Season Preview: Sporting Kansas City

Sporting Kansas City has been a lot of things in its 18-year existence. It’s been good and bad, in the Western Conference and the Eastern Conference, and it’s been the Wizards and the “Wiz.” However a transformation occurred more recently that began with the hiring of coach and former player, Peter Vermes, and then the ensuing rebranding of the club. Below you can see the significant boost in attendance that came with a new name and a new park in 2011:

Season Regular Playoffs
2007 11,586 12,442
2008 10,686 10,385
2009 10,053 DNQ
2010 10,287 DNQ
2011 17,810 19,702
2012 19,364 20,894
2013 19,709 20,777

This change culminated in a rapidly expanding fan base that is just as fervent and rabid as any in MLS, anchored by The Cauldron. The club has seen a lot of success in the past two seasons with a US Open Cup win in 2012 and last season’s MLS Cup win at Sporting Park. Things are looking up for Sporting, and this year should yield more of that same success for the defending MLS Cup Champions.

2013 Starting XI

Sporting KC's best XI in 2013

Roster churn: Sporting KC returns 87.7% of its minutes played in 2013 (1st in the East, 2nd in MLS)


 Player Added Position From Player Lost Position To
Sal Zizzo M POR Jimmy Nielsen GK Retirement
Andy Gruenebaum GK CLB Kyle Miller D Waived
Brendan Ruiz D Waived

2014 Preview

Median age: 25.5 *Designated player

Median age: 25.5
*Designated player

SKCINFOMajor League Soccer has seen teams rise and fall from season to season as quickly as in any other sport.  A year ago at this time, most of us thought that the San Jose Earthquakes were a favorite in the West, coming off a 72-goal, 66-point performance in 2012’s regular season. We also probably thought the Portland Timbers would be lucky to slip into the Wildcard play-in game. Previous point totals and playoff results, obviously, must be taken with a grain of salt.

While winning the MLS Cup was likely one of the most important moments in many of Sporting players’ lives, it’s not nearly as important as shot data for predicting future success—and SKC limited scoring opportunities better than anyone in the league. Sporting also came in second to the Galaxy in the run for the coveted Golden TI-89 Trophy—given for best expected goal differential in MLS last season—and it returns players that made up 87.7 percent of the team’s total minutes played last season, good for second in MLS behind Real Salt Lake’s 90.5 percent.

It should be no surprise that teams which finish a season well do little to rock the boat for the coming season. But expected goal differential suggests that Sporting is justified in keeping its unit together (+18.3 xGD), while RSL’s success with its current squadron may not be as sustainable (-4.1 xGD).

While Sporting is losing 12.3 percent of its 2013 playing time, the loss of Jimmy Nielsen to retirement makes up most of that (9.1 percent of the team’s total minutes). Considering that our goalkeeper ratings here on the site, as well as those by our own Will Reno, didn’t like Nielsen much in 2013, this could actually make Sporting better in 2014. That’s scary.

Andy Gruenebaum probably ought to be the opening day starter between the posts, but if Vermes goes with Eric Kronberg, we can suppose it’s because he’s good, and we can suppose that both keepers are better than Nielsen.

Whether Vermes goes with Gruenebaum or Kronberg, we all know it’s that SKC defense that makes the biggest difference. Led by USMNT centerback Matt Besler, Sporting allowed the fewest goals in MLS (30), and more importantly for their 2014 projections, the fewest shots (8.9/game) and the lowest expected goals against (29.8).

Before we leave the defensive part of the pitch, I would be remiss if I did not mention Besler’s secret weapon. Despite getting paid mostly to stop others from scoring, Besler can become an offensive weapon with his throw in. Across MLS, about 100 shots were taken directly following throw ins, and 14 of those were scored. Sporting represented about one-quarter of the entire league’s offensive production from the throw in, thanks in large part to Besler’s triceps.

Though Sporting’s defense was best in the league, there is room to grow offensively. SKC ranked 5th in MLS in expected goals, but 11th in actual goals. A narrative worth following this season is the relationship between Vermes and his designated player Claudio Bieler. The Argentine/Ecuadorian striker led Sporting with 10 goals in 2013, but he scored only one of those after July 13th. Bieler found himself out of the lineup often as Sporting was making its push for the Supporters’ Shield (for which it finished 2nd behind New York). Vermes justified one such benching simply by saying that it was a “tactical decision.” Bieler may be Sporting’s best goal scorer, but first he has to make the coach happy and actually play. Our Expected Goals 2.0 suggests that Bieler scored 30 percent more goals than an average player would have, given his opportunities. That was good for 16th in MLS among those with at least 50 shots. Kansas City fans could see more goals from its team in 2014 if Bieler can rack up at least 30 starts and maintain last year’s finishing pace.

Another key cog in the offensive machine is Graham Zusi. Though he’s known mostly as a facilitator for others’ shots, Zusi’s six goals in 2013 were a bonus over the 3.7 an average player would be expected to score, given his shot selection. Though the merits of the assists statistic are up for debate, what is not is that Zusi is immensely valuable to Sporting’s possession-based style of play that generates the most efficient shot ratios in the league. And his hair, oh his hair.

While winning the MLS Cup last year is not, by itself, a great predictor of 2014 success for Sporting Kansas City, adding in the fact that their championship was backed by strong predictive statistics means a lot more, and we are likely to see another championship run from Sporting this season. Sporting has few questions to answer, and kicks off 2014 as the favorite in the East. If Bieler settles in for a full season, well, we could see back-to-back MLS Cups in The Blue Hell.

Crowd Sourcing Results

1st place in the Eastern Conference; Sporting Kansas City received 226 of 404 (55.9%) first place votes, and 93.6% of voters felt that Sporting would make the playoffs.


Sporting adds Gruenebaum to twiddle thumbs

After Jimmy Nielsen retired on a high note, Sporting Kansas City wasted little time trading for Columbus’ starting No. 1, Andy Gruenebaum. SKC gave up a second-round draft pick to acquire Gruenebaum. Though a second-round pick in MLS is probably not as valuable as it is in, say, the NFL, Sporting has now essentially spent a draft pick on a backup goalkeeper because Vermes named Eric Kronberg the starter for 2014.

“The last two years, [Kronberg’s] been more than ready to try to assume the position,” Vermes said. “The difference is that Jimmy’s been on top of his game.”

Now, I haven’t seen Kronberg play at all because, well, who has? He’s only played 382 minutes over eight seasons—about the equivalent of four full starts. But Vermes’ decision still perplexes me. For instance, Kronberg has played behind Nielsen for some time, and based on 2013 data, Nielsen was not a very good goalkeeper. This from our own Will Reno and this from our shot locations data both suggest that Nielsen was basically “replacement level” this past season. Kronberg is not likely to be much better, if at all, since he was playing behind Nielsen.

Then there’s Gruenebaum. I talked about him on the podcast last week, but here’s the short of it. That same data up there suggests Gruenebaum was one of the better goalkeepers in MLS last season. Both Will and I independently arrived at our statistical ratings, and Will ranked Gruenebaum as the second-best keeper on a per-game basis, while I ranked him as the third-best in the league (among regular starters, by “Goal Ratio”). Nielsen was something like 16th. Kronberg watched Nielsen from the bench.

Obviously, I haven’t been watching Kronberg train as I am not Peter Vermes. But two independent sets of keeper ratings make Gruenebaum sound like a top shelf No. 1, making this a puzzling decision from my, admittedly limited, perspective.

Comparing Goalkeepers to Pitchers

Cruising around twitter is about the most social I get nowadays. It sounds nerdy, and really it is, but it’s amazing the amount of material that you can discover—not to mention the 140-character conversations you can have—produced by people smarter than me.

Looking around, I stumbled across an article that dates back about 10 days from the site ‘Bring On The Stats‘ by the anonymous author Chase H (aka @chaser_racer32 on twitter). Chase H, goes into a good post about how Sporting Kansas City’s goal keeper, Jimmy Neilsen, is—probably gradually—headed for the decline. He comes to this conclusion by going through save% and shots against per minute. A pretty good tactic that has some good reasoning.

“The table above is sorted by save %, which is pretty self-explanatory; it’s the percentage of shots saved by the keeper. Nielsen has the third-worse save % of all goalkeepers with more than 1400 minutes played. The perfect example of why wins and shutouts are not the best measures for a goalkeeper is the fact that Chivas USA keeper Dan Kennedy has saved a higher percentage of shots than Nielsen, and yet has only recorded 2 shutouts, and the team only has 4 wins. Kennedy has the misfortune of playing for one of the worst teams in the MLS, and he has faced almost 50 more shots than Jimmy Nielsen.

On the flip side, one can argue that because the defense plays so well, generally only the most quality shots make it on goal from the opponent. I do acknowledge that is a very big issue to this study, but to compare Neilsen’s stats from last season with the same defense, we see he saved 74% of the shots he faced while the defense conceded almost exactly the same numbers of shots per minute he played.”

I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the analogy of baseball pitchers compared to goal keepers before—if not from some random person or thing I read, then certainly from Matthias. The point of the comparison being that neither the goalkeeper nor the pitcher really has as much influence on goals allowed or runs scored against them as a lot of traditionalists and general fans believe.

In fact, baseball created an individual stat to track exactly what a pitcher controls, and Fangraphs grades him solely on that stat, “FIP.” The stat has been well-documented and was introduced to the general public by writers much more skilled than myself.

Back in the early 2000s, research by Voros McCracken revealed that the amount of balls that fall in for hits against pitchers do not correlate well across seasons. In other words, pitchers have little control over balls in play. McCracken outlined a better way to assess a pitcher’s talent level by looking at results a pitcher can control: strikeouts, walks, hit by pitches, and homeruns.

Finding some reading material on FIP today, and thinking about our podcast about the possibility of whether keepers influence shots on target, sparked some thoughts following the article by Chase H.

The idea of keepers being analogous to pitchers is all well and good. There are certainly some similarities. The problem I’m starting to have, though, is that there may be a better way of looking at it. Pitchers, while minimally, still control aspects of their performance such as ground ball and fly ball rates, strikeouts and walks. Keepers potentially could influence opponents psychologically, but truly the only physical effect they have at their disposal, prior to the shot, is their positioning. Positioning frequently corresponds to the defensive placement of a keeper’s teammates and the opposition that controls possession.

This isn’t the quiet like-to-like thinking that most jump into. However, I started reading about another baseball statistic and it made me think…

One of the differences between UZR and linear weights is that with UZR, the amount of credit that the fielder receives on each play—positive (if he makes an out) or negative (if he allows a hit or an ROE)—depends on how often that particular kind of batted ball, in terms of its location, speed and several other factors, is fielded by an average fielder at the same position. With offensive linear weights, if a batted ball is a hit or an out, the credit that the batter receives is not dependent on where or how hard the ball was hit, or any other parameters.

Maybe, we (and by we, I mean me) are looking at keepers the wrong way. Just like assuming that keepers have control over wins, shutouts and the like, is it any more responsible to assume that goals scored against them are purely their fault either? I’m talking about save percentage here.

To test this Keeper UZR out, we need to create set of guidelines in the same manner as what has been set out for UZR. There is also the key dependency that we don’t have 6 years worth of data to work from. We barely have3 years of chalkboard data, and if using WhoScored or Squawka, we have even less than that.

The other problem is that we don’t know the speed of the shot, and getting the angle of the shot isn’t necessarily easy either. Not that it’s particularly important. My goal this week is to take the shot data by Squawka and put together a visual representation of the six prominent scoring locations complete with shots saved data associated.


The first thing we need to establish is what are the areas shots are saved the least and how good keepers are at limiting goals they should. This seems rather silly, as I’m sure we can probably already theorize the likely goal-scoring locales as being the outside marks near the post. However, we still need numbers and we still need to know how good teams are at preventing goals that they often should.

Controlling for difficulty of shot on target by location on the frame at least starts to give us an intelligent understanding of what goal keepers are doing right and what they are doing wrong.