted that helped influence overall team performance.

For this past week the PWP Attacking Player of the Week is Federico Higuain.

PWP ATTACKER OF THE WEEK #1 2014

PWP ATTACKER OF THE WEEK #1 2014

In looking at the PWP Defending Index here’s how the teams fared:

PWP STRATEGIC DEFENDING INDEX WEEK 1 2014

PWP STRATEGIC DEFENDING INDEX WEEK 1 2014

Observations:

Since this is the first week the top defending team also happens to be the top attacking team.

For each specific week (not cummulative) this will be the case – for me there is nothing wrong with that – it takes a solid defense to win games as well.

At the end of the season there might be a pattern on who’s the top performer, week to week, that is influencing the outcomes of team performances better than others; we’ll see.

For this past week the PWP Defending Player of the Week is Michael Parkhurst.

PWP DEFENDER OF THE WEEK #1 2014

PWP DEFENDER OF THE WEEK #1 2014

In closing…

As the season progresses (right around week 15 or so) I’d offer that the PWP Strategic Composite Index should help paint a picture/expectation on what teams are working towards making the Playoffs and what teams are the doormats.

By week 17 last year this Index had accurately predicted 8 of the top 10 teams to make the Playoffs and by seasons end this Index had offered up 9 of the top 10 teams to make the MLS Playoffs; exceeding, in accuracy/prediction both the Squawka.com and Whoscored.com Indices – hopefully that level of predictability shows up again this year.

A couple of housekeeping things – my first and foremost source for data remains, like last year, the MLS Chalkboard developed and provided by Opta. Second – as the year continues I will attempt to peel back some more detail on ‘defending’ by teams in the final third.

Not sure how that will go but know that in a few weeks time I should be able to offer some additional team defending performance indicators for all MLS teams…

All the best,
Chris

Season Preview: Columbus Crew

There have been ups, and there have been downs for the Crew over the last four seasons, perhaps even more so than with other teams. Since winning MLS Cup in 2008 the departure of coach Sigi Schmid, the club made Robert Warzycha head coach. But then a steady fall ensued that has seen the club completely miss out on the playoffs each of the last two seasons. This led to the dismissal of long-time fixture Warzycha, who had been a part of the club since it’s inception in 1996.  Add this to the Hunt family finally selling off its ownership of the club, and you have a full docket of changes that have occurred around Crew Stadium. Unfortunately for Columbus, none these are indicators that the club will improve, at least in the short term.

2013 Finish: 41 Points, 8th in the Eastern Conference, Missed MLS Playoffs

ColumbusLineup

Player Added
Position From Player Lost Position To
Steve Clark GK traded from Seattle (Hønefoss BK) Andy Gruenebaum GK Traded to Kansas City
Brad Stuver GK
Unattached
Chad Marshall D Traded to Seattle
Ben Sweat D USF (SuperDraft) Drew Beckie D Option Declined
Giancarlo Gonzalez D Free (Valerenga) Gláuber D Option Declined
Michael Parkhurst D Free (FC Augsburg) Kyle Hyland D Option Declined
Ross Friedman D HPG Danny O’Rourke D Option Declined
Waylon Francis D
Free (Herediano)
Eddie Gaven M Retired
Matt Wiet D HGP Matías Sánchez M Waived
Kingsley Baiden M SuperDraft (Cal-Santa Barbara) Konrad Warzcha M Option Declined
Daniel Paladini M traded from Chicago Fire Aaron Horton F Waived
Hector Jimenez M traded from LA Galaxy
Matt Walker M HGP

Roster Churn: 72.03% returning minutes (7th lowest in MLS)

roster-crewThe Crew didn’t exactly stand still this off-season. Columbus found new homes elsewhere for both Chad Marshall and Glauber, courtesy of new head coach Gregg Berhalter‘s tactics and spending style, which in turn opened up salary cap space.  With those maneuvers, it created a void that was filled by returning US National Team figure Michael Parkhurst, followed up this week with the addition of Giancarlo Gonzalez—obviously placing an emphasis on the rebuilding of the backline to a point of strength. Taking Ben Sweat during the SuperDraft added to that growing defensive depth, and he may even end up the starter by the beginning of the season, depending how the position shakes out with Tyson Wahl. These changes make up much of the 72-percent roster turnover.

There is a gaping hole in the midfield due to the stunning retirement of Eddie Gaven. The acquisition of Hector Jimenez helps to mitigate some of that loss, and there is a reason to believe that youngster Will Trapp is ready to take that next step forward. However, Gaven has been an integral, if not an altogether vital, piece of the midfield—for more than just his leadership. His departure stings and will reverberate throughout the season.

The forward tandem of Federico Higuaín and Jairo Arrieta remains intact, and CLBINFOdespite a rough season, Arrieta should look forward to some positive regression to the mean. 2013 was a season where he took more shots (64 vs. 41 attempts) in more playing time (1862 vs. 1534 minutes) than in 2012, yet he scored six fewer goals with at finishing rate of just 4.7 percent. That finishing rate is likely to rebound toward the league-average rate of 10 percent. This is somewhat the opposite outcome from we saw with Dominic Oduro, who “regained his form” in 2013 after a down year in Chicago.

What Crew fans saw from Oduro in 2013 is what they hope to see from Arrieta in 2014. Oduro had more playing time, more shots taken with more of them hitting the target, and he saw his finishing rate jump to 14.1 percent. All he is doing is proving himself with the ball at his feet, and creating shots and scoring opportunities. As we’re learning more and more, it’s less about the supposed skill of the shooter and more that he’s taking high-percentage shots. Couple quality and volume, and it leads to more goals.

Looking to the 2014 season there are a couple of different ways that you can look at this club and judge how their season might end up.

First, it’s a club that has had its issues with allowing high-percentage shots. They’ve added to their defense and seemingly upgraded their keeper, adding American abroad Steve Clarke and making him their conceivable number one. Though I’m not sure that it will change the amount of goals they’re going to give up, given that Andy Gruenebaum rated quite highly himself in our Goalkeeper ratings 1.0. With a modified backline and a new set of tactics, you never know how the change of approach might reduce opponents’ possessions in advantageous locations, but it’s an uphill battle for the Crew.

Yet, despite the defensive leaks, they still took more shots in 2013 than they allowed, and their expected goal differential was actually better than that of New England and Montreal, two playoff teams. Should they continue that trend of producing more shots than their opponents, there does still remain a possibility that they score more goals than they allow. Despite posting a -4 goal differential this past year, there is a chance that going forward their luck improves, and they ride a high PDO to some extra goals in opportune moments.

Columbus, like the rest of the league, has talent. They have some perennially underappreciated talents. Federico Higuaín is consistently an MVP candidate, and while I haven’t taken much time to talk about him, he’s easily the best player on the club and possibly in the league. The shocking thing is, and I often forget this, he’s only 29. The biggest thing surrounding the Crew with Higuian is whether or not they can keep him. There was talk that a club in Liga MX was gearing up to make a move for him.

The best-case scenario for Columbus in 2014 is that it finds a way to get into a #4 or #5-seed position. It would play out something like this: the Crew gets lucky with limiting opportunities, and then on the other side of the pitch they strike it rich on goal-scoring chances. However, the possibility of the Crew reaching those heights at this point seems a rather lofty aspiration at this stage. Too many balls would have to bounce their way, and it leads most fans to believe that this will likely be another season that teeters on the wrong side of the playoffs.

The worst-case scenario, and the one that I find to be the most likely, is that the Crew end up the anchor of the standings, sitting near the token Toronto FC position and fighting for respectability through the season. I remain on the fence that both conferences are going to have an incredibly high amount of parity. On the right side of the country, the Crew could pull out a season much in the vein of the past two years where they continue to press for a playoff position, falling short about two or three weeks prior to season’s completion. Or they could just be a club that gets bossed around, taking bad shots, limiting their true goal scoring opportunities, and surrendering too many goals.

Crowd Sourcing Placement: 10th place in Eastern Conference; 102 of the 404 10th-place votes (25.25%).

*ExpGD is the same as our metric xGD.

Thanks to reddit user xynto for pointing out we had initially given given Warzycha credit for the Crew’s MLS Cup, when it actually came in 2008 under Schmidt.

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.