How it Happened: Week Eleven

Another weekend of games, and another weekend of contradictions from teams across the league. I thought I’d write today about the six teams in the three games I watched through the lens of huge differences between those teams. Without any further ado, here’s how it happened last weekend.

Toronto FC 2 – 0 New York Red Bulls

Stat that told the story for Toronto: 6 through balls, 3 key passes from middle third

tfc11

Toronto and New York are both flawed teams. Toronto doesn’t particularly well with possession in the middle third of the field (especially without Michael Bradley), and they tend to set their defensive line of confrontation dangerously deep in their own half. But there’s one thing they excel at that helps neutralize both of these weaknesses: they attack swiftly and directly through the middle third with through balls to a striker who’s not bad at putting them away, Jermain Defoe. Take a look at that map above: three key passes from TFC midfielders and six more through balls, all coming from the middle third and springing dangerous attacks very quickly. For sake of comparison, New York had exactly zero through balls or key passes from the same part of the field in the match.

Stat that told the story for New York: 4 successful crosses, 34 unsuccessful crosses

If Toronto’s greatest asset is their direct attacking speed through the midfield, it’s one thing that the Red Bulls commonly lack. I already noted that they had no key passes or through balls from the midfield recorded against Toronto, but that number of crosses is fairly absurd as well. I’m not one who believes crossing is a terrible gameplan at all times: Lloyd Sam has maybe been the best Red Bull this year, and they really should’ve scored at least one goal from those 38 crosses on Saturday. But the lack of variety and speed in their attack is stunning for a team as talented as New York. Hopefully this improves when Peguy Luyindula returns and adds some spark to the midfield, but right now New York looks about as flawed as Toronto.

Real Salt Lake 2 – 1 Colorado Rapids

Stat that told the story for RSL: first 50 minutes of the game: 93/110 passing in center of field vs. 61/84 for Colorado

rsl11

The Rocky Mountain rivalry is always a hotly-contested one, and in years past has been a game with a clash of styles, too. That was less the case in the first half of Saturday’s game: both teams came out with narrow midfields looking to control the center of the field. The Rapids have tried out these tactics this season, but RSL has been using them for years, and to be frank, it showed early in the game. Salt Lake’s diamond midfield (even without Kyle Beckerman) had little trouble passing the ball around Colorado like a church congregation with the offering dish. The lead-up to their first goal was absolutely beautiful to watch, and they created oodles of other chances in staking themselves to a 2-0 lead.

Stat that told the story for Colorado: 5 out of 7 successful crosses, 11 of 16 total crosses, 10 of 16 shots came after going behind 2-0

Pablo Mastroeni was a really good central midfielder in his playing days, and he has a couple of very good ones in his current squad (especially Dillon Powers). But his insistence on lining his team up with 3 or even 4 natural center midfielders on the field has confused me all season. Colorado was one of the surprise stories of the league last year, and a lot of their success was due to a fairly direct style of play. It certainly wasn’t all long balls and crosses a la Stoke City, but they made a lot of good things happen by getting the ball into the box to Edson Buddle and Deshorn Brown. In this one, after falling behind 2-0 in the 50th minute, Colorado reverted a bit to their 2013 ways. They lumped in significantly more crosses, and not coincidentally they had more success getting legitimate chances, shots and goals. I hope the Raps were taking notes on some of what made them successful in the second half.

Seattle Sounders 1 – 0 San Jose Earthquakes

Stat that told the story for Seattle: Obafemi Martins was/is really good

sea11

So far this year, Clint Dempsey has (deservedly) gotten a lot of attention for being the best player in the league. Obafemi Martins has gotten less attention for being just about as good. Martins and Dempsey are absolutely the most fearsome attack combination in the league right now, and it’s very much because of how well they play off each other. Dempsey’s success has come very much thanks to Martins’ passing and hold-up ability, while Martins has sacrificed some of his goal-scoring to do the dirty work for Seattle. In this one without Deuce, Oba unleashed the fury with a pretty incredible goal that you’ve probably seen already. He’s been everything you could ask for of a Designated Player this year: making plays each and every game that have helped the Sounders to the top of the league.

Stat that told the story for San Jose: Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi was/is really boring

If Seattle’s DP additions from last season have been the most fearsome duo in the league this season, San Jose’s recent signings have been about as scary as the Odd Couple. Let’s run them down: Yannick Djalo looked super exciting, then got hurt. Andreas Gorlitz didn’t look very exciting, then got hurt. Brandon Barklage, Atiba Harris and Khari Stephenson have all been basically the best any Quakes fan could hope for: extremely average MLS journeymen. But the one guy that I want to mention is the one who’s been most disappointing: Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi. I mean no offense to Pierazzi at all, but he came in from French club AC Ajaccio with nearly 180 career appearances in France’s top league and a lot was expected of him. From what I’ve seen of him so far, he’s struggled to fit in with the team as well as the physicality of MLS. He’s hardly been a bad player, but he’s definitely not made the impact you expect of a high-profile addition from a top European league.

 

Agree with my assessments? Think I’m an idiot? Let me know. @MLSAtheist

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

Looking for the model-busting formula

Well that title is a little contradictory, no? If there’s a formula to beat the model then it should be part of the model and thus no longer a model buster. But I digress. That article about RSL last week sparked some good conversation about figuring out what makes one team’s shots potentially worth more than those of another team. RSL scored 56 goals (by their own bodies) last season, but were only expected to score 44, a 12-goal discrepancy. Before getting into where that came from, here’s how our Expected Goals data values each shot:

  1. Shot Location: Where the shot was taken
  2. Body part: Headed or kicked
  3. Gamestate: xGD is calculated in total, and also specifically during even gamestates when teams are most likely playing more, shall we say, competitively.
  4. Pattern of Play: What the situation on the field was like. For instance, shots taken off corner kicks have a lower chance of going in, likely due to a packed 18-yard box. These things are considered, based on the Opta definitions for pattern of play.

But these exclude some potentially important information, as Steve Fenn and Jared Young pointed out. I would say, based on their comments, that the two primary hindrances to our model are:

  1. How to differentiate between the “sub-zones” of each zone. As Steve put it, was the shot from the far corner of Zone 2, more than 18 yards from goal? Or was it from right up next to zone 1, about 6.5 yards from goal?
  2. How clean a look the shooter got. A proportion of blocked shots could help to explain some of that, but we’re still missing the time component and the goalkeeper’s positioning. How much time did the shooter have to place his shot and how open was the net?

Unfortunately, I can’t go get a better data set right now so hindrance number 1 will have to wait. But I can use the data set that I already have to explore some other trends that may help to identify potential sources of RSL’s ability to finish. My focus here will be on their offense, using some of the ideas from the second point about getting a clean look at goal.

Since we have information about shot placement, let’s look at that first. I broke down each shot on target by which sixth of the goal it targeted to assess RSL’s accuracy and placement. Since the 2013 season, RSL is second in the league in getting its shots on goal (37.25%), and among those shots, RSL places the ball better than any other team. Below is a graphic of the league’s placement rates versus those of RSL over that same time period. (The corner shots were consolidated for this analysis because it didn’t matter to which corner the shot was placed.)

Placement Distribution - RSL vs. League

 

RSL obviously placed shots where the keeper was not likely at: the corners. That’s a good strategy, I hear. If I include shot placement in the model, RSL’s 12-goal difference in 2013 completely evaporates. This new model expected them to score 55.87 goals in 2013, almost exactly the 56 they scored.

Admittedly, it isn’t earth-shattering news that teams score by shooting at the corners, but I still think it’s important. In baseball, we sometimes assess hitters and pitchers by their batting average on balls in play (BABIP), a success rate during specific instances only when the ball is contacted. It’s obvious that batters with higher BABIPs will also have higher overall batting averages, just like teams that shoot toward the corners will score more goals.

But just because it is obvious doesn’t mean that this information is worthless. On the contrary, baseball’s sabermetricians have figured out that BABIP takes a long time to stabilize, and that a player who is outperforming or underperforming his BABIP is likely to regress. Now that we know that RSL is beating the model due to its shot placement, this begs the question, do accuracy and placement stabilize at the team level?

To some degree, yes! First, there is a relationship between a team’s shots on target totals from the first half of the season and the second half of the season. Between 2011 and 2013, the correlation coefficient for 56 team-seasons was 0.29. Not huge, but it does exist. Looking further, I calculated the differences between teams’ expected goals in our current model and teams’ expected goals in this new shot placement model. The correlation from first half to second half on that one was 0.54.

To summarize, getting shots on goal can be repeated to a small degree, but where those shots are placed in the goal can be repeated at the team level. There is some stabilization going on. This gives RSL fans hope that at least some of this model-busting is due to a skill that will stick around.

Of course, that still doesn’t tell us why RSL is placing shots well as a team. Are their players more skilled? Or is it the system that creates a greater proportion of wide-open looks?

Seeking details that may indicate a better shot opportunity, I will start with assisted shots. A large proportion of assisted shots may indicate that a team will find open players in front of net more often, thus creating more time and space for shots. However, an assisted shot is no more likely to go in than an unassisted one, and RSL’s 74.9-percent assist rate is only marginally better than the league’s 73.1 percent, anyway. RSL actually scored about six fewer goals than expected on assisted shots, and six more goals than expected on unassisted shots. It becomes apparent that we’re barking up the wrong tree here.*

Are some teams more capable of not getting their shots blocked? If so then then those teams would likely finish better than the league average. One little problem with this theory is that RSL gets it shots blocked more often than the league average. Plus, in 2013, blocked shot percentages from the first half of the season had a (statistically insignificant) negative correlation to blocked shots in the second half of the season, suggesting strongly that blocked shots are more influenced by randomness and the defense, rather than by the offense which is taking the shots.

Maybe some teams get easier looks by forcing rebounds and following them up efficiently. Indeed, in 2013 RSL led the league in “rebound goals scored” with nine, where a rebounded shot is one that occurs within five seconds of the previous shot. That beat their expected goals on those particular shots by 5.6 goals. However, earning rebounds does not appear to be much of a skill, and neither does finishing them. The correlation between first-half and second-half rebound chances was a meager–and statistically insignificant–0.13, while the added value of a “rebound variable” to the expected goals model was virtually unnoticeable. RSL could be the best team at tucking away rebounds, but that’s not a repeatable league-wide skill. And much of that 5.6-goal advantage is explained by the fact that RSL places the ball well, regardless of whether or not the shot came off a rebound.

Jared did some research for us showing that teams that get an extremely high number of shots within a game are less likely to score on each shot. It probably has something to do with going for quantity rather than quality, and possibly playing from behind and having to fire away against a packed box. While that applies within a game, it does not seem to apply over the course of a season. Between 2011 and 2013, the correlation between a teams attempts per game and finishing rate per attempt was virtually zero.

If RSL spends a lot of time in the lead and very little time playing from behind–true for many winning teams–then its chances may come more often against stretched defenses. RSL spent the fourth most minutes in 2013 with the lead, and the fifth fewest minutes playing from behind. In 2013, there was a 0.47 correlation between teams’ abilities to outperform Expected Goals and the ratio of time they spent in positive versus negative gamestates.

If RSL’s boost in scoring comes mostly from those times when they are in the lead, that would be bad news since their Expected Goals data in even gamestates was not impressive then, and is not impressive now. But if the difference comes more from shot placement, then the team could retain some of its goal-scoring prowess. 8.3 goals of that 12-goal discrepancy I’m trying to explain in 2013 came during even gamestates, when perhaps their ability to place shots helped them to beat the expectations. But the other 4-ish additional goals likely came from spending increased time in positive gamestates. It is my guess that RSL won’t be able to outperform their even gamestate expectation by nearly as much this season, but at this point, I wouldn’t put it past them either.

We come to the unsatisfying conclusion that we still don’t know exactly why RSL is beating the model. Maybe the players are more skilled, maybe the attack leaves defenses out of position, maybe it spent more time in positive gamestates than it “should have.” And maybe RSL just gets a bunch of shots from the closest edge of each zone. Better data sets will hopefully sort this out someday.

*This doesn’t necessarily suggest that assisted shots have no advantage. It could be that assisted shots are more commonly taken by less-skilled finishers, and that unassisted shots are taken by the most-skilled finishers. However, even if that is true, it wouldn’t explain why RSL is finishing better than expected, which is the point of this article.

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.

How it Happened: Week Five

Another great week of MLS games went down this past weekend. Even though I didn’t have the pleasure of watching all 90 minutes of Cascadia bliss from Portland (I do my best to mix up which teams I watch for this post, and this wasn’t a Seattle or Portland week), there were still plenty of solid rivalry matches to go around. Without further ado, here’s how it happened for six teams last weekend:

Houston Dynamo 1 – 4 FC Dallas

Stat that told the story for Houston: Ricardo Salazar’s heat map

hou5

If you don’t recognize Ricardo Salazar’s name from the Houston roster, you aren’t alone. He was the referee for this one, and while I refuse to rip on officials because they have a really difficult job, it’s impossible to deny the influence he had on this game (image above shows all the fouls called – three of which turned directly into goals). I actually don’t think Salazar did a terrible job given the circumstances: this game was a true rivalry match where both teams came out and played super physically from the opening whistle. But Houston and Dallas were neck-and-neck until the red card was doled out to David Horst, and the Dynamo almost immediately capitulated once they went down a man. Sure, the red card was a debatable decision, but Houston has to show better composure after going down a man.

Stat that told the story for Dallas: 11 set pieces taken by Mauro Diaz and Michel

It would be easy to pick a stat from the last half hour of this one, when Houston had basically given up and the Dallas midfield had full control of the park. But what’s arguably more impressive from this one was how Dallas was still in this game for the first hour, despite being on the road to a tough opponent in the Dynamo. Truthfully, FCD hadn’t been playing particularly well; Houston was successful in limiting space for Diaz and they had control of the midfield. But even playing mediocre, Dallas had created a number of really good chances and a goal, all from set pieces. Both Diaz and Michel are wizards over a dead ball, and any set piece in the attacking half is a chance waiting to happen for the Hoops.

Sporting KC 0 – 0 Real Salt Lake

Stat that told the story for Kansas City: 16 key passes

kc5

For me, this stat/image is more about where the key passes took place than how many of them there were. KC and RSL have a bit of a history now, and the teams definitely know what to expect when they faceoff. I thought Sporting did a really good job of a couple things: (1) pressing RSL into turnovers and (2) attacking the Salt Lake diamond midfield. I’ll talk more about #1 below, so here’s my take on KC’s attack. They created most of their shots or chances by either playing wide around the narrow midfield or by bypassing it entirely and going over the top. While it didn’t result in any goals for Sporting, that was more of a function of RSL’s great goalkeeping and KC’s mediocre finishing. Overall, I liked the gameplan of Peter Vermes this weekend.

Stat that told the story for Salt Lake: 257/282 (91.1%) of completed passes were in the first two thirds of the field

Real Salt Lake is a possession team, and everyone knows it. They try to pass all over the field, and when they’re at their best they control the ball into and around the penalty area before getting chances. In this one, Kansas City really let them have it with their high-pressing defense. RSL couldn’t find much space anywhere in the middle third of the field, let alone the attacking third, leading Salt Lake to play mostly in their own half. This was particularly the case early in the game: in the games first 40 minutes, 76/113 (67%) of RSL’s completed passes were in the defensive half of the field. It was a bit surprising that a veteran team like RSL didn’t seem prepared for this one, but given the makeshift lineup Jeff Cassar fielded, a scoreless draw has to be seen as a point gained rather than two lost in Utah.

 

Chivas USA 0 – 3 LA Galaxy

Stat that told the story for LA: 131 completed passes in the center of the field by midfielders

lag5

 

Bruce Arena did something that was pretty unexpected this Sunday, deploying a diamond midfield of four nominally central midfielders: Juninho, Stefan Ishizaki, Marcelo Sarvas and Baggio Husidic. The move was a clear message that despite their best attempts, the Galaxy had been unable thus far to find any decent wide play in the midfield opposite Landon Donovan. Instead of trying yet another option out there, LA played their four best overall midfielders in a diamond, and instructed them to figure it out as they went. As the scoreline suggests, this was hugely successful as the Galaxy just overran Chivas in the midfield time and again. The starting midfield completed 131 passes in the center of the field compared to the Goats’ midfield’s 79, and that’s to say nothing of the 2 goals on 8 shots that the midfielders also added. As I’ll note in the next paragraph, Chivas’ midfield is hardly a force to be reckoned with, but early signs on the diamond midfield are strictly positive.

Stat that told the story for Chivas: 1 weird starting lineup

OK, this isn’t a stat, but it’s hard to find anything in particular to focus on when most of the game was Chivas getting run over. There were some decent attacking combinations when the Goats were able to possess the ball and get forward, but those times were few and far between. From looking at the team that Wilmer Cabrera put on the field, it’s hard to imagine a much better result. I know the general narrative surrounding Chivas is that the club is much improved since Cabrera’s come onboard, but this is still a weirdly constructed roster. Trying to fit this team of very few fullbacks and a ton of attack-minded midfielders into a 4-4-2 is quite a task, which is why this week’s lineup looked so weird. The strange fits included featuring midfielder Eric Avila and centerback Andrew Jean-Baptiste at fullback, and Agustin Pelletieri* and mostly attack-minded Carlos Alvarez in central midfield.

*I think Pelletieri is supposed to be more of a holding midfielder, but all I’ve seen of him is an early red card vs. Vancouver and getting run over by LA. Too early to pass judgment, but he wasn’t impressive this weekend.

Agree with my assessments? Think I’m an idiot? I always appreciate feedback. @MLSAtheist

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