Season Preview: Chicago Fire

The Chicago Fire won MLS Cup in their first season in the league. They qualified for the playoffs in 12 of their first 13 seasons in MLS. But since 2010, they’ve made the postseason only once (in 2012), where they lost in the first round. For such a storied franchise, it’s clear that Chicago has underachieved for the last four years. Hopes in the Windy City are that a new coach with a history of success in MLS, Frank Yallop, will be able to turn around their fortunes and return the club to the promised land.

2013 Finish: 49 Points, 6th in the Western Conference, Missed MLS Playoffs

ChicagoXI

Transactions

Players In:

Name Position Acquired from:
Lovel Palmer D/M Salt Lake
Harrison Shipp F Homegrown – Notre Dame
Kyle Reynish GK New York Cosmos (NASL)
Chris Ritter M Homegrown – Northwestern
Jhon Kennedy Hurtado D Seattle
Patrick Ianni D Seattle
Giuseppe Gentile F Waiver draft – Charlotte
Benji Joya M Santos Laguna (Mexico)

Players Out:

Name Position Where’d he go?
Paolo Tornaghi GK Waived
Arevalo Rios M Option Declined
Michael Videira D Option Declined
Corben Bone M Option Declined
Joel Lindpere M Option Declined
Maicon Santos F Option Declined
Shaun Francis D Out of Contract
Wells Thompson D Out of Contract
Daniel Paladini M Columbus
Jalil Anibaba D Seattle

 

Median Age: 25

Median Age: 25
*Designated Player

Their 2013 was really bad followed by pretty good, but ending in disappointment. The Fire began the season looking more like kindling (sorry, that’s the only fire-related pun I’ll use in this post), losing seven of their first ten matches. But then they started making moves, both in the front office and up the table. Chicago acquired centerback Bakary Soumare from Philadelphia and forward Mike Magee from Los Angeles, and their ascent quickly followed. Soumare brought a much-needed solidity to the back line, and Magee played out of his mind for the remainder of the season in his hometown. After running off six matches unbeaten immediately following their acquisition, the Fire came back to Earth and narrowly missed out on the East’s final playoff spot, bowing to Montreal on a tiebreaker.

The season was not without its hardware though, as Magee won the league MVP trophy, despite being tradedCHIINFO


On paper, the Chicago Fire seem like they have the pieces to be a contender in the Eastern Conference. Their offseason moves didn’t floor anyone, but they do appear to have improved, both on the bench and in the coaching box. The head coach position is where Chicago made their most substantial move: out went Frank Klopas after last season, and in came Frank Yallop. Yallop won two MLS Cups with the San Jose Earthquakes as well as the 2012 Supporters’ Shield, so he certainly has pedigree to match that of his new employer.

As far as the roster he will be working with, it seems like it should fit with his general style of play pretty well. In San Jose, Yallop was well known for his team’s propensity for quality wing play and crossing it to the forwards, something to which the Fire should be fairly well-suited. In Patrick Nyarko and Dilly Duka, Chicago has two wingers that are both lightning quick and love taking on defenders. As for who they’ll be crossing to, number one on the list is reigning league MVP Mike Magee. ‘Magic Mike’ is unlikely to repeat his career year from 2013 when he scored 21 goals in stints for both Chicago and Los Angeles. But even if he doesn’t approach that number in 2014, Magee is an instinctive finisher who always seems to bag more goals than you project for him.

The other options up front are long time Fire player Chris Rolfe and the Ecuadorian Designated Player Juan Luis Anangono. Rolfe got much of the action up top alongside Magee last year, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see Anangono play a bigger role in his first full season with the club. Anangono is a big, physical presence up top that would seem to match Frank Yallop’s desired style, as he could be an asset getting on the end of crosses. Meanwhile, Rolfe is a solid technical player in his own right, but to me is a bit like a poor man’s Mike Magee. While they combined very well at times last season, having two players with fairly similar styles up top leads to diminishing returns.

The rest of the starting eleven will likely see more shakeups from last season. Along the back line, Chicago traded away Jalil Anibaba—who played every minute for the Fire last season—to Seattle in exchange for centerbacks Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Patrick Ianni. How those two duke it out for playing time with returning starters Austin Berry and Bakary Soumare will be interesting to watch. On the outside, Costa Rican Gonzalo Segares returns to his normal left back position, while right back may be manned by newly acquired Lovel Palmer. Both of those fullbacks are solid if not spectacular options who should get the job done.

My biggest questions come in central midfield for Chicago.Jeff Larentowicz looks like a shoo-in for one of the spots there, as he has long been a solid two-way midfielder in this league. But who starts alongside him will be an interesting puzzle for Yallop to put together. Does the Brazilian Alex become a full-time starter? Does the newly acquired young starlet Benji Joya get deployed in an attacking midfield role from the get-go? Or will veteran captain Logan Pause return a starting spot to bring a strong veteran presence onto the field?

From top to bottom, the Chicago Fire look like they should be one of a host of teams competing for the playoffs in the East. They’ve done well to bring in an established MLS coach in Frank Yallop, and they have a roster without many glaring holes. If Mike Magee can deliver another MVP-caliber season, this team could vault to near the top of the Eastern Conference table. But without that, the rest of the roster is still long on solid players, but a bit short on difference-makers. Yallop’s guidance and a re-jiggered backline might just be enough to return the Fire to the playoffs, or at least another year where their playoff fate comes down to the final day of the season.

Crowdsourcing Results

6th in the Eastern Conference; the Chicago Fire were picked to make the playoffs by just 120 of 404 voters (29.7%)

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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.

A Short Exercise in the Power of a Player: Mike Magee and Juan Agudelo Observed

I asked the question on Twitter, “how many teams have been better than Chicago since the arrival of Mike Magee?” Let’s take a look at the results of games played since the acquisition of Magee on May 24th.

PPG-sinceMay24

I think we knew that the Fire have been good since the arrival of Magee, but just how good is pretty surprising. Adding to the surprise are both the Whitecaps and Revolution with 1.6 points per game.  Looking to the bottom of the table we see how far FC Dallas has dropped since their hot start to the season.

I know that we all like to think that the results in March and April are vital, and to a degree they are—there is no way that FC Dallas is even considering a run at the playoffs if it wasn’t for how they performed in Mar/Apr—however, the season is long; there are nearly 8 months and 34 games.

For now anyway…

I’ve long been of the belief that one player in soccer doesn’t make that big of a difference on an entire season and it’s table location. Sure, maybe Clint Dempsey takes Seattle from being an injury prone playoff-ish team to a contender for the Supporters Shield. But Chicago was, and is now, much better. Along with Chicago, New England’s performance needs mention too.

Currently, the minute men have 17 points through 8 matches with Juan Agudelo in the line-up. Something pointed out to me by the folks over at Deep in the Fort.  It’s also a conclusion that makes me question how much that’s true and how much a really good player can impact a season for a club.

Obviously it needs a much closer observance than a single table of points over a time period. There are other factors to consider with both clubs. Regression, sample size, ect. But there is enough there to at least consider further research into the thought that some players can mean big things for the right club.

MLS Attack Pairings

Today, I was asked simply, which team has the best pairing in MLS? It’s a good question, and oddly one that I’ve been asked a lot and. Despite the frequency of requests, it’s something that I have trouble answering. There are a lot of ways to measure performance for attacking personnel, but due to my time restraints I found the easiest way to do this was to go to Squawka and use their attack score.

Below is a listing of teams and their two highest* attacking score combos. Since it’s a purely cumulative stat I pro-rated it to 90 minutes. As you probably wouldn’t be shocked to find out. Mike Magee, Landon Donovan and Federico Hinguian round out the top-3.

Player Team Minutes Attack Score AS per 90
Mike Magee Chicago 1051 582 50
Patrick Nyarko Chicago 1554 527 31
Carlos Alvarez Chivas USA 1653 360 20
Eric Avila Chivas USA 1634 260 14
Dillion Powers Colorado 2035 576 25
Deshorn Brown Colorado 1800 448 22
Federico Hinguian Columbus 2142 1162 49
Dominic Oduro Columbus 1987 610 28
Dwayne De Rosario DC United 1208 343 26
Kyle Porter DC United 1403 244 16
Blas Perez FC Dallas 1569 584 33
Michel FC Dallas 2004 538 24
Brad Davis Houston 1408 540 35
Will Bruin Houston 1721 472 25
Landon Donovan LA Galaxy 1380 753 49
Robbie Keane LA Galaxy 1320 698 48
Marco Di Vaio Montreal 1868 897 43
Felipe Martins Montreal 1768 535 27
Diego Fagundez New England 1621 613 34
Lee Nguyen New England 2137 527 22
Thierry Henry New York 1952 854 39
Tim Cahill New York 1761 441 23
Sabastian Le Toux Philadelphia 1864 729 35
Conor Casey Philadelphia 1528 667 39
Darlington Nagbe Portland 1895 761 36
Diego Valeri Portland 2072 725 31
Javier Morales RSL 1796 838 42
Ned Grabavoy RSL 2043 467 21
Chris Wondolowski San Jose 1890 530 25
Shea Salinas San Jose 1400 434 28
Eddie Johnson Seattle 1300 461 32
Obafemi Martins Seattle 1024 448 39
Graham Zusi Sporting KC 1860 680 33
Claudio Bieler Sporting KC 1986 620 28
Jonathan Osorio Toronto FC 1164 397 31
Robert Earnshaw Toronto FC 1495 333 20
Camilo Sanvezzo Vancouver 1674 876 47
Kenny Miller Vancouver 1305 506 35

There are a couple of key individuals missing from this list that may or may not “pop out” at you. The first is Philadelphia’s top goal scorer Jack McInereny. Part of this is due to his missing time with the Mens National Team during the early rounds of the Gold Cup tournament. The other part is that outside of his bunches of goals scored early in the season he hasn’t done much else with his time.

The other name, though less likely to be spotted, is Luis Silva. Since arriving at DC United, he’s posted the top overall score determined by Squawka, as well as the highest rating on Whoscored, with his new club. However, he’s only played 5 games and a total of 420 minutes for DCU, so it’s a small sample and I decided to drop him from the listing. This lowered DC United’s end score rather dramatically and yet corresponds quite well with whatever combination player they might be able to muster.

Now, taking all those dynamic duos and adding them together gave us a combined score of the two best attacking players on each team. Here are those in order.

AS per 90
LA Galaxy 97
Vancouver 82
Chicago 80
Crew 76
Philadelphia 74
Seattle 71
Montreal 70
Portland 68
RSL 63
New York 62
Sporting KC 61
Houston 59
FC Dallas 58
New England 56
San Jose 53
Toronto FC 51
Rapids 48
DC United 41
Chivas 34

It’s not a surprise to see LA at the top of any such list. Robbie Keane and Donovan have long be herald as the best dynamic attacking duo of the league. But if you are looking beyond those two the teams are rather surprising. Vancouver, Chicago, Columbus and Philly all make up the top-5 with the often scrutinized Obafemi Martins and Eddie Johnson contributions falling just outside the grouping.

Another interesting note, taking us further towards the discussion of single best player. While individual performances matter, it’s about team accomplishment rather than singular performances over the stretch of the season. It’s obvious that while Chicago and Columbus both have had outstanding performances from their key men up top, they are lacking something on a team level such that these individual metrics don’t correspond entirely to the tables at the end of the day.