Real Salt Lake: Perennial Model Buster?

If you take a look back at 2013’s expected goal differentials, probably the biggest outlier was MLS Cup runner up Real Salt Lake. Expected to score 0.08 fewer goals per game than its opponents, RSL actually scored 0.47 more goals than its opponents. That translates to a discrepancy of about 19 unexplained goals for the whole season. This year, RSL finds itself second in the Western Conference with a goal differential of a massive 0.80. However, like last year, the expected goal differential is lagging irritatingly behind at –0.77.

There are two extreme explanations for RSL’s discrepancy in observed versus expected performance, and while the truth probably lies in the middle, I think it’s valuable to start the discussion at the extremes and move in from there.

It could be that RSL plays a style and has the personnel to fool my expected goal differential statistic. Or, it could be that RSL is one lucky son of a bitch. Or XI lucky sons of bitches. Whatever.

Here are some ways that a team could fool expected goal differential:

  1. It could have the best fucking goalkeeper in the league.
  2. It could have players that simply finish better than the league average clip in each defined shot type.
  3. It could have defenders that make shots harder than they appear to be in each defined shot type–perhaps by forcing attackers onto their weak feet, or punching attackers in the balls whilst winding up.
  4. That’s about it.

We know are pretty sure that RSL does indeed have the best goalkeeper in the league, and Will and I estimated Nick Rimando’s value at anywhere between about six and eight goals above average* during the 2013 season. That makes up a sizable chunk of the discrepancy, but still leaves at least half unaccounted for.

The finishing  ability conversation is still a controversial one, but that’s where we’re likely to see the rest of the difference. RSL scored 56 goals (off their own bodies rather than those of their opponents), but were only expected to score about 44. That 12-goal difference can be conveniently explained by their five top scorers–Alvaro Saborio, Javier Morales, Ned Grabavoy, Olmes Garcia, and Robbie Findley–who scored 36 goals between them while taking shots valued at 25.8 goals. (see: Individual Expected Goals, and yes it’s biased to look at just the top five goal scorers, but read on.)

Here’s the catch, though. Using the sample of 28 players that recorded at least 50 shots last season and at least 5 shots this season, the correlation coefficient for the goals above expectation statistic is –0.43. It’s negative. Basically, players that were good last year have been bad this year, and players that were bad last year have been good this year. That comes with some caveats–and if the correlation stays negative then that is a topic fit for another whole series of posts–but for our purposes here it suggests that finishing isn’t stable, and thus finishing isn’t really a reliable skill. The fact that RSL players have finished well for the last 14 months means very little for how they will finish in the future.

Since I said there was a third way to fool expected goal differential–defense. I should point out that once we account for Rimando, RSL’s defense allowed about as many goals as expected. Thus the primary culprits of RSL’s ability to outperform expected goal differential have been Nick Rimando and its top five scorers. So now we can move on to the explanation on the other extreme, luck.

RSL has been largely lucky, using the following definition of lucky: Scoring goals they can’t hope to score again. A common argument I might expect is that no team could be this “lucky” for this long. If you’re a baseball fan, I urge you to read my piece on Matt Cain, but if not, here’s the point. 19 teams have played soccer in MLS the past two seasons. The probability that at least one of them gets lucky for 1.2 seasons worth of games is actually quite high. RSL very well may be that team–on offense, anyway.

Unless RSL’s top scorers are all the outliers–which is not impossible, but unlikely–then RSL is likely in for a rude awakening, and a dogfight for a playoff spot.


*Will’s GSAR statistic is actually Goals Saved Above Replacement, so I had to calibrate.


ASA Fantasy League Update Round 1: Gotta Have Higuain

MLS Fantasy players, it’s that time of the week to make your transfers–if you haven’t already–and get that starting XI ready for the weekend. Obviously the big winners of the week are basically anyone who owned either Mauro Rosales, Mario Diaz—or to go in a different direction, less ‘M’ related direction—Federico Higuain. Didn’t have any of those picks? Not a big deal, now is a team to reload and get cleaned up. We’ve got round 2 this weekend with some interesting match-ups.

Here is the dream XI for last week:


And here are the current league standings as of round 1.

# Team   Manager    RD   %AARd    TOT     Team$     Captain    Points
1 Khal Jogo Bazzo 79 1.927 79 119.3 Rosales 12
2 This Stuff Kicks Cris Pannullo 75 1.829 75 120.7 Keane 4
2 Major League Clowns Tom Worville 75 1.829 75 118.8 Higuain 22
4 Bridgeburners FC Chris Gluck 74 1.805 74 120.2 Valeri 4
5 Cal Poly FC Emil Barycki 73 1.780 73 115.2 Higuain 22
6 En Fuego e margolis 70 1.707 70 120.3 Nagbe 6
7 LingeringwithIntent Jason Onorati 69 1.683 69 119.1 Higuain 22
8 The Other Higuain Jacob Beckett 64 1.561 64 119.7 Urruti 4
8 A.S. Trincamp Martin F 64 1.561 64 119.3 Higuian 22
10 DallasTilIDie Benjamin Hester 62 1.512 62 116.6 Keane 4
11 Real Sporting Utd FC Eric J. Walcott 60 1.463 60 118 Valeri 4
12 WOMBATZ Casey Cannon 59 1.439 59 114.6 Higuain 22
13 NotToBeFeared Harrison Crow 53 1.293 53 119.6 Keane 4
14 PasarChino! Jason Poon 48 1.171 48 120.2 Higuain 22
15 Amrodg Mick Lathrop 44 1.073 44 116.2 Martins 4
16 PDX Hoosiers Brad Snook 39 0.951 39 120.2 Nagbe 6
16 Draft Code United Louis Pardillo 39 0.951 39 119.5 Beiler 0
18 PortlandatHeart Forrest Ellis 34 0.829 34 118.7 Valeri 4
19 Tootie Urruti Drew Olsen 33 0.805 33 118.6 Magee 0
20 letskillrobots Bill Vegas 22 0.537 22 117.6 Magee 0
 Averages 56.8 1.385  56.8 118.62 9.4

RD: Round Points

%AARd: Percentage Above Average Round Points

Team$: How much the team spent on their players

A quick thought—and my heart goes out to our own PasarChino! for this one—you gotta start Rimando, buddy! You sat the highest point total in the league. Ouch! As for our crew here at ASA, most of us (Jacob, Drew, Jason, myself and poor Bill) did okay, with the most notable stand out of the bunch being Cris Pannullo and a bit farther down Chris Gluck. We’ll head to the next round and see if those two can distance themselves from the rest of the ASA community.

Again, this is for an undisclosed, not-yet-valued prize that is available to all whom play. It could be a Meatloaf interactive blu-ray, it could be a soccer ball, it could be a scarf of your choosing. Matty might spend a couple hours on Skype teaching you how to use R. Who knows what we’ll come up with. The only promise is that it won’t be terrible. Code to enter is 9593-1668, should you care to join in the fun/recklessness that is fantasy sports.

The three teams that are noticeably absent this round are Columbus Crew, DC United and LA Galaxy. I’m sure this will kind of cause a bit of reshuffling to occur as many, including myself, had been sporting Robbie Keane as their captain, and it will most certainly require some movement along the bench. But this is where you earn the coveted prize. No, not the Sheva, though I’m sure we can come up with an equally inspiring annual trophy name.

I’m sure you all have better advice/thoughts than what I have for MLS fantasy, so I’ll point you towards a couple of sites that have some stats and feed back on last week.

– Mr. Fantasy, Ben Jata, recaps the hap’s with round 1.

Big D Soccer does a nice preview of not just Dallas FC players but also some thoughts on MLS as a whole.

– Sticking with the Texas theme, Dynamo Theory has some fantastic numbers/stuff that deserves recognition for their work. Great job by TraviTheRabbi and I would say give him a follow on twitter but I don’t see any such thing connected to his account, and that makes me a sad panda. Anyways…go read the article here. Solid, solid stuff.

I leave you with the current top-50 hottest players being selected as of 10:30 last night. I’ve equipped you to make some good decisions. Now go forth and conquer. The catch is that only one of you will win. Anyone have any top secrets for how they plan on winning the league? I hear finding people that stop goals and in return score goals are really good to have? Any other methods or suggestions?

Player  Team   Pos   Selected   Price   Round   Total 
Sarkodie HOU DEF 33.9% $6.6 9 9
Remick SEA DEF 33.8% $4.1 8 8
Fagundez NE MID 28.9% $8.0 3 3
Yedlin SEA DEF 26.0% $7.5 7 7
Kennedy CHV GKP 25.6% $4.5 4 4
Fondy CHV FWD 24.9% $4.0 0 0
Rimando RSL GKP 23.3% $6.1 15 15
Magee CHI FWD 21.5% $10.5 0 0
Bruin HOU FWD 21.2% $8.2 15 15
Zusi KC MID 20.6% $11.0 3 3
Plata RSL FWD 20.1% $7.0 9 9
Griffiths COL DEF 19.3% $4.0 0 0
Moor COL DEF 18.6% $7.0 0 0
Collin KC DEF 18.0% $10.0 3 3
Loyd DAL DEF 17.9% $5.5 0 0
Jewsbury POR DEF 17.7% $6.5 2 2
Nagbe POR MID 17.1% $9.5 3 3
Juninho LA MID 17.0% $7.0 3 3
Keane LA FWD 17.0% $10.9 2 2
Cronin SJ MID 17.0% $6.5 0 0
Porter DC MID 16.7% $5.0 1 1
Ricketts POR GKP 16.7% $6.0 5 5
Harrington POR DEF 16.5% $7.5 3 3
Jimenez CLB MID 16.0% $5.5 6 6
Rosales CHV MID 14.7% $7.6 12 12
Hall HOU GKP 14.3% $6.0 8 8
Valeri POR MID 14.1% $10.5 2 2
Wondolowski SJ FWD 13.6% $9.5 0 0
Higuaín CLB FWD 13.5% $10.5 11 11
Burling CHV DEF 12.7% $5.1 9 9
McNamara CHV MID 12.6% $4.6 7 7
Ashe HOU DEF 12.6% $7.1 11 11
Malki MTL MID 12.6% $4.0 0 0
Donovan LA MID 12.5% $11.0 7 7
Moffat DAL MID 12.2% $5.9 0 0
Palmer-Brown KC DEF 11.6% $4.0 0 0
Defoe TOR FWD 11.6% $10.5 0 0
Horst HOU DEF 11.5% $5.6 8 8
Melia CHV GKP 11.1% $3.0 0 0
Parke DC DEF 10.7% $6.9 2 2
Martins SEA FWD 10.7% $9.5 2 2
Bradley TOR MID 10.4% $10.0 0 0
McBean LA FWD 10.0% $5.0 0 0
E. Miller MTL DEF 9.8% $4.5 2 2
MacMath PHI GKP 9.6% $5.0 3 3
Manneh VAN FWD 9.6% $6.5 1 1
Urruti POR FWD 9.4% $7.0 2 2
Messoudi MTL MID 9.0% $4.0 0 0
Henry NY FWD 8.9% $11.0 0 0
Franklin DC DEF 8.8% $7.9 2 2

How it Happened: Week One

Hello friends. This is the first in what will hopefully be a weekly feature here at ASA by yours truly.

First, the background: Not being a fan of any particular MLS team is hard. It’s hard to follow an entire league of 19 teams. Seven or eight games a week are difficult to catch up on, even when they aren’t all played at the same time. Previously, I’ve watched highlights and ‘condensed games’ to try to pick up which teams and players were playing well, but it just doesn’t work. The only way to really learn a team’s strengths, weaknesses and tendencies is by watching every minute of every game they play. There’s no way I can do that with every team in MLS while still working a full-time job. Sorry.

My solution is this: I plan on committing to watching a full 90 minutes of three games per week. This gives me six teams that I’ll feel that I truly know (at least for that week), and should certainly teach me a heckuva lot more than just if I just watched their highlight packages. Since this here is an analytical and statistic-focused blog, I’ll break down each of the three games by one particular stat or Opta chalkboard image that I think told the story of the game for each team. Think this idea is idiotic? Love it? Please, let me know: feedback is always appreciated. But leave my mom out of this.

DC United vs. Columbus Crew

Stat that told the story for Columbus: 58% of successful passes in attacking half for the fullbacks


The above image is all of the completed passes for Crew fullbacks Waylon Francis and Josh Williams on Saturday. These two players are clearly defenders who aren’t afraid to get forward, but the startling frequency with which they were able to get up the field against DC had to have alarm bells ringing for United fans. For folks who prefer numbers to images, here you are: 49 of the 85 passes that Francis and Williams completed (58%) were in the attacking half. That’s a pretty solid attacking contribution from two guys who are listed along the back line.

This was made possible for Columbus by a couple of adjustments made by new coach Gregg Berhalter. Centerbacks Michael Parkhurst and Giancarlo Gonzalez split reallllly wide when in possession, allowing both fullbacks to get forward. This was made possible by holding midfielder Wil Trapp, who sat very deep to cover the gap between centerbacks. It’s only one game, but it certainly looked like a good strategy in week one for Columbus.

Stat that told the story for DC: 1 attacking player’s pass into the penalty area


Really, the above image for Columbus tells a lot of the story for DC, as well: they got hammered because the Crew got the ball wide and stretched DC’s shape like a bad hamstring. With a team full of new faces who clearly haven’t learned to play with one another yet, the defense was abused by all the space Crew players were able to find. But I can’t use the same stat for both teams, so here’s what I got for United: one. One successful pass from any of the three players nominally deployed in attack (Eddie Johnson, Fabian Espindola, Luis Silva) that ended in the penalty box.

Seriously: take a look at the Opta Chalkboard above. I get that it’s hard to complete passes in the 18, but for the three guys who are tasked with creating chances, there needs to be more than one completed pass that ends up there. Oh, and that one completed pass? It came from a free kick, and ended with a flick-on by Davy Arnaud that didn’t even turn into a shot. There was a lot wrong with DC in 2013 and a lot wrong with DC last weekend, but if the new faces of Johnson and Espindola were expected to cure all attacking ills….Ben Olsen may be in for a rude awakening.

Portland Timbers vs. Philadelphia Union

Stat that told the story for Portland: 20 crosses in the second hour of the game

The Timbers came out for the season opener and were dealt a dose of their own medicine from the new-look Philadelphia Union. Playing in a 4-3-3, the Union clogged the center of the field, put a lot of pressure on Portland and really made it difficult for the home team to get into their possession game. But as any good team does, the Timbers made adjustments. After being credited with just two crosses from open play in the games first 35 minutes, Portland emphasized wide play with Michael Harrington getting forward and Darlington Nagbe flaring out wide. After the 35th minute, Opta credited Portland with 20 crosses from open play. Some of this was due to bombing the ball forward as they sought an equalizer late, but recording 10 times as many crosses was certainly the product of an adjustment made by the Timbers.

Stat that told the story for Philadelphia: 12 midfield interceptions & recoveries to start the game

As I said above, the Union started the game very strong, with their midfield really clogging up Portland’s attempts to possess the ball. The midfield three of Maurice Edu, Brian Carroll and Vincent Nogueira seemed to be replicating some of what made Portland so successful in 2013: clogging the middle of the field and winning a majority of loose balls. Opta credits those three with 12 combined interceptions and recoveries in the game’s first 22 minutes. However, as also noted above, Portland adjusted to the Union’s set-up and began to emphasize wide play. The Union didn’t really adjust to the adjustment, as the Timbers clearly became more and more comfortable as the game went on. After those 12 interceptions/recoveries in the first 22 minutes, Edu, Carroll and Nogueria only recorded seven more the rest of the game.

LA Galaxy vs. Real Salt Lake

Stat that told the story for LA: 2.39 expected goals; 0 actual goals


If you’re at this site, chances are you know the concept behind expected goals. If not, scroll down a ways and read up. Anyway, look at the above image: that’s not a map of shots that typically leads to a shutout. According to the numbers run by ASA’s own Harrison Crow, a league average team would’ve finished 2.39 goals from those shots. They finished zero. If you aren’t into the stats and would prefer the English commentator’s version: Robbie Keane missed some sitters, Landon Donovan was unlucky not to finish any of his half-chances, and Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas combined for some speculative efforts that nearly bulged the ol’ onion bag. Oh, and Nick Rimando had a magisterial day in net to keep his clean sheet.

Stat that told the story for RSL: Joao Plata’s complete game

I’m cheating a little here because that’s not a real stat, but any time there’s a 1-0 game, it’s tough to leave out any conversation about the lone goal scorer. In this case, that’s the diminutive Ecuadorian, Joao Plata. Plata debuted for Toronto FC three seasons ago, and it seems like he’s been around for a lot longer than your average 22-year-old. But it’s true. Plata is only 22, and if Saturday night is any indication, he could be in for his best season in MLS yet. Not only was Plata’s finish on the game’s only goal very cool, he was consistently playing with a lot more tactical awareness than I’ve seen out of him in the past. Whether it was setting up Alvaro Saborio for golden chances or making intelligent runs to stretch the defense and open up space for Javier Morales, Plata had a very, very good game against LA.

Season Preview: Real Salt Lake

The optimist looks at Real Salt Lake’s 2013 season and praises the club for making the MLS Cup Finals. The pessimist complains that they lost the MLS Cup Finals in penalty kicks despite holding a lead with 15 minutes remaining, facing a goalkeeper who seemed like his joints had frozen solid. The optimist praises the club’s performance in the U.S. Open Cup, lauding their run to the finals. The pessimist complains that they lost in the finals against DC United, a dreadful team. The optimist praises the team for finishing with a 16-10-8 record and a +16 goal differential in the regular season. The pessimist complains that they failed to win the Supporters Shield (again!) by 3 points. For Real Salt Lake in 2013, perception was everything. 

2013 Finish: 16-10-8, 56 points; 57 GF, 41 GA. Second place in Western Conference. Lost in MLS Cup Finals.

2013 RSL Formation - 2014-02-24


Players In

Players Out

Name Pos   Name Pos  
Jordan Allen M/F Homegrown Yordany Alvarez M Out of Contract
Luke Mulholland M Free Brandon McDonald D Out of Contract
      Josh Saunders GK Out of Contract
      Khari Stephenson M Out of Contract
      Lovel Palmer D/M Traded to Chicago

Roster Churn: RSL returns 90.5% of its minutes played in 2013 (1st in all of MLS).

Know When to Hold ‘Em

In early 2013, Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hanson made the decision not to extend Jason Kreis’s contract, gambling that Kreis’s stock would come down and he would be able to nab the coach at a bargain price. After all, the club had just lost Will Johnson, Jamison Olave, Fabian Espindola, and Jonny Steele in an offseason filled with cost-cutting moves. 2013 seemed likely to be a rebuilding year. Twelve months and two cup finals later, Jason Kreis is preparing for the 2015 debut of New York City FC, leaving Jeff Cassar, promoted from assistant coach, to lead Real Salt Lake. Cassar, with the team since 2007, is a safe choice, but even with all 11 starters returning, he may find it difficult to replicate the kind of success that RSL achieved under Jason Kreis.

In Good Hands


Nick Rimando returns to man the RSL nets for the 8th consecutive season. There’s nothing much that can be said about Rimando that you probably don’t already know. A 14-year veteran of the league, Rimando has ascended to third in command of the United States net. Remarkably, Rimando has a 10-0-0 record with the U.S. team, and is already tied for 5th all-time on the goalkeeper victory list with Brad Guzan.

Rimando’s national team opportunities have come as a result of stellar club play. Last season, he finished 2nd to Donovan Ricketts in Goalkeeper of the Year award voting, and was probably unlucky to do so. Rimando really is the total package: His reflexes and shot-stopping ability are legendary, and while it may not surprise you that Rimando finished 4th in pass completion percentage, the diminutive Rimando is also an excellent commander of his penalty area. In 2014, Rimando finished 4th in MLS in catches per 90 with 2.63. This paragraph is far too long for one that could have been summed up simply with “Real Salt Lake is in good hands with Nick Rimando.”

Continuity in the Back

2014 RSL Roster - 2014-02-24With Chris Wingert, Nat Borchers, Chris Schuler, and Tony Beltran patrolling in front of him, Nick Rimando, too, will be in good hands. In the playoffs, Borchers and Schuler showed the potential to become one of the best pairings in the league. Though that is contingent on whether Schuler can remain healthy. In both the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Schuler was sidelined for multiple months with a foot injury. It was evident just how much Salt Lake missed Schuler last season when he was injured: with Schuler on the field last season, RSL conceded only 0.94 goals per 90, without him, they conceded 1.45 goals per 90. Yes, the sample size is small, and no, these numbers do not take into account opponent and location of the game. Still, Schuler’s contributions to defense were evident when 20-year old Carlos Salcedo was forced to step in. Nat Borchers provides much more certainty. In his 9-year Major League Soccer career (he spent two years with Odd Grenland in Norway), Borchers has averaged more than 28 starts per season.

RSLinfoThe Best Defense…

However, for all they do defensively, it may be their contributions to the attack that makes the RSL backline so valuable. Nat Borchers is one of the calmest defensive distributers in the league. Last season he had the 3rd best pass completion rate in the league, behind only Osvaldo Alonso and George John. This may be because Real Salt Lake puts a premium on possession and building the attack from the back, which sees Beckerman and the rest of the midfielders providing outlet options constantly. The team led MLS last season in possession percentage, pass success percentage, and percentage of passes that were under 25 yards. After all, Kwame Watson-Siriboe finished with a 93% passing rate (in but a mere handful of games), and Carlos Salcedo and Schuler both finished above 80%.

Wingert and Beltran involve themselves in the attack as well, though not always in the traditional, bomb-down-the-flanks-and-send-in-a-cross manner. When Real Salt Lake is in possession, the two outside backs (and Beltran especially) inhabit an advanced position on the field, where they can combine effectively with Gil, Grabavoy, Morales, and Saborio. Beltran is the more threatening of the two outside backs, finishing last season 5th in the league in key passes among defenders with 25.

Owning the Ball

The midfield will look awfully familiar for RSL fans this season as well, and why shouldn’t it? No midfield quartet in MLS can control the pace of the game like Kyle Beckerman, Ned Grabavoy, Luis Gil, and Javier Morales. Beckerman provides the transition from defense to attack, from left to right. He does it often, and he does it well. The only midfielder with more passes than Beckerman last season was Marcelo Sarvas, who had 3 more passes than Beckerman, though the Galaxy midfielder did it in 610 more minutes. Beckerman was the runaway leader in passes per game with 69.7, nearly 10 more than number two on the list. And though better known for his grit and tactical nous, Beckerman also manages to throw in no-look assists from time to time, just for fun (and to [almost] win MLS Cup).

Number two on that list of passes per game in MLS last year? None other than Javier Morales. Though he always has a target on his back, the 34-year-old Argentine playmaker often drifts wide and deep to ensure that he sees enough of the ball. And when he gets the ball, RSL benefits. Last season, Morales finished (per game) in the top 10 in fouls suffered (1st), key passes (2nd), successful through balls (4th), and successful crosses (6th).

These numbers are gaudy enough, but numbers like that are often indicative of a high-risk style of play, sending in large numbers of passes and crosses to in the hopes that a few of them will lead to dangerous scoring opportunities. And while he does send in a lot of passes (Morales has attempted [2,327] and completed [1,857] more passes in the opponent’s half than any other MLS player over the last two years), what sets Morales apart from his peers is his effectiveness. While the average pass completion percentage of the rest of the top ten “key passers” (all attack-minded players) in 2013 was 76.6%, Morales’s was a hearty 83.1%. This number is inflated a bit both because he plays on such a talented, possession-oriented team and because he receives the ball farther from goal than, say, Thierry Henry or Robbie Keane, both of which lead to more safe ball touches. But even with these advantages, Morales should be regarded as one of the most talented players in the league, one who was unfortunate not to have been included in the MVP race last season.

The Other Guys

The rest of the midfield will be rounded out by two of the most underrated players in the league. Gil gets more publicity than Grabavoy. He did when he signed with Major League Soccer amid rumors of pursuit by clubs like Arsenal, and he does as a 20-year-old who has caught the eye of Jurgen Klinsmann. Gil deserves his plaudits, of course. After all, how many MLS players have played in 84 games before their 20th birthday? (By my count, just Freddy Adu and Eddie Gaven, though others, like Diego Fagundez, should get there).

But how many times have you heard Ned Grabavoy referenced recently? If you listen to the media or fans, probably not very many, but if you’re taking note of the play-by-play man on an RSL broadcast, you probably hear it quite often. Grabavoy is everywhere on the field: relentlessly pressuring the ball (he finished 14th last season in tackles per game among midfielders), and then quickly and efficiently–far more than he gets credit for (86% pass completion rate, 4th best in MLS)–distributing it. Remarkably, despite all of Grabavoy’s defensive grit, he finished tied for 6th among MLS midfielders in fouls suffered with 63 (9th in fouls per game with 2.0), and committed only 37 himself. If that’s not enough, he pitched in with 5 goals on only 29 shots, intelligently taking 20 shots inside the box versus only 9 outside.

The Finishers

Up top, Salt Lake will deploy their preferred pair of Alvaro Saborio and Robbie Findley. Saborio may be the most indispensable member on the RSL squad. He has scored at least 11 goals in each of the four seasons he has been in the league. Last season, due to injuries and international call-ups, he only managed 15 starts, yet still racked up 12 goals. His .80 goals per 90 minutes led the league.

Findley will provide support for Saborio. He may not have the greatest skill on the ball, but his pace down the channels draws defenders out of position and opens up space for Saborio and streaking midfielders. However, if Findley gets off to a slow start, he’ll have to watch his back. Last season, the trio of Olmes Garcia, Joao Plata, and Devon Sandoval, three very different types of forwards, all showed promise, and will be looking for even more playing time this season.

The Prediction

This preview has featured incessant, nearly sycophantic levels of praise for RSL players, but years of success despite shuttling players in and out of Utah to stay under the salary cap suggests that maybe it’s the system just as much as it is the players. After all, when Sebastian Velazquez filled in for Luis Gil, he looked great. Same for Yordany Alvarez for Ned Grabavoy. Joao Plata, Robbie Findley. Sandoval, Saborio. How much of the success of RSL was because of the system? How much of the system was based on Kreis’s presence?

American Soccer Analysis readers seem to think that the team will not have quite the same success this year. They have projected RSL to finish 4th in the Western Conference this season, with 20.69% of voters placing them there. Although very few people think that they will miss the playoffs entirely, with only 13.05% of voters placing them in spots six through nine.

MLS Cup Thoughts and General Goalkeeper Roundup

Three things in this post:

1. MLS final
2. Goalkeeper of the Year Award
3. MLS Goalkeeper Final Destination

1. MLS final

We were all made aware of the conditions before the game. The ice on the field, the cold temperatures, the effects on the ball… but then again, it’s the final in your sport so maybe it’s not the best time to come up with excuses.

The final featured two of the three finalists for Goalkeeper of the Year so we should expect an exciting display between both set of posts. This was not the case. Let’s walk through the video

  • 0:58 – Nick Rimando makes a half-falling/half-diving save in the twenty-fifth minute. It’s enough in his mitts that he can hold it, but he pushes it wide and almost bonks his head.
  • 1:28 – Nielsen gets a little too far under a punch and sends it straight up in the air, almost setting up a gift of a goal.
  • 2:20 – If you notice, this is the third highlight and we’re almost through the first half. That might tell you something. Rimando stays alert, and the bouncing ball isn’t in complete control of Dwyer. It’s a needed save but not that tough. Rimando has time to get there and Dwyer has a limited shooting angle on goal.
  • 2:40 – Start of the second half sees CJ Sapong with the ball in front of goal yet again. Rimando gets caught going the wrong way when Sapong cuts off the cross. He tries to scramble to the post but luckily (for Rimando) the shot skies over.
  • 3:25 – RSL gets the first goal of the game from a nice no-look-pass from Beckerman to Sabario who chests then volleys it home. But check out Nielsen’s starting position on the shot.
    Screen Shot 2013-12-08 at 12.30.50 PM
    So far from the line! He could have chipped him if he tried (foreshadowing, wooOOoo!). Sabario takes the trap and Nielsen (who starts calling for a handball) is so far from the line he can’t get into position well enough (notice the green triangles below). If he’s closer to the line he can get into position better and he’ll have more time to react, likely making the save.
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Shooting angles

  • 4:50 – Beckerman takes a shot from distance. On the replay (5:12), check out Nielsen’s left foot: cemented into the ground. His right foot does all the moving. This is not good. Just turning your body to make a save really limits the distance you can cover. A quicker shuffle to Nielsen’s left can get a hand on that shot.
  • 5:25 – Possibly the biggest “LOL” of the match. Nielsen is so far off his line that the most casual chip almost beats him. The ball doesn’t even clear the crossbar, if that tells you how non-chalant the chip was.
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    Nielsen turns around, surprised the ball is still in play, chases it out and eats snow hard. Woof.
  • 6:40 – SKC equalizes with a questionably fair header…Rimando bounces over but can’t make the extension.

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    If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

  • 7:20 – Ninety-third minute and Rimando makes the “Allstate Good Hands Save of the Match”. A simple tip over from a blast eight yards out.
  • 7:50 – Sapong with another chance while being mauled.
  • 8:25 – I’ll just leave this picture to sum up the events here:Screen Shot 2013-12-08 at 2.44.10 AM
  • Apparently nothing happened for the next fifteen minutes and the penalties ensue. Here are the tendancies for Nielsen and Rimando:Screen Shot 2013-12-08 at 1.19.58 PM
    The “n’s” and “y’s” are if the keepers guessed the correct way or not. A “y” means yes he did, obviously, and the asterisks mean that while he guessed correctly the ball missed the goal frame. The green represents all the times the shooter did not score (after five rounds it was 3-3, three reds each). Both goalkeepers guessed the right way four of the ten times. The last two columns are where the keepers were guessing. Rimando was 5-2-3 (left-middle-right) and Nielsen was 6-0-4. So if you needed any more proof that shootouts are more determined by the shooters than goalkeeper then… well I don’t know. This games looks pretty clear to me. Nielsen is painted as the shootout hero but almost has the exact same stats as Rimando, not to mention all his follies from the run of play. Also he’s about five feet off his line on the eighth-round shot. (I know the ball is well-past kicked at this point, but he was in the process of planting his foot so it was blurry. Also balls kicked travel faster than feet move.)Screen Shot 2013-12-08 at 2.34.30 AM

At least it was a fun game. We can all agree on that.

2. Goalkeeper of the Year Award

If you’re not going to assign numbers to winning an award then you basically can give it to whomever you want. Call it heart, call it leadership… whatever. Everyone has highlights/lowlights that anyone can recall, but you can’t give a season award off one event. Complimenting a player with the title of “best” over a year’s play implies they affected their team in the most positive manner for the entire season. If you’re not using some numerical attribute to rank goalkeepers, I can’t convince you that Rimando was the best. But coming from someone who has watched A LOT of film, I know he was and I quantified it. If you want to disagree, you have to have numbers somehow, or else you’re just saying “Nu uh. You’re wrong.” I know I haven’t made my stats extremely transparent. And, yes, I know they’re not completely finished at this point (believe me I would have loved to finish it if I could have), but it’s better than the current alternative of either blasting Ricketts for not being able to hold a ball (which people can only remember this specifically happening a handful of times) or praising Ricketts for being the best goalkeeper in the league because they think they saw his name in the Save of the Week a lot.

I’ll take it a step further, there’s a reason why a bunch of goalkeepers end up with very similar stats at the end of the year: current goalkeeping stats are too simple and don’t gauge anything of real value. Isn’t it weird that Jimmy Nielsen had a phenomenal GAA (.88) and an average save percentage (68)? Was Nielsen only getting long-range bombs that he struggled with, or did he do a great job with only facing 1-v-1s? These stats don’t tell us anything.

3. MLS Goalkeeper Final Destination

All that to say, the end of the season is nigh, and thus the goalkeeper shuffle begins! Actually it’s entirely less exciting than that, but I needed to spice it up a bit. Here’s a team-by-team guide. I know some teams (FC Dallas, ahem) have youngsters in USYNT camps so I’m putting a minimum requirement of being 18 years old to make any mention. (Because I think we all remember what we were like at 17, so let’s not add anymore pressure to them.) I also included potential homegrowns just for fun.

Here are some reserve league stats. I just tallied minutes and games played. (Paolo Tornaghi played 765 minutes in nine games.) I only marked minutes played at 45 or 90 because, come on, it’s the reserve league. I didn’t even bother with goals allowed because I didn’t want to fool you with misleading stats.

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Chicago Fire

Starter:Sean Johnson (23)
Back Up: Paolo Tornaghi (25)
In Reserve: Alec Kann (24)

We all know Sean Johnson, blah blah blah. Tornaghi played six times for Chicago (not great, not awful) but did not get re-signed. Kann sat the bench a handful of times and being two years out from Furman has yet to play an official match (from what I can find) but did get five reserve matches.

Outlook: Johnson will likely have at least one more year in the MLS but a transfer to another league is definitely in the cards. Or perhaps that is just the outrageous expectations from the media. Kann has some promise but look for Chicago to sign a late 20s veteran as backup for some more stability and fill Tornaghi’s void.

Chivas USA

Starter:Dan Kennedy (31)
Back Up: Tim Melia (26)
In Reserve: Pat McLain (25), Jake McGuire (19)

Kennedy matched his age with his games played at 31 but honestly he had a noticeable drop off this year. McLain and Melia both played two games this season to about the skill of a backup would be. Freshman McGuire had a good season at Tulsa.

Outlook: It depends a lot on Chivas’ outlook. If they’re content with Kennedy they’ll sign another backup or snag a young goalie in the Superdraft. If they’re worried about Kennedy, which they honestly should be, they bring in some competition for him. McLain should see some reserve league action at another club.

Colorado Rapids

Starter:Clint Irwin (24)
Back Up: Matt Pickens (31)
In Reserve: Steward Ceus (26), Andrew Epstein (17)

Wow what a weird season. Apparent starter, Matt Pickens, fractures his arm second game of the season and Clint Irwin has such a good year that “fear the beard” is starting to sound kinda weird. Ceus started the opener but let a ball bounce over his head into the goal (oh it’s much worse than it sounds). I did include Epstein despite being sub-18 because he did get one reserve game. He is a freshman at Stanford.

Outlook: I wouldn’t be surprised if they stick with this batting order. I don’t think any teams are impressed with Pickens, which is unfortunate because he was pretty decent. Colorado has no plans for Ceus, I’m sure. Also he was not re-signed so I’m pretty confident in this assumption.

Columbus Crew

Starter:Andy Gruenebaum (30)
Back Up: Matt Lampson (24)
In Reserve: Daniel Withrow (23)

Another team with an injured goalie position. Gruenebaum started 21 games (and played excellent) but hip problems held him out for the back half. Lampson started 13 games and did around the “eh” level. Withrow made the bench nine times.

Outlook: Columbus signed Brad Stuver in the waiver draft so now Columbus has three goalkeepers from 22-24. Of course Lampson has the experience but I could see them all seeing bench time behind a healthy Gruenebaum. If Gruenebaum does stay healthy, he will start. I doubt Columbus will ship him because Lampson and company aren’t quite there and the Hebrew Hammer still has some gas in the tank. But it’s all centered around Gruenebaum’s health. If he’s not 100% going into the season, I could see Columbus making a move like Galaxy did with Penedo.

D.C. United

Starter:Bill Hamid (23)
Back Up: Joe Willis (25)
In Reserve: Andrew Dykstra (27)

Hamid made great saves and awful mistakes but (apparently) showed enough potential to get some NT call ups. Willis saw nine games with Hamid’s in and outs. Dykstra is on loan in Richmond but he’s as reliable as can be.

Outlook: The situation with Willis is interesting because typically a 25 year old who shows he can play at the MLS level would look to move out from second string but I think Hamid won’t be in D.C. for too long. So if Willis sticks around he could be starting in the MLS at 26, 27, which isn’t a bad deal. For a goaltender who skipped college to go pro, Hamid will surely scoot in a few years to a better. Willis will likely sit for another year and then be given a chance to start in the future. Dykstra might stick around but he’s another great backup so a team might try to steal him for a year.

FC Dallas

Starter:Raul Fernandez (28)
Back Up: Chris Seitz (26)
In Reserve: Richard Sanchez (19), Kyle Zobeck (23), Jesse Gonzalez (18)

You’d think losing the one of the best goalkeepers in MLS history would be a sign of a rebuilding year for FC Dallas but this is easily the strongest goalkeeping core in the MLS. Fernandez, the starter for Peru’s national team, was in the top five for most goalkeeping discussions. Seitz is the best backup in the league. And of course we have the young Richard Sanchez who shined during his loan to Fort Lauderdale. Zobeck, a first year out of Valparaiso, sat the bench for ten times for the Burn [sic] and while he never saw the field with the senior team, he did finished well in the reserve league. I can’t find anything substantial on Gonzalez outside that he does appear to exist (sorry Jesse).

Outlook: Fernandez was great in the midst of a not so great year from FC Dallas. I think Seitz could start at a handful of clubs and with Sanchez coming up in the ranks, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Seitz not in the Dallas stripes. For those that are calling Sanchez’s name, MacMath has a very similar path to the MLS and I think starting at such a young age (20, 21) really stunted him. So no need to rush it with Sanchez. This leaves Zobeck under Sanchez in the pecking order. I expect nothing to happen for 2014 but then see Seitz exit before 2015.

Houston Dynamo

Starter:Tally Hall (28)
Back Up: Tyler Deric (25)
In Reserve: Erich Marscheider (20)

You may remember Tally Hall’s few call ups to the national team this year. (Canada in January and the Germany-Belgium series, if I’m remembering correctly.) Although he didn’t get playing time it’s still a pretty nice honor. Houston bounced between Deric and Marscheider for sitting the bench and reserve time.

Outlook: Houston looks pretty content with their situation. Deric has five years on Marschy but with the constant switching it almost implies that Houston has more invested in Marschskis. Houston may sign Notre Dame senior Patrick Wall to a homegrown contract. Other than that option, I wouldn’t expect anything else.

LA Galaxy

Starter:Carlo Cudicini (40) / Jamie Penedo (32)
Back Up: Brian Rowe (25)
In Reserve: Brian Perk (24)

What a year for the Galaxy. Fans quickly lambasted Cudicini (141 appearances with Chelsea, don’t forget) for easy goals. Eventually Penedo was brought in while Rowe saw a couple of games on the field before Penedo took over completely. The Brians spent some time in the reserve league as well. And Will Hesmer almost was in the picture to, for those who were paying attention to the re-entry draft.

Outlook: Well Cudicini is surely done starting. Penedo’s contract only goes through 2014 so I think LAG is trying to groom Rowe for 2015. Perk is a big question mark, however. I’m not sure what is going to become of him. But all-in-all LAG look set in goal moving forward.

Montreal Impact

Starter:Troy Perkins (32)
Back Up: Evan Bush (27)
In Reserve: Maxime Crépeau (19), Dominic Provost (20), Samuel Dufort (19)

Perkins had a very underrated year and Bush plays the backup role fine enough. Maxime looked really bad in these highlights from over a year ago. I can’t find anything that says Provost and Dufort has been with the Canadian YNT (all three are Canadian).

Outlook: Perkins doesn’t look like slowing down but Bush isn’t going to compete for his spot. The other three worry me because while Montreal might like to get Canadians on their team for their fan base, I don’t think any of these three are the answer. I would love to be wrong on this, though.

New England Revolution

Starter:Matt Reis (38) / Bobby Shuttleworth (26)
Back Up: (above)
In Reserve: Luis Soffner (23)

Another club with an interesting goalkeeper situation. Reis and Shuttleworth battle for the spot all season (with 12 and 23 games played, respectively). Soffner only made the bench three times early in the season. Reis gets the start in the playoffs and is a part of one of more bizarre plays I’ve ever seen. He comes out of his box to collect a long ball, volleys it over someone, chests it, and as he’s about to pass it out he tears his quad and is unable to finish the game. Andrew Farrell finishes in his stead.

Outlook: Well currently not so much. Shuttleworth is the only goalkeeper under contract for the Revolution. Both Soffner and Reis’s options weren’t picked up by the Revolution so they have some holes to fill. I’m still a little confused on how confident Jay Heaps is with Shuttleworth (think Jim and Pam will-they-won’t-they drama). My guess is they try for a better option but if nothing is cheaply available they’ll go with Shuttleworth.

New York Red Bulls

Starter:Luis Robles (29)
Back Up: Ryan Meara (23)
In Reserve: Kevin Hartman (39), Santiago Castano (18), Keith Cardona (21)

Robles, who was in the running for goalkeeper of the year for some reason, played every MLS minute while Castano and Meara traded off back up roles mid way through the season. Hartman retired after two reserve games and Cardona is currently not starting at Maryland as a junior.

Outlook: Similar to Los Angeles, New York seems invested in Meara and (clearly) willing to ride the Robles train as long as they can. Castano also might figure into the picture as he leads the US U20s goalkeeping pool at the moment. Cardona has a long road to recovery.

Philadelphia Union

Starter:Zac MacMath (22)
Back Up: Chris Konopka (28), Oka Nikolov (39)
In Reserve: Zack Steffen (18)

MacMath played every minute in league play. Konopka was traded to Toronto in September and Old Man Oka sat the bench for the last ten games. Steffen finished his senior year at Akron, helping them get to the second round. Nikolov’s contract wasn’t picked up so now MacMath sits alone in Philadelphia.

Outlook: I really wish Philadelphia would give MacMath some competition if not let him sit for a bit. Putting someone through the fire early is such a high risk scenario. Look for Philly to pick up a goalie in the re-entry draft and another Joe before the start of next season as they try to see what MacMath can do in 2014.

Portland Timbers

Starter:Donovan Ricketts (36)
Back Up: Milos Kocic (28)
In Reserve: Jake Gleeson (23), David Meves (23), Blake Hylen (23), Justin Baarts (23)

Ugh okay besides that, Kocic played two games for Portland and there are a plethora of twenty-three year old goalkeepers in Portland. Not exactly sure what’s going on here but Gleeson seems to have the lead. Although New Zealand is not the most highly regarded international squad, he still has six caps as a 23 year old.

Outlook: Portland hasn’t shown consistency in their short history with goalkeepers and I don’t think this will change. Because of this, I will make a not-so-bold prediction: Ricketts to starts next season but by the end of 2014 things will look disordered. Kocic won’t be any better of an option. They’ll want to stick with Gleeson but he’ll still have some kinks to iron out and there won’t be another option mid-season. So 2014 will be a disarray in the back with a huge question mark going into 2015.

Real Salt Lake

Starter:Nick Rimando (34)
Back Up: Jeff Attinella (25)
In Reserve: Josh Saunders (32), Eduardo Fernández (20)

Yes, you could say Rimando was robbed with a +10 GSAR on the year. I think most people forget that Attinella is a success story from the NASL. Only 25, he is in a good position to start in the MLS before 30. Fernandez will be a success but his time is still 2-3 years away. And of course we have the man who popularized the Saundersault.

Outlook: Saunders will likely continue to bounce around and RSL will stick with Rimando until he’s dust. The future is in decent hands with Attinella and Fernandez.

San Jose Earthquakes

Starter:Jon Busch (37)
Back Up: David Bingham (24)
In Reserve: Evan Newton (25)

Busch is 37?? Wow. Bingham played four games (3 CONCACAF CL games) including the last game of the season.

Outlook: Bingham is ready to go and will be starting by the end of 2014. Journeyman Busch will be on his way out but should still get a good portion of the games. Newton was not resigned.

Seattle Sounders

Starter:Michael Gspurning (32)
Back Up: Andrew Weber (30) / Marcus Hahnemann (40)
In Reserve: Josh Ford (26), Earl Edwards (21), Zac Lubin (24)

Gspurning did better than most think: not awful but the door is definitely open. Hahnemann did very well coming off the bench (six matches, including playoffs), Weber did alright on a reverse loan (three matches) and Ford was useless with an injury.

Outlook: If there’s one club that needs competition at the goalkeeping spot it’s Seattle. I’d say Seattle brings in not a backup but someone to push Gspurning for the starting spot. Hahnemann plays one more year then retires. Perhaps they sign Doug Herrick from the pool. Edwards might sign a homegrown contract coming out of UCLA. Who is Zac Lubin?

Sporting Kansas City

Starter:Jimmy Nielsen (36)
Back Up: Eric Kronberg (30)
In Reserve: Jon Kempin (20)

Nielsen plays every game. Since 2006, Kronberg has had 13 apperances (four this year in Champions League play). Jon Kempin received nine appearances on his loan to Orlando City but never established consistent playing time.

Outlook: Nielsen salvages his reptuation by saving some penalty kicks but make no mistake he needs to be replaced. I would love to say Kansas City would be trying to move forward but I’m sure they are content with the Danish goalkeeper in the back. He will likely take a Cudicini-path soon enough. Kronberg looked really warm on the celebration stage at the final and Kempin might go on loan again.

Toronto FC

Starter:Joe Bendik (24)
Back Up: Stefan Frei (27)
In Reserve: Quillian Roberts (19), Garret Cypus (21), Angelo Cavalluzzo (20), Chad Bush (19)

Toronto traded for Bendik right at the end of 2012 so even though Frei was coming back from an injury they wanted to be set in the goal. As TFC raced towards the bottom of the table, Bendik did very well in goal. Frei played late in the season to give him some marketability, I assume. Roberts made the bench a few times.

Outlook: Toronto traded for Chris Konopka from Philadelphia so it is almost positive that Frei is on his way out. Konopka should be challenged by Roberts for the bench spot but the real question is how long Bendik stays in Toronto. If he continues his streak, he’ll be a top goalkeeper in 2014 but will he be getting enough exposure to move to a higher league?

Vancouver Whitecaps

Starter:Joe Cannon (38) / Brad Knighton (28) / David Ousted (28)
Back Up: (above)
In Reserve: Simon Thomas (23), Callum Irving (20), Sean Melvin (19)

Who wasn’t a starter/back up this year in Vancouver? First Cannon played ten games, then Knighton played eleven games, then Ousted finished the season with thirteen. Thomas actually spent more time on the bench for Canada’s National Team than he did for Vancouver, if that tells you anything about Canada’s situation.

Outlook: I don’t think even Vancouver knows. Cannon and Knighton are out, we know that, but Ousted didn’t exactly ring confidence. But I imagine they’ll try Ousted at the start of the year and go from there.


Goalkeepers able to move to a better league in the next couple years: Sean Johnson (CHC), Bill Hamid (DCU), Joe Bendik (TOR)

Second string goalkeepers that are able to start in the MLS now: Matt Pickens (CLR), Joe Willis (DCU), Chris Seitz (FCD), Brian Rowe (LAG), David Bingham (SJ), Stefan Frei (TOR)

Backups that need some more time but could start in the future: Alec Kann (CHC), Brian Perk (LAG), Ryan Meara (NYRB), Santiago Castano (NYRB), Eduardo Fernandez (RSL), Jon Kempin (SKC)

Free Agents (best to worst in my opinion): Pat McLain, Luis Soffner, Evan Newton, Doug Herrick, Brad Knighton, Paolo Tornaghi, Joe Cannon, Evan Bush, Matt Reis, Oka Nikolov

Teams that could really use another potential starter: Chivas, Vancouver, Sporting Kansas City, San Jose, Portland, Seattle, Philadelphia

Teams looking to pick up a goalkeeper in the SuperDraft: Vancouver, Philadelphia, New England

Collegiate goalkeepers that might make the jump: Andre Blake (Connecticut), Patrick Wall (Notre Dame), John McCarthy (La Salle), Spencer Richey (Washington), Earl Edwards (UCLA), Adam Grinwis (Michigan), Omar Zeeni (UC Davis), Phil Saunders (UMBC), Alex Bono (Syracuse)