Portland Timbers: Comeback Kids?

I watched the Timbers go down 2 – 0 in the first half Wednesday night against FC Dallas before leaving disgusted for my indoor game. At halftime of my game, I noticed that Portland had come back to tie. Two common occurrences for the Timbers this year have been comebacks and ties, so perhaps it shouldn’t have been that surprising.

The Timbers have played nearly 400 minutes this season from behind–a quarter of their time spent on the field–which has given them plenty of time to win back the home crowd after early goals conceded. In all that time spent losing (nearly four game’s worth) Portland has outscored its opponents 13-to-4. That’s like four straight 3 – 1 wins. Even though most teams perform better when playing from behind, that still ranks Portland second in the league behind Vancouver (see chart below).

This begs the question, is Portland actually one of the best teams when facing a deficit, or might this be a product of some random variation? To the stats!

It turns out, Portland also does well by Expected Goals in losing gamestates. In fact, relative to the league, the Timbers are the best at generating quality and quantity of opportunities in these situations with an expected goal differential of +1.4. We know Expected Goals to be more stable, and thus it is probably a truer indication of what to expect in the future. Check out the chart below, scaled on a per 96-minute basis (basically, per game).

xGD When Losing

Team GF GA GD xGF xGA xGD GD Rank xGD Rank
POR 3.1 1.0 2.2 2.5 1.1 1.4 2 1
FCD 2.0 0.9 1.1 1.9 0.8 1.2 6 2
SEA 2.3 1.3 1.0 1.6 0.7 1.0 8 3
LA 1.8 0.0 1.8 1.8 0.9 1.0 3 4
NYRB 2.0 1.0 1.0 1.8 1.0 0.8 9 5
TOR 2.3 1.1 1.1 1.9 1.2 0.7 7 6
SJ 1.6 0.7 0.9 1.6 1.0 0.6 10 7
PHI 1.6 1.6 0.0 1.8 1.3 0.5 14 8
CHI 3.0 1.5 1.5 1.5 1.0 0.5 4 9
SKC 1.3 0.9 0.4 1.7 1.3 0.4 12 10
DCU 2.0 0.7 1.3 1.2 0.9 0.3 5 11
CLB 0.9 0.5 0.5 1.5 1.3 0.2 11 12
COL 2.7 2.3 0.4 1.6 1.5 0.1 13 13
MTL 0.8 1.8 -1.0 1.4 1.3 0.1 16 14
RSL 1.6 2.6 -1.0 1.6 1.5 0.0 17 15
NE 0.5 1.4 -0.9 1.4 1.3 0.0 15 16
CHV 0.6 2.9 -2.3 1.3 1.4 0.0 19 17
VAN 3.1 0.4 2.7 1.3 1.5 -0.1 1 18
HOU 0.8 2.5 -1.7 1.1 1.7 -0.6 18 19
Averages 1.8 1.3 0.5 1.6 1.2 0.4    

But wait! Hold the bus. There is one major confounding factor that we can control for here. Home field advantage. The Timbers have oddly found themselves frequently facing deficits at home, which means that a large portion of their time spent losing is spent in the friendly confines of Providence Park in downtown Portland. In fact, the Timbers lead the league in minutes spent losing at home–a weird stat, to be sure. Here’s the same chart, but for teams losing at home.

xGD When Losing at Home

Team GF GA GD xGF xGA xGD GD Rank xGD Rank
SJ 3.3 0.8 2.5 3.5 0.5 3.0 5 1
NYRB 3.2 1.6 1.6 2.6 0.6 2.1 7 2
POR 3.6 1.0 2.6 3.0 1.0 2.1 4 3
FCD 2.8 0.0 2.8 2.1 0.4 1.7 3 4
COL 3.6 3.6 0.0 2.1 0.8 1.3 14 5
TOR 3.8 0.0 3.8 2.5 1.3 1.3 2 6
SEA 1.6 0.5 1.1 1.6 0.6 1.0 8 7
CHI 2.5 1.6 0.8 1.5 0.6 0.9 10 8
LA 0.9 0.0 0.9 1.8 1.0 0.8 9 9
NE 0.0 1.2 -1.2 1.4 0.6 0.7 16 10
CLB 0.8 0.4 0.4 1.7 1.0 0.7 13 11
PHI 2.4 1.7 0.7 1.9 1.3 0.6 11 12
VAN 5.1 0.0 5.1 1.5 0.9 0.6 1 13
MTL 0.7 1.5 -0.7 1.8 1.4 0.4 15 14
DCU 1.9 1.3 0.6 1.0 0.9 0.1 12 15
SKC 2.1 0.0 2.1 1.3 1.2 0.1 6 16
HOU 1.5 2.9 -1.5 1.7 1.6 0.1 17 17
RSL 0.0 1.8 -1.8 0.5 0.8 -0.3 18 18
CHV 0.0 3.8 -3.8 1.0 2.1 -1.0 19 19
Averages 2.1 1.3 0.8 1.8 1.0 0.8  

Even when I control for home field advantage, we still see the Timbers among the best teams at playing from behind, averaging 2.1 more goals than their opponents per 96 minutes. Is it the coaching? The players’ mentalities? The raucous home turf on West Burnside? Luck? I don’t know, but I know it’s happening.

 

You say you want a Revolution? Possession with Purpose From a Different Angle

A superb run with five wins and a draw in six games; by most standards that is a compelling argument for consistency.  I agree and their overall Composite Possession with Purpose Index rating continues to climb.

They’ve (New England) climbed from 17th in PWP (week 5) to 7th after week 11; a superb shift of 10 full places in 6 weeks.

So in considering this giant push forward I’d like to take a different approach in how the data points from PWP can be viewed.  

This is new so please bear with me for a minute or two as I set the context.

Below are a number of diagrams referencing my PWP indicators for a few teams; the diagram being used this time is the ‘doughnut’ diagram from Microsoft Powerpoint.

The interesting thing about this diagram is that it allows me to offer up a view on my PWP data points that isn’t relative to the exponential relationship (a line). Instead, it allows me to picture the overall tenor of PWP data points in relationship to themselves as being a part of a ‘whole’; with the ‘whole’ being PWP.

I feel confident I can take this approach since my Expected Wins 2 correlation for my data points is ~.97 (R2) — as near to rock solid as you can get.

Other context points include:  

  • The teams used in this analysis are Seattle, New England, Montreal, Portland and last years’ Supporters Shield winner (New York) plus last years bottom dweller (DC United)
  • Reminder in case my explanation was a bit wordy above – the percentages indicated in the doughnut are not the percentages of those activities relative to the game; they are the percentage of those activities relative to each other with 100% being all those activities added together.
  • Source – as usual the MLS Chalkboard and the MLS Statistics Sheets
  • Gold Stars on the diagrams are intended to show you where differences occur.
  • The team name on the outside of the doughnut is the outer ring of data and the team name on the inside of the doughnut is the inner ring of data.

To begin…

PWP Doughnut Diagram Week 11 NER v MIFC

PWP Doughnut Diagram Week 11 NER v MIFC

The volume of Final Third passes successfully completed by New England (29%) is 3% points higher than Montreal (26%).  Note also that Montreal has a greater percentage of PWP outside the Final Third (30%) than New England (28%). Both of these indicate to me that New England is more focused on penetrating and creating than Montreal.

For the future I will check into these three areas when looking to see if a ‘direct attacking approach’ can be better differentiated from a ‘ground-based’ (short passing scheme) approach.

The actual volume of penetration is higher for New England as well (11%) versus (7%). And like my regular PWP analysis the data here also supports the fact that teams who are more patient in creating shots taken (6% for NER versus 11% for MIFC) end up with more goals scored.

I did ask Matthias Kullowatz about the specific shot data for New England and Montreal; ~60% of Montreal’s shots on target have come outside the prime scoring zones 1 & 2 while ~68% of the Revolution shots on target have also come outside of zones 1 & 2.  So what’s different?

I think it’s down to time and space again; though it could be the Revolution have better strikers – but when you see the DC United doughnut diagram a bit later I think it’s back to time and space; and with fewer shots taken and more patience in the final third that seems reasonable to me.

Now for a contrast that might be better at explaining individual mistakes and bad fortune more than a bad ‘style/system’…

PWP Doughnut Diagram Week 11 SSFC v PTFC

PWP Doughnut Diagram Week 11 SSFC v PTFC

Notice no ‘gold stars’; why? Because there really isn’t that much difference between how these two teams execute the six steps of PWP.

What separates these two teams in the league table are individual mental mistakes in defense – Portland sit on ten points while Seattle have 25. Through the course of this year the Timbers have dropped 7 points due to red cards and penalties – they did both against Columbus Saturday night!

In considering the ‘sameness’ of the data I expect as time passes an output similar to this could highlight ‘individual mistakes’ and perhaps ‘good/bad luck’ when it comes to rebounds and deflections – again recall Saturday night when Futty Danso deflected a shot and notched an ‘own-goal’

All told things went pretty well for Columbus, a red card by their opponent, a foul in the penalty box by their opponent for a PK and a deflected own-goal by their opponent. If I were a Columbus fan I’d be pretty pissed they didn’t win – bad luck for the Crew!

However viewed I’ll revisit this diagram later when the Cascadia Cup battle heats up.

So here’s the doughnut view of New York compared to DC United last year and then a bit further down how they look compared to each other this year.

PWP Doughnut Diagram NYRB v DCU 2013

PWP Doughnut Diagram NYRB v DCU 2013

First off – let’s not forget Ben Olsen was not fired and perhaps this doughnut diagram can also help explain why given the overall poor performance in results last year for DC United.

Notice that the team does exceedingly well in comparison to New York with respect to Passing, penetration and creation; they actually exceed New York in the first two categories and only fall off when it comes to goals scored (7% for DC United versus 15% for New York).

So I’d offer that the system Ben Olsen ran last year worked – what he lacked was a pair of good strikers.  And if you recall the Montreal doughnut earlier the outputs from DC United do not mirror those of the Impact!

They added Espindola and Johnson and shored up their defense a bit; that also included adding Amos Magee to the staff.  Remember him as the Defensive Coordinator for Portland last year (I think – others can confirm or deny that I’m sure)

Bottom line here – the system didn’t change and the Head Coach didn’t change and I’d offer that was appropriate…  now for the same diagram this year:

PWP Doughnut Diagram Week 11 NYRB v DCU 2014

PWP Doughnut Diagram Week 11 NYRB v DCU 2014

In closing:

Note the increase for DC United in the final category – goals scored versus shots on goal – pretty compelling information to reinforce that the system used last year is the same system used this year and the difference – major difference – is the addition of two quality strikers.

I’m just in the learning stages on how this new doughnut diagram will take shape – I’m pretty sure it will have at least one hole in it – I’m hopeful there aren’t a lot more.

Some changes afoot with OPTA and MLS – I see OPTA incorporated the Final Third Passing Accuracy suggestion – just need to find out if crosses are included in that metric???

As for the new MLS Chalkboard – I’m not sure how that will work if the ‘numbers’ of activities are not available to count when it comes to defensive activities and ‘touches’ for players…

And yes, the old Chalkboard still appears to exist given a separate link within previous articles but it’s unclear if this change will be a permanent change for next year – or even the World Cup for that matter…

As for This Week in PWP; if you saw my tweets yesterday you know the top Attacking and Defending PWP teams of the week; New England in attack and Toronto in Defense with the Reds taking the Composite PWP Index top spot for Week 11.  

Sporting KC, along with LA Galaxy remain atop the Composite PWP through Week 11 while the Revolution moved to 7th and Columbus dropped to 4th as Real Salt Lake are now in a comfortable position of 3rd best overall.

Finally, this view also gives you and idea of what percentage each team gleans from each of the PWP Six Steps data points in the calculation for the overall Index number.

Best, Chris

How it Happened: Week Ten

Another weekend, another bunch of ones and zeroes on the scoreboards for the games I checked out. The season’s a quarter done now for just about every team, and reality is starting to set in that playoffs are only going to be a dream for some this year. Still, MLS is a league of incredible parity and almost everyone still harbors dreams of the postseason, no matter how realistic they are at the moment.

Portland Timbers 1 – 1 LA Galaxy

Stat that told the story for both teams: 2 goals, 1 uncalled red card on a breakaway in 2nd half stoppage time

lapor10

It’s nearly impossible to analyze this game without spending a bulk of your attentions on second half stoppage time, when both goals were scored. Not only that, but LA’s Juninho had a breakaway chance to put the game away and was bundled over with no foul called. All in all, it was a pretty incredible conclusion to a game that was fairly entertaining, if not particularly well-played. To some degree, it was more of the same for both teams: the Galaxy struggled to finish the chances they were able to create, and Portland looked out of sorts and a little slow compared to last year’s high-octane outfit.

I want to spend a paragraph here talking a little about the apparent tactical trends of the league at the moment. For the last couple years, it seemed like the formation en vogue was the high-pressing 4-3-3: Kansas City and Portland were the most notable success stories using this setup. But this year, it appears the trend has shifted to the 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield, a la Real Salt Lake. It seems like every team in the league has at least experimented with it this year, from LA to Colorado to DC. The MLSSoccer.com March to the Match podcast did a great feature on this tactical trend a few weeks back detailing some of the pros and cons of the formation.

Anyway, this game seemed like a pretty decent case study with these two formations facing off with one another: Portland’s 4-3-3 against LA’s diamond midfield. It’s my opinion that the narrow diamond midfield does a great job of neutralizing what made the Timbers’ 4-3-3 so effective last year – that’s part of why RSL just seemed to have Caleb Porter’s number last year. Portland was at their best last year mainly because of two guys: Diego Chara and Will Johnson, who played as a double pivot and covered more ground than the Trans-Pacific Railroad. However, the Galaxy’s narrow midfield boxes that double pivot in with four central mids who are all tucked inside, limiting the number of balls Chara & Johnson can win and thereby limiting Portland’s possession. There are plenty of other reasons the Timbers haven’t been great so far this year, but it’s a trend worth watching as they try to turn their season around.

Columbus Crew 0 – 1 Vancouver Whitecaps

Stat that told the story for Columbus: 90.33% of minutes this season have been played by starting eleven

It’s no secret that Columbus started out this season like gangbusters and have since played more like busts. The reason for this is inherently simple: they only have one way of playing. Every single game from Columbus is basically the same: they play the same guys in the same roles and try the same things. It caught teams by surprise in the first few games, but now that the opposition knows what’s coming (short passes out of the back, fullbacks getting way forward, etc.) it’s gotten a lot easier to beat. And now it’s up to coach Gregg Berhalter to make some adjustments and at least give the Crew a plan B so this losing skid doesn’t continue.

Stat that told the story for Vancouver: average age of midfield and forward: 23 years old

Vancouver has sneakily been one of the surprise stories of the 2014 MLS season. Everyone knew they had a good deal of young talent on the squad, but nobody was sure how the chemistry would work out under first-year coach Carl Robinson. So far, returns have been impressive. Not only has Robinson set the team up in a position to be successful tactically, but he’s handed over a ton of responsibility to the youngsters to great effect. With veterans Kenny Miller gone and Nigel Reo-Coker perhaps on the way out, even more of the load is going to be heaped onto the 25-and-under players. During this victory, the only midfielder or forward in the starting eleven over 25 was Pedro Morales (28). And even when they made subs, they brought on 20-year-old Omar Salgado and 21-year-old Russell Teibert – I’d say the future is bright in Vancouver.

Philadelphia Union 0 – 1 DC United

Stat that told the story for DC: wide presence of the forwards

dc10

 

It’s interesting that a lot of season previews of DC United focused on if the wide play would be good enough to get quality service for new striker Eddie Johnson. I say this because DC has been as good, if not better, as anyone could’ve hoped, despite the presence of roughly zero wide midfielders and zero Eddie Johnson goals. There are obviously a few reasons they’ve been so good, but chiefly among them is that this is Fabian Espindola’s team. He’s played better this season than I ever remember him looking in Salt Lake as the focal point of United’s attack, orchestrating everything and creating a lot of chances. He does this by floating to the wide areas of the field to provide some width to DC’s narrow formation, as his heat map above shows (EJ’s actually pretty good at this too, particularly when holding the ball up).

Stat that told the story for Philadelphia: 647,428 times caught ball-watching this season*

Philadelphia was everyone’s darling in the first few weeks of the season. All their new acquisitions looked really impressive, they had a young and improving defense and some talent up top that was sure to start banging in the goals soon. Fast forward a couple months, and the bottom has fallen out. This loss was their ninth game without a win, they’ve switched formations like four times hoping for a spark, and their coach might get fired soon. So what’s wrong? Lots of things. But #1 in my book is simply that the Union didn’t seem that interested in playing soccer against DC this weekend. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Philly midfielders or defenders or really anyone just watch an opposing player run by them or pass the ball by them with little to no contesting. And this isn’t a problem for one or two players, it’s the entire team. Sorry to be such a rah-rah coach type who says they just need to try harder, but the Union need to be more active, or engaged, or try harder….whatever wording works best.

*this is only an approximation because I couldn’t find Opta’s information on this

Should away teams be more aggressive?

Second Half Shot chart - HOUvPOR - April 2014The Portland Timbers traveled to Houston on Sunday in desperate need of three points to get out of the cellar in the Western Conference. They played well in the first half, outshooting the Dynamo 8 – 7 en route to a 1 – 1 tie, while dominating possession. Then Portland came out in the second half much like many away teams do with a tie score, conservatively. The second-half shot charts to the right serve as an indication of the change in strategy.

 

This conjured up a question that constantly bugs me. Should away teams go for wins more often when tied in the second half? Let’s get right to the data. Here is chart summarizing the offensive aggression of away teams during gamestates when the score is tied and the teams are playing with the same number of players. The data presents the proportion of totals earned by the away team in both the first and second halves.

2013 – 2014 Goals% xGoals% Shots%
1st Half 44.8% (266) 42.3% (282.9) 43.4% (2948)
2nd Half 34.8% (184) 37.4% (168.6) 39.7% (1654)
P-value 0.017 0.007

The away team consistently garners 42% to 45% of these primary offensive stats during the first half, and then drops down to the 35%-to-40% range in the second half. For the proportions of goals and shots, those differences are statistically significant (there is no simple test for xGoals%, but it is probably statistically significant as well).

My instinct is that away teams are capable of playing in the second half as they do in the first half, and that these discrepancies are a product of conscious decision making by away coaches and players. Teams likely change strategy in the second half to preserve a tie. Playing more openly would ostensibly increase the chances of both a loss and win, while decreasing the chances of a tie. However, I would think based on the data above that it would increase the chances of a win more so than the chances of a loss. Since a win would earn the away team an extra two points, while a loss would cost it just one, my gut says teams should go for it more often.

Are away teams playing conservatively because mindless soccer conventionality tells them that it’s okay to get one point on the road? Is this the self-detrimental risk aversion that plagues coaches in other sports, or are these numbers missing something that could justify the conservative play?

I can’t say that I’ve proven anything, but these data suggest the former.

How it Happened: Week seven

I hate to be a disappointment, but Easter weekend means I only got to review two matches instead of the usual three. One was a doozy: a premier matchup of Western Conference powers, while the other had a pretty incredible final five minutes. On to the show (and if you’re really jonesing for some analysis of Chivas-Seattle from Saturday night, I’ll probably tweet some thoughts when I catch up on it later this week).

Real Salt Lake 1 – 0 Portland Timbers

Stat that told the story for Salt Lake: 23/37 passes in attacking center of the field

Stat that told the story for Portland: 7/12 passes in attacking center of the field

rslpor7

 

We’re breaking new ground with this one: I’m combining both teams’ stats for this game. These two teams have had drastically different starts to the season, with RSL grinding out results against a very difficult schedule and Portland failing to do the same against an easier slate. Still, the margin of quality between these teams is pretty slim, and that fact was borne out this weekend.

From a Real Salt Lake standpoint, this game was pretty much par for the course for 2014 and really the last five seasons. Aside from a few surprising miscues in possession that gifted chances to the Timbers, RSL’s diamond midfield was good in possession and solid in defense. They found a weakness in Portland’s defense by attacking the channel to the right of the Timbers’ centerbacks (that’s where all the incisive passes above, and Ned Grabavoy’s goal, came). Even though they weren’t at their clinical best, using tiki-taka passes to break through the backline, RSL did their job and got three points at home.

As a Timbers fan, it’s yet another missed opportunity for Portland to get that elusive first win of the year. Theories of what’s plaguing the 2014 Timbers are abound, and like ghost stories or craft beers, I have my likes and dislikes. I’ll say two things on PTFC here: (1) their demise is overstated. Portland has hit the post like a million times already this year,* and the Timbers have only been outscored by four goals (coincidentally the number of penalties they’ve given up). Once those two areas regress to the mean, it’s likely the Timbers will start to earn points and earn them fast.

*Portland leads the league in posts and crossbars hit during even gamestates with four.

But that brings me to (2): the Timbers aren’t playing as well as they did for much of last season. They are a team that thrives on possession when at their best, yet they’ve been out-possessed in each of their last five games. It’s like Portland is always flooring the engine, pushing the ball vertical to rush into shots instead of occasionally using cruise control and slowing the game down. A huge issue for them in this game was their lack of penetration in attack, as illustrated by the image above. Still, the game went back and forth with Portland and RSL both controlling the game for portions, and only the quality finish by Grabavoy instead of the fluffed chances by Maxi Urruti decided the result.

Chicago Fire 1 – 1 New England Revolution

Stat that told the story for New England: Teal Bunbury playing out of position in his position

ne7

That stat above makes no sense, so I’ll let someone much wiser than me explain.

shinguardian

Bunbury has been playing up top for New England for the entirety of this season, and while he’s always been thought of as a striker, he fits better as a winger in the Revolution’s system. His speed is his greatest asset while his finishing leaves something to be desired, two sure signs that lone striker isn’t necessarily your best fit. At center forward in this one, Bunbury gave a lot of great effort and the team tried to set him off to the races behind Chicago’s backline. But it was never particularly successful. Late in the match, Bunbury was shifted out wide as Jerry Bengtson came on, and he promptly created a chance out of nothing by simply running really fast around Chicago’s left back. I’d love to see more of that and less of Bunbury struggling up top in the future for New England.

Stat that told the story for Chicago: 11 turnovers in their own half by Bakary Soumare and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado

Chicago played well enough to win this game, and probably should have. If not for a poor penalty kick in stoppage time that was easily saved by Bobby Shuttleworth, the Fire would’ve left with three points instead of yet another draw. The draws are getting to be ridiculous for Chicago (6 in 7 games!), but they really have no one to blame but themselves. In addition to the penalty fiasco, the goal they gave up immediately followed one of those 11 turnovers by Chicago centerbacks. Patrick Nyarko was the one who gave up the penalty, but Soumare and Hurtado deserve at least a share of the blame. This was hardly an isolated incident for Chicago – their centerbacks have been shaky all season. Think they regret trading away Austin Berry right about now?

 

Agree with my ideas? Think I’m an idiot? I love to hear feedback: @MLSAtheist

MLS Possession with Purpose: The best and worst of Week 5

And so it goes; another week completed where you got the heart-pounding excitement from the Cascadia Cup clash, a defensive struggle from two of the best teams in MLS, and lopsided victories for two others.

Before digging in, a couple of links to consider: if you missed the match between Portland and Seattle here are two articles you may want to read if the opportunity presents itself. This one was offered up by MLS, and then here’s mine offered up on my home site here in Portland with the Columbian Newspaper.

Also, if PWP is new for you there may be value in reading what that’s about through this link, an introduction to PWP and some explanations in case this approach is new to you.

With that out of the way it’s time for some grist… who was the most effective and efficient team in my PWP Composite Index this week, and who was the worst?

To set the table here’s my standard diagram for Week 5 only. Later this week I will publish the Cumulative Index – when I do I’ll pop that link here.

PWP STRATEGIC COMPOSITE INDEX WEEK 5 ONLY

Observations:

There were two games this past weekend with lopsided scores (3-nil LA over Chivas) and (4-1 FC Dallas over Houston).

Up until the completion of the LA Galaxy 3-nil thrashing of Chivas USA, it looked like FC Dallas would be top of the heap for Week 5 – and rightly so given they put 3 past Houston plus they got the Orange team to give them an own goal as well.

But as you can see, LA were tops this week; more later on why, and it may surprise you.

The tough part about the FC Dallas game, for Houston, was the straight red and sending off of David Horst on what the Referee considered was a rash foul down Houston’s right sideline. I’m not so sure about that but as we have seen so far this year, the Referee’s are stamping their authority with no reservation whatsoever.

Spilt milk and, as it goes. Dallas scored three goals within 15 minutes of that Red Card to take three points. If you run a team defense in Fantasy football and have Houston in that role you got hosed – I do and I got hosed in the back-four; still got 52 points though!

But back to the LA Galaxy match on Sunday

If anyone wasn’t sure about how Landon Donovan could operate in a Diamond 4-4-2, be advised that he can – he has – and he will; when surrounded by other strong players, he’s tough to stop.

For me, though, this game wasn’t about just scoring goals. It was also about defense, and it’s that defensive mindset that put LA at the overall top this week – clean sheets matter!

As for the bottom side of the Index…

If it’s LA shutting down Chivas that garners the top offensive spot, then it’s reasonable the flip side is the complete lack of structure and focus from Chivas that sees them at the bottom.

Carlos Bocanegra has great mental awareness, but he can’t stop an aggressive Galaxy attack on his own – and in the short glimpses I had of their video it certainly looked to me like Baptiste and others were simply outmatched.

As for Houston – enuf said – the Red Card to Horst directly influenced the outcome of that game.

As for the middle of the middle of the pack… if you read my recommendations above about the Timbers-Sounders match, you know that game was all about possession with the intent to penetrate. There was absolutely no possession, that I saw, where the intent was to possess just for the sake of controlling possession.

There is no love lost between those two teams, and it seems every time they meet both just simply want to smash each other senseless. It makes for great entertainment, but there are times in my book where negative football has value, and securing three points (like it or not) is a time where negative football has value.

So on to the PWP Attacking Index; here’s how they lined up head to head…

PWP STRATEGIC ATTACKING INDEX WEEK 5 ONLY

PWP STRATEGIC ATTACKING INDEX WEEK 5 ONLY

Observations:

For the first time this year the magical 3.00 barrier was broken in the attacking index. It comes on the heels of the USMNT also breaking the 3.00 barrier in the first half against Mexico. If you missed my thoughts on that game, you can review them here.

Onwards and upwards – for the first time this year Portland broke the top-five barrier in team attack for a given week, getting two stunners from Diego Chara plus another couple from the Argentina contingent of Diego Valeri and Maxi Urruti.

Not to be outdone was the final 20-minute performance of Clint Dempsey – aye – he got a goal early on, but for much of the game his influence and presence was pretty much unnoticed. Indeed, the chalkboard tells us that between about the 40-minute mark and the 70-minute mark, he had just 9 touches of any sort with no shots or key passes. It wasn’t until the 70-minute mark where he started to directly influence and impact the game. After that point, Dempsey had no fewer than 18 touches in the run of play with one key pass, three shots on target, and a goal.

I’m all for highlighting his hat trick in that game, but he simply wasn’t solid through the full 90+ minutes, and his team barely eked out a draw.

Understanding that and seeing the red-card tainted blowout of Houston by FC Dallas my PWP Attacking Player of Week 5 was…

PWP STRATEGIC ATTACKING PLAYER OF THE WEEK 5 ONLY

Observations:

That may be a surprise to some on two fronts. One – Dempsey got a Hat Trick. And Two – what about Watson or Diaz?

Well, as already noted, Dempsey simply didn’t play well for a full 90+ minutes and his presence and influence did not prevent Portland from having their best attacking performance of the year.

In addition, it’s likely Seattle drops three points if Ben Zemanski doesn’t do what he did in the box, and I’m simply not in favor of seeing someone getting an Attacking Player of the Week award when his team loses or draws. 3 points is the objective in this game – it’s not all about just scoring goals.

And two – while Diaz is the spark that lights the Dallas attack this year and Watson donated a brace of goals this weekend, I feel and think Michel had more overall responsibility on the pitch; therefore – given his vast number of touches on both sides of the ball I give him the award.

And in case you missed it, I don’t view this weekly award as going to someone who just lights up the front end without also considering how well they supported the back end.

Time now for Defending PWP Team of the week, where the LA Galaxy really made it count

PWP STRATEGIC DEFENDING INDEX WEEK 5 ONLY

Observations:

It was a close call between LA and Sporting KC this week when it came down to it; any team who can get a clean sheet against Real Salt Lake has really done their job.

But… alas… the Top PWP Defending team was LA. Why? Well it really came down to how poorly Chivas USA performed against LA, and not how poorly Real Salt Lake performed against Sporting; remember – this Weekly Index does not get influenced by previous performances on a week to week basis only the Cumulative Index does.

When checking out my Cumulative Index later this week, you may see a change in who the top defending team is overall – for now though – this is just Week 5.

In looking at the player statistics I had considered awarding the PWP Defender of Week 5 to Landon Donovan, and here’s why: he had three key passes, five recoveries and an 85% passing accuracy with 2 assists. But the more compelling case fell to Juninho, given his combined efforts (like Michel) playing on both sides of the ball.

Here’s the Diagram offering up his team effort on Sunday…

PWP STRATEGIC DEFENDING PLAYER OF THE WEEK 5 ONLY

In closing

Week 5 saw some individual players step up and some team performances improve as compared to previous weeks. It’s a long season, and it’s likely the Cumulative Index will continue to take shape – especially after the (unexpected) Toronto victory over Columbus in Ohio.

You may have thought that game flew under the radar, but it hasn’t, and Toronto will look the better for it in my Cumulative Index… all is not lost when a team gets a big victory without getting the headlines for that week.

If curious – here’s a link to my Weekly PWP analysis on the Red Bulls of New York.

All for now,

Chris

MLS PWP: Team Performance Index through Week 4

With just four weeks of play in the books, it’s unlikely that the bottom feeders by the end of this year are those at the bottom right now. But this analysis should be an indicator on who needs to get better in attacking (and in defending) when it comes to Possession, Passing Accuracy, Penetration, Creation of Goal Scoring Opportunities and converting those opportunities into goals.

As a reminder here is the initial PWP article offering up an introduction and explanation to the PWP Strategic Index, if this is a new approach for you to consider.

For the future – please get used to the abbreviation and hashtag #PWP-TPI. I will refer to my cumulative analyses on MLS team performance this way.

And in case you missed it here is a link to the Week 4 PWP Analysis.

Here’s how they stand after Week 4:

PWP Cumulative Strategic Index After Week 4

Observations: (click to enlarge)

For me it’s no surprise that Columbus remain atop considering they have 9 points after three games and have done pretty well in all phases of PWP. They rank 3rd in Possession percentage at ~57%, 1st in Passing Accuracy at ~81%, nearly half of all their shots taken have been on goal (41.48%), and they’ve converted 62.86% of those targeted shots into goals. Only FC Dallas has a better rate in converting targeted shots on goal to goals scored (71.25%)… Conversely, DC United have only converted 7.41% of their shots on goal into goals scored.

What is somewhat surprising is how far down Toronto have dropped after their 3-nil loss to Real Salt Lake. As noted in my Week 4 Analysis Toronto did well in getting results their first two games, but when going up against a traditional powerhouse in MLS their tactics and strategies were simply dominated.

Again, to drive home some points about PWP – Passing Accuracy and Possession Percentage will influence the bottom line, and in the first three games Toronto have simply been very poor in passing accuracy (67%, 59%, and 54%), and their highest amount of possession percentage came against RSL at 46%, while they had 38% against DC United and 32% against Seattle.

We already know that DC United has not started with a bang–and given Seattle’s loss to Columbus–it isn’t quite so surprising after all.  (Perhaps?) the league table position for Toronto is more a reflection of luck and good fortune than a comprehensive approach to attacking and defending with purpose?

I’m not alone in ranking Toronto a bit further down the scale…  Whoscored.com currently ranks Toronto as 11th. I also checked Squawka.com, but their data currently only go out to week 2 for team comparisons.

So enough about Toronto. Dallas, Salt Lake, Houston and Vancouver round out the top 5. In considering those other four, the new kid on the block for me here is Vancouver. Why?

Well last year they had issues in defending while clearly having a very strong attack. Early indications are that the defending side of the equation has been fixed… does that hold true as the grind begins in April and the heat of summer sets in?

As for Dallas, Salt Lake and Houston – Pareja is no stranger to fielding a top team in MLS when it comes to Possession with Purpose (Colorado was in the top ten last year), and Houston has done what it needed to do (at least so far) to get tighter in defense and offer up better balls for Barnes and Bruin to score.

The boring team in the top 5 goes to Real Salt Lake. Simply said, they just keep doing what they need to do – polish their Diamond 4-4-2 and let it shine, regardless of who plays up top – be it Garcia, Plata or Saborio. Then there’s the ever present and dominating defensive central midfielder, Kyle Beckerman, who controls the back.

Speaking of the Diamond 4-4-2 – as the year continues, I’ll be able to offer up additional analysis on what teams run what basic formations with the intent to really peel them back to see if specific team performance indicators increase or decrease based upon that simple filter.

In considering the bottom feeders outside of Toronto so far…

DC United – Aye – great weekend in that game against Chicago, and there remains no question DC United like a possession-based attack. The difference this week was a highly engaged Johnson and Espindola in attack that also included a steady stream of pretty good crossing and wing penetration.

How well that holds up is hard to tell. Head coach Frank Yallop has been known to cede possession, given his days in San Jose, but the direct attack for the Fire is more ground-based this year given the types of strikers. Has everybody by now realized that Yallop was sacked because he wanted to change the attacking approach in San Jose, and Watson–along with the front office–didn’t?

To be sure – look no further than what team sits just above DC United – it’s San Jose. For now, that’s not an indicator that the Earthquakes are a bad team… no… I’d offer that it’s more of an indicator that their approach in attack needs refinement as does their back four being a bit unlucky with that own goal against New England.

Not last and not least are Portland and Montreal… For me, seeing Montreal on the low end is not surprising – head coach Frank Klopas ran a pretty weak defensive team in Chicago last year, and it seems to have translated over to Montreal. It’s true that Di Vaio was missing in games 1 and 2, so this will be a team to watch as well.

As for Portland,  here’s a possession-based team that simply hasn’t clicked yet. And in all that there remain holes in the defending side. One might say that there are distinct instances of distinction where they have instinctively distinguished themselves as lacking instinct in where to defend. Or – in other words – the back four have been better at ball watching than defending the ball…

Mid-table: Sporting, Colorado, LA, New York, Philadelphia and New England

It’s early days and given some top activities in defending and attacking for Sporting it is likely their run of games inside and outside of the MLS Regular season will now give them a breather to prepare for Month 2; the same can probably be said for LA as well as the Earthquakes (who a lower at this time).

As for New York – I’ll touch more on them in another article but for now I’m still not sure Petke has found the right mix. Philadelphia, from what I have seen, has some dangerous players in the Midfield (Edu and Maindana come to mind first) – so how they fare in April will be interesting to see in contrast with New England.

With all those observations I’ll simply offer up these two diagrams to give you an idea on where each team stands in the PWP Strategic Attacking Index and Strategic Defending Index.

PWP CUMULATIVE ATTACKING INDEX AFTER WEEK 4

As a reminder here are the individual players who have been highlighted as the PWP Attacking Players for March – they might be reasonable targets for your MLS Fantasy team if funds are available…

1. Federico Higuain
2. Jaoa Plata
3. Bernardo Anor
4. Graham Zusi

On to the Strategic Defending PWP and the PWP Defenders of March.

PWP CUMULATIVE DEFENDING INDEX AFTER WEEK 4

Top Defenders for the Month of March:

1. Michael Parkhurst
2. Corey Ashe
3. Ike Opara
4. Kyle Beckerman

In closing…

Remember that the season is still young – but in about 4 weeks time it won’t be as young, and in 16 weeks time this Index should begin to settle in and hopefully, like last year, paint an early picture on who’s up for the Playoffs and who might be making some summer transfers to bolster chances for a late season push.

Teams to watch in this Cumulative Index are numerous.

In the bottom end let’s see about Toronto, Portland, San Jose, and DC United – will the rest of MLs figure out the way to beat the Toronto approach of counter attacking? Will the return of Donovan Ricketts after the Seattle match spell a recovery in the back four for Portland? Can DC United really make better use of the accuracy and possession based approach? And finally, can Watson continue to make use of his aerial attack in getting penetration through the air as other teams seem to build greater strength in the midfield?

On the top side can Columbus continue their early run and does the sleeping giant residing in Houston awaken even more to clinch dominance across the East? Can FC Dallas hold it together this year under the new guidance of Pareja?

How about the other money bag teams like New York, Seattle and LA Galaxy – have other teams in the mix figured a way to bypass the top-flight DP approach used by those guys or are they real challengers for the Cup and the Shield?

Last but not least – the Champions from last year – Sporting continues to show well in defending, and Zusi has lifted his game on both sides of the pitch. Will the World Cup really be his time to shine? For the sake of the USMNT I hope so.

As always my thanks to OPTA and the MLS for continuing to provide free information in order to conduct this analysis.

If interested here’s a link to my latest article on New Sports Hub about the Red Bulls of New York, including their PWP Attacking and Defending Players of the Week 4.

You can follow me on twitter here: Each week I look to offer up twitter comments for the MLS nationally-televised games as well as those for the Timbers.

All the best,
Chris