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


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


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


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


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… currently ranks Toronto as 11th. I also checked, 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.


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.


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,


MLS Possession with Purpose Week 4: The best (and worst) performances

The beauty and maybe the curse of Possession with Purpose (the weekly update) is that it completely ignores past performance and only gives you a view on how things went this weekend.

For me, I like that, as it helps point out how well a team performs against their counterparts as a snapshot in time. The value in seeing that weekly effort then has more grist when viewing those positive and negatives in a cumulative effort week to week.

So without further ado here’s how the teams stood toe to toe in Week 4:


Considering the complete blowout that Real Salt Lake had against a supposed “elite” Toronto team, it’s no wonder those guys headed the composite Index this week.

Like many things, there is a tendency to over-embellish on occasion when things look really good for a team early in the season, and those reminders on how far FC Dallas fell last year – from first to eighth in about 3 months – you just can never tell how good a team is until they go up against the likes of a team like Real Salt Lake.

Last year we saw Salt Lake lose out on both the Open Cup and the MLS Championship Cup – they have been consistent in their consistency for a consistently long time; Toronto may have done well in the first couple of games but as noted in an editorial of mine the other day, the word ‘elite’ really doesn’t belong to a team like this just yet.

In taking a further look at this Index, note again how far down the rung Portland is; it indeed was a close match and there were many chances for the Timbers, but an Index like this points out that the weaknesses in defending far outweigh their strengths in attack. If the Timbers are to turn this around (quickly) then a run of clean sheets is in order. No better way to test that than in their next game when they host the Sounders at Providence Park. If their blood doesn’t boil up for this game, it may be a very long season indeed for Portland.

So after seeing the Composite winner, who actually took top honors in the overall team attacking department? You may be surprised that it wasn’t Real Salt Lake—lest it’s forgotten, the Index above points out the overall difference between Attacking PWP and Defending PWP.

Here’s the PWP Attacking Index:



First out of the blocks this week is Sporting Kansas City – and yes; they did pull a Lazurus this week by scoring the late winner in stoppage time. When they scored their goals doesn’t matter to this Index, as it is context neutral in that respect. The fact that they came from behind to defeat a worthy Rapids team speaks more to the overall outcome and all the compelling work that went with it.

And yes – their defense gave up two goals. So, no – you won’t find them in the top ten in the PWP Defending Index.

Other teams doing well in attack this week were FC Dallas, Columbus (also with a late winner) and Chivas USA (who lost 2 points by giving up a late equalizer to New York).

By the way – that’s a pretty good run so far for Dallas and Columbus; Higuain should probably be on your fantasy team, as should Diaz; as a Timbers supporter it was hard to acknowledge that it was a blindingly good ‘turn and strike’ Diaz had against Portland yesterday.  It’s like Diaz turned on a dime and struck it home – unfortunately it appeared that dime was in Pa Modou Kah’s pocket.

As for Real Salt Lake – no surprise they are in the top three given their 3-nil win against Toronto.

Perhaps another surprise for some is DC United being in the top 5 – if you watched the game, like me, there were moments where DC really looked good in attack. A 2-2 draw was worthy and should give Olsen some breathing room for a wee bit longer; note – having a passing accuracy of 93.50% in that game ‘will’ influence the Index just a wee bit.

On to the internal process data for Sporting and the PWP Attacking Player of the Week:



Critical data in the PWP analysis hinges on (but doesn’t solely rely upon) Possession percentage, passing accuracy and the ability to leverage those two primary statistics in ‘creating and scoring goals’; Sporting were 4th best in accuracy, 2nd best in possession, and 2nd best in scoring goals based upon shots on goal.

Those outputs had strong influence in them being top of the Index this week.

The individual team leader in Possession percentage this week was Columbus (shaded somewhat given the red card to Traore) – Passing accuracy was tops with DC United at a whopping 93.50% while Chivas USA made the best of their chances by scoring one goal from one shot on goal while the other five were blocked…

Graham Zusi is my top PWP Attacking Player of the Week #4:



If you had Graham Zusi in your Fantasy team you should have gotten some pretty good points from him – I don’t, so I have no clue how well he really did.

It’s not hard to see how outputs like that correlated to a big three points in Colorado.

And even more compelling was his motor – he had two interceptions, one clearance and two recoveries in the defending half – some good evidence that he played on both sides of the pitch today.  Saborio will probably get all the notoriety this week – so be it. Sometimes things work out that way…

On to the defending part of this game. Recall RSL were top in the overall Composite Index – here’s why:



A clean sheet is a clean sheet is a clean sheet – and when you can go a whole game without conceding one foul in your own defending third, it’s no wonder Toronto were held scoreless. Even more so when considering how many PK’s have already been awarded this year (16) {is that a record already?}.

Bottom line here is the bottom line: Toronto, a team not known for liking to possess the ball, did not really possess the ball, and indeed had just 3 shots on goal with 15 shots taken. Playing counter against Real simply doesn’t work – just ask the Timbers of 2013.

Here’s how Real Salt Lake scored in the PWP Defending Process:



Pretty compelling – but what stands out most to me is not the Real Salt Lake defense as a whole, but rather that Toronto have yet to break the 70% Passing accuracy percentage total this year – they had 67% accuracy in Seattle, 59% accuracy against DC United and 54% accuracy against RSL. If anything, perhaps those first two wins for Toronto were more of an oddity than a trend of things to come? Guess we’ll have to wait and see about that.

One other, more devious consideration, is that Toronto are simply refusing to make attempts at engaging a possession-based approach. Instead one might offer that, if the conditions aren’t right for a counter-attack, they simply just push it back into the opposing teams’ half any way they can, and then ‘wait’ for the right moment to engage an attack when the opponent is a bit more disorganized.

I’ll have to watch for that a bit more closely – and given Nelson has been in Europe for a while, he may have picked up a few things that are a wee bit different, tactical wise, than how things have been played here in the States.

The PWP Defending Player of the Week was Kyle Beckerman – and here’s why:



Gotta love that picture – anyhow – some very compelling information here with Kyle on both sides of the pitch – he’s in the central defending midfield role with perhaps the most responsibility of anyone on RSL, and here he is with 2 key passes, 80% accuracy in passing, with 6 interceptions and 14 recoveries.

Bottom line this week is that Kyle Beckerman basically ate Toronto for lunch.

All that said, there is always next week, Toronto; for now this game and others already played this year by Beckerman do him well in his opportunities to continue to play for the USMNT.

In closing…

In about a day or two I’ll be offering up the Cumulative PWP Composite Index and all that goes with it.

All the best,

How it Happened: Week Three

In the three games I watched this week, five goals were scored. Two were from penalty kicks, and two were off corner kicks. Needless to say, offenses around the league are in early-season form, i.e. not exactly clicking in front of the net. On the bright side, there was a decent amount of combination play leading to chances….it’s just that whole putting them away thing that MLS teams are still working on. Onto the main attraction:

Chicago Fire 1 – 1 New York Red Bulls

Stat that told the story for New York: 350 completed passes; 68% of which were on the left side of the field*


It’s hardly inspiring for the Supporters’ Shield holders to sneak away from Chicago with a draw, but I actually thought they played pretty well on Sunday. Like I said above about the league as a whole, quality was missing on the final ball/shot, but New York fans shouldn’t be too worried about the team’s winless start. In this one there was quite a bit of good linking-up, particularly on the left flank. Given that midfielder Matt Watson was starting in a pinch as a nominal right back for the Fire, it seemed like a concerted effort from RBNY to expose a weakness on that side of the field. Between Roy Miller, Jonny Steele and Thierry Henry, there were some encouraging sequences down that side in particular; unfortunately for New York it didn’t lead to any actual goals.

*This stat/image is blatantly stolen from the Twitter account of MLS Fantasy Insider Ben Jata, @Ben_Jata. After seeing it this weekend, I was unable to think of anything better to include, so thanks, Ben!

Stat that told the story for Chicago: 24 total shots + key passes, only 2 of which were from Mike Magee

I’m not sure if this one is a good stat for Chicago fans or a bad one, but Mike Magee was conspicuously absent from a lot of the action this weekend (unless you count yelling incessantly and childishly at the ref as your definition of ‘action’). But seriously: last year Chicago had 377 shots the entire season, and Magee either took or assisted on 116 of them (31%)*. Oh, and he only played 22 of their 34 games. The fact that he was involved in only 2 of the team’s 24 shots (both of his shots were blocked, for what it’s worth) could certainly be viewed as concerning for Chicago fans expecting another MVP-caliber season out of Magee. But on the other hand, it’s easy to chalk up the struggles to the fact that this was his first game of the season after a maybe-contract-hold-out related hiatus. Also, the fact that Chicago managed to create 22 shots without Magee’s direct influence (or Patrick Nyarko and Dilly Duka, both also out this weekend) has to be a good sign for a team that was often a one-man show last season: youngsters Harrison Shipp and Benji Joya in particular both seem capable of lightening the load.

*Numbers from Squawka.


Toronto FC 1 – 0 DC United

Stat that told the story for Toronto: 38% possession, 3 points won


TFC captain Michael Bradley made headlines this week saying something along the lines of how possession was an overrated stat, and his team certainly appears to be trying to prove his point so far this season. The Reds didn’t see a ton of the ball in their home opener, instead preferring to let DC knock the ball around with minimal penetration in the final third. And then when Toronto did win the ball, well, check out the Opta image that led to the game’s lone goal for Jermain Defoe (or watch the video). It started with a hopeful ball from keeper Julio Cesar. The second ball was recovered by Steven Caldwell, who fed Jonathan Osorio. Osorio found his midfield partner Bradley, who lofted a brilliant 7-iron to fellow DP Gilberto. The Brazilian’s shot was saved but stabbed home by the sequence’s final Designated Player, Defoe. Balls like that one were played multiple times throughout the game by both Bradley and Osorio, as TFC has shown no aversion to going vertical quickly upon winning the ball. And with passes like that, speedy wingers, and quality strikers, it’s certainly a strategy that may continue to pay off.

Stat that told the story for DC: 1/21 completed crosses

This stat goes along a bit with what I wrote about Toronto above: they made themselves hard to penetrate in the final third, leading to plenty of incomplete crosses. Some of this high number of aimless crosses also comes from the fact that DC was chasing an equalizer and just lumping balls into the box late in the match. Still, less than 5% on completing crosses is a bit of a red flag when you look at the stat sheet. Particularly when your biggest attacking threat is Eddie Johnson, who tends to be at his best when attacking balls in the air. You’d think Ben Olsen would expect a better crossing percentage. To be fair to United though, I thought they were much better in this game than they were on opening day against Columbus. They looked about 4 times more organized than two weeks ago, and about 786 times more organized than last season, and their possession and link-up play showed signs of improvement too. Still a ways to go, but at least things are trending upward for the Black and Red.


Colorado Rapids 2 – 0 Portland Timbers

Stat that told the story for Portland: 1 Donovan Ricketts karate kick


I admit that I’m cheating here and not using a stat or an Opta Chalkboard image. But the above grainy screenshot of my TV that I took is too hilarious and impactful not to include. Colorado and Portland played a game on Saturday that some might call turgid, or testy, or any number of adjectives that are really stand-ins for the word boring. The most interesting parts of most of the game were Ricketts’ adventures in goal, which ranged from dropping floated long balls to tipping shots straight in the air to himself. In the 71st minute it appeared Ricketts had had enough and essentially dropped the mic. Flying out of his net, he leapt into the air with both feet, apparently hoping that if he looked crazy enough the ref would look away in horror instead of red carding him for the obvious kick to Deshorn Brown‘s chest. The Rapids converted the penalty and then added another one a few minutes later, and that was all she wrote.

Stat that told the story for Colorado: 59 total interceptions/recoveries/tackles won; 27 in the game’s first 30 minutes

Alright, I was silly with the Portland section so I feel like I need to do a little serious analysis for this paragraph. The truth is that this game was fairly sloppy on both sides, which is particularly surprising considering how technically proficient Portland was for most of last season. But cold weather combined with early season chemistry issues makes teams play sloppily sometimes, and it didn’t help that Colorado came out and looked very good to start this game. Their defensive shape was very compact when the Timbers had the ball, and the Rapids were very proficient in closing down passing lanes and taking possession back. The momentum swung back to Portland’s side and back a couple of times throughout the match, but Colorado’s strong start set the tone that Donovan Ricketts helped carry to the final whistle.


Agree with my assessments? Think I’m an idiot? I always enjoy feedback. Contact me on twitter @MLSAtheist or by email at

MLS PWP: Team Performance Index through Week 3

I hope all are enjoying my PWP series here at American Soccer Analysis. With Week 3 completed, I have at least two games worth of data for every team in MLS, and now it’s time to begin offering up the cumulative PWP Strategic Index and all that goes with it.

Wasting no time, here’s the initial diagram on how things look after at least two games:



Given what happened the first few weeks, it should be no surprise that Columbus lead the pack early on with Houston second, and (like last year) a strong early start for FC Dallas.

What may be surprising to some is where Toronto falls in this Index; it should be noted that in both games played this year, Toronto have had just 32.46% possession (Seattle) and 37.68% possession (D.C. United).

What this indicator helps point out is how different Toronto is playing compared to others while still taking points – in both cases Toronto have opted to sit back and cede possession in order to capitalize on opponents losing their shape. How well that continues to work for them remains to be seen, but for now Bradley has been absolutely correct in his analysis/offering to MLS: you don’t need to have a majority of possession to win a game.

As for the bottom dweller, note the familiar spot for D.C. United. It would seem those off-season transactions have yet to bear fruit, and it might not be t0o long before coach Ben Olsen sees the door if United don’t start turning things around.

How about some of the other teams in the middle? Well New York and Portland have both opened up exactly like they did last year with two points in three games. What may be most troubling for both is a lack of scoring. We’ll see how that unfolds, as it is likely that Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill will score sooner rather than later.

With respect to LA Galaxy, I watched their game this weekend against Real Salt Lake, and it appeared to me that it was all about Robbie Keane and his single-handed goal (with Donovan lurking) versus a solid Real Salt Lake team effort. If Joao Plata doesn’t go off injured in that game, I’d have been a betting man that RSL would have taken three points from LA.

Other lurkers here are Seattle, Colorado and Vancouver. Recall last year that the defense of Vancouver kept them from the Playoffs (45 goals against). This year things are starting a wee bit different, as they had a great defensive battle with New England this past weekend.

All those thoughts being said here’s how the teams stack up in the PWP Strategic Attacking Index:



Columbus Crew, FC Dallas and Houston are the new guys on the block this year–as compared to last year–with RSL, LA Galaxy, Seattle, Colorado, New York and Vancouver returnees to the top spots.

Missing from the potent attack side so far this year (foremost) are Sporting Kansas City and Portland. One may recall that Chivas USA had a good start last year, but then the Goats seemed to wander off and join D.C. United as the season wore on.

Of note is where Toronto sits. In playing a counterattacking style, parts of their PWP will naturally fall lower down the list than other more possession-based teams. It will be fun to track how they progress in PWP this year.

For the defensive side of PWP here’s how things stand today:



With Columbus doing so well in attack it’s no surprise that their opponents aren’t… so here’s where the real grist begins when peeling back defending activities.

Note that Houston, Seattle, Colorado, and Sporting Kansas City are in the top five, while FC Dallas, high up in attack, isn’t quite so high in defending. Will that gap create issues again this year? Pareja was noted as having a pretty tight defense in Colorado. Will there be personnel changes in Dallas?

Oddly enough, a top defender in my view for Portland was David Horst. I’m still not sure why he was moved to Houston, but given their early season success, his big presence in the back has certainly improved that team. Can David remain healthy? Hard to say, but continued presence by the big guy should garner some interest, I hope, in some USMNT training after the World Cup is completed this year. It’s never too early to plan for the future.

As for the bottom dwellers, note again that Chivas USA are the bottemost. They may have improved their attack this off-season, but if they can’t stop the goals against, that attack will mean nothing when it comes to Playoff crunch time.

In closing…

It remains early, and I’ve every belief that this table will adjust itself a bit more as time passes and points are won and lost. The intent is not necessarily to match the League Tables, but to offer up a different perspective on teams’ abilities that are reasonable when viewing team performance.

Check out my PWP Week 3 Analysis, as well as my New York Red Bulls-centric PWP weekly analysis for New York Sports Hub. If time permits please join me on twitter as I offer up thoughts during nationally-televised matches this year.

All the best,

MLS Week 2: Expected Goals and Attacking Passes

Truth be told, last week was kind of a failure on my behalf. I trusted the data and information that was supplied by Golazo, and I’m not sure it really worked out as intended. A few mistakes have been pointed out to me, and while in general that could have been avoided by double checking the MLS chalkboard, I’m not sure that I really wanted to double check their work. This week I went straight to the Chalkboard for the data and then verified the total amount based off MLS soccer numbers. The result of the total numbers this week were a bit surprising.

Team shot1 shot2 shot3 shot4 shot5 shot6 Total xGF
San Jose 0 15 1 8 2 1 27 3.231
Colorado 1 8 4 3 1 1 18 2.228
Portland 2 5 6 3 4 1 21 2.219
New York 1 7 1 0 2 0 11 1.667
Sporting KC 1 4 4 4 3 2 18 1.654
Philadelphia 2 2 4 3 2 0 13 1.465
Chicago 2 2 2 4 2 2 14 1.446
Chivas 2 1 2 6 4 0 15 1.351
Seattle 1 4 1 0 6 1 13 1.263
Houston 1 2 4 3 4 0 14 1.2
Montreal 1 2 2 3 8 0 16 1.15
RSL 0 3 3 2 4 0 12 0.942
Toronto 0 2 2 1 3 1 9 0.653
New England 1 1 1 1 1 0 5 0.635
Vancouver 0 2 1 1 3 1 8 0.582
FC Dallas 0 2 1 2 2 0 7 0.577
Total               22.26

*Expected Goals 1.0 used for this table.

It’s weird the last couple of games (talking the CCL match against Toluca midweek); San Jose has done an incredible job at generating shots against talented opposition. First, against a very talented Deportivo Toluca that currently sits second in the Clausura 2014 table, the Quakes managed to put together 20 shots. Liga MX isn’t what they once were to MLS, but this is a very efficient showing. With that they barely squeaked by with a draw. This weekend was a much different story as they put the pedal to the floor and crashed through Real Salt Lake to draw a game they really had no business even being in to that point.

Portland is another team that stood out, but for less good things than bad. As Chris already alluded to this morning (he stole my thunder!), they’ve had an incredible amount of shots that have been blocked even before they get to the keeper. They’re obviously getting into advantageous locations and taking shots, but their opponents are getting out in front and deterring those attempts. Which, if you were going to deploy a method for the stopping the Timbers’ offense, that would seem to be it. Stay in front of them and prevent as many shots from occurring as possible. Portland has shown itself to be a terribly direct team.

Team    xGF     Goals  
San Jose 3 3
Colorado 2 1
Portland 2 1
New York 2 1
Sporting KC 2 1
Philadelphia 1 1
Chicago 1 1
Chivas 1 1
Seattle 1 1
Houston 1 1
Montreal 1 0
RSL 1 3
Toronto 1 2
New England 1 0
Vancouver 1 1
FC Dallas 1 1
Total 22 19

As you saw last week, our metric predicted under the total amount of goals scored and this week we were actually over. Again this speaks to the strength of long-term averages, and you’re frequency going to be bouncing around the total amount. But the important thing is that we’re close, and that we understand where we came up short and where we went over. New England, Vancouver and FC Dallas are all clubs that were lucky to even make the “50%” cut off because they just barely projected for a goal. But that was because we round up to the nearest whole number.

New England was surprisingly the highest of the three clubs. I say surprising because they tallied the least amount of shots. Despite that they managed a couple of better shot locations.

    Team   Comp. Passes   Inc. Passes   Total     Pass%     KeyP
Philadelphia 76 35 111 68.47% 5
New England 44 22 66 66.67% 1
New York 53 38 91 58.24% 6
Colorado 26 20 46 56.52% 5
Seattle 59 54 113 52.21% 6
Toronto 15 19 34 51.72% 2
Sporting KC 38 29 67 56.72% 5
Dallas FC 26 11 37 70.27% 4
Houston 40 26 66 60.61% 8
Montreal 49 25 74 66.22% 8
San Jose 54 36 90 60.00% 10
RSL 50 15 65 76.92% 3
Portland 46 41 87 52.87% 5
Chicago 31 30 61 50.82% 7
Chivas 48 33 81 59.26% 8
Vancouver 31 22 53 58.49% 2

Lastly we have attacking third passing data. As you see, there were only two clubs over the “100” mark this week. Seattle and Philly both collected a large percentage of the total possession, which as we have talked about previously isn’t necessarily what’s important. It’s about WHERE you possess the ball. Well, for Philadelphia it worked out well as they pretty much dominated New England. Pushing the ball into the attacking third, the Zolos limited the total touches of New England in dangerous locations and created plenty of opportunities for themselves.

However, Seattle is a different story. As shown in PWP, they dominated a lot of the raw numbers and even managed to finally produce a goal despite shot frustrations. But Toronto preyed on the counter attack and mental mistakes by Marco Pappa. They didn’t need many chances, but in the future we’ll have to see if they can continue to finish as efficiently as they did on Saturday. They sported the least amount of attacking touches in all of MLS with only 34 and while that obviously doesn’t correlate 100% to goals scored, the more opportunities you have the more likely you’re going to find the back of the net.

MLS Possession with Purpose Week 2: The best (and worst) performances

In case you missed it, I will be offering up a series of related articles throughout this season focusing on my Possession with Purpose analysis – a drive towards developing a simplified, yet systematic, statistically-based rating approach on Strategic Team performance (both attacking, defending and cumulative) in executing the Six Steps of PWP.

Part of this effort also includes highlighting individual players who have had a significant role in how a team performed that week. I don’t claim to say that ‘the player’ selected is the best player on the team but it is intended to show how one players’ activities help influence a team outcome. If you haven’t read the introduction and explanations to PWP click here for more details.

For this week my article focuses strictly on team performance for Week 2; an additional article may be offered up later this week that covers the cumulative PWP Indices for the first two weeks; if I get it posted I’ll paste a link here.

The top PWP Strategic Attacking team for week 2 was Real Salt Lake; that may come as a bit of a surprise given some other outcomes this past week – more later on that; but a good thing to remember is that high strategic ratings for RSL are not unusual given their penchant for possession and some pretty good goal scoring ratios based off shots taken and shots on goal.



Here’s the breakout on how they performed in each of the six steps of PWP:



The RSL Attacking Team Player of the week is Joao Plata; here are some highlighted individual statistics that helped influence team performance…



The bottom feeder in Strategic attack this week was the Montreal Impact (1.9808).   Some internal key indicators used to develop that rating included being 5th lowest in Total Passes (389); 5th lowest in Passing Accuracy at ~69%; 8th lowest in Passes within their Attacking Third; 10th highest # of Passes completed in the Final Third (62); 5th best with 16 Shots Taken with 5 Shots on Goal (tied for 6th best) yet no goals scored.

Other teams were less productive in some cases but the summation of all those indicators pointed to Montreal as being the least effective and efficient as a Team in Attack.

Now how about Jermaine Defoe and Toronto FC?  He had two goals in a blinding win for the Reds visiting Seattle.   Is there a reason why Toronto didn’t get the best PWP Attacking team this week? A good question, and here’s why they missed out.

Recall from last year that one of the top attacking teams in MLS was Vancouver – yet on the defending side they were not quite so fortunate.   Also note that both Chicago and Dallas also had on average (and in total) more goals scored than 3 other teams making the Playoffs.

In reviewing the intent of PWP; it’s not intended to mirror outputs that directly match goals scored; if it was then the PWP Composite Index for last year would have been 70% accurate as opposed to 90% accurate.   For now let’s just say that Toronto did a great job in taking 3 points in Seattle – it’s a long season with many games yet to be played.   So the analysis doesn’t snub Toronto – it simply attempts to better recognize that Real Salt Lake had a more comprehensive team attack than Toronto.

Unlike last week, the top Defending team performance did not come from the top attacking team; recall RSL gave up 3 goals-against in their draw with San Jose.

The top Defending team this past week were the Houston Dynamo.  Given Montreal were the bottom feeder in Attack it only makes sense that the most effective and efficient team in Defense… was… Houston; part of that rests with an impotent attack by Montreal but part of it also rests with a very active defending team unit of Houston.

It should be noted that last week Houston were number two in attack and defense; and while they only scored one goal this week they did, like last week, come away with a clean sheet.  Is this an early sign the the Dynamo are indeed a force to be reckoned with in the East?

Here’s how they compared to all other teams in Week 2:



Here’s their Defending percentages for the six steps of the PWP Strategic Defending Process:



And the PWP Defending Player of the Week award goes to Corey Ashe:



Some could offer that David Horst or another defender might have nailed this award – for me the number of touches and passing accuracy speak to a comprehensive impact in the game and while David did great job in the box; especially with clearances I felt and thought Corey Ashe played the most comprehensive game on both sides of the pitch.

Finally, before offering up some additional observations, here’s the complete picture on the PWP Composite Strategic Index for Week 2:




A interesting output is how well Toronto showed against other teams this week; they took three points in their away match to Seattle yet fell below zero in their cumulative total.   Part of that outcome has much to do with their on-field strategy – play the counter and allow Seattle the better part of possession in hopes of capitalizing on mistakes to generate goals.

In looking at the Seattle statistical indicators for that game they were obnoxiously potent in posssession, passing, and penetration (like some others team so far this year) but simply couldn’t put quality shots on goal or another goal past Cesar.

All told Seattle offered up 643 passes {HUGE} (this includes crosses, throw-ins, etc where the intent is to move the ball from one player to another), a 79% passing accuracy with 68% possession, 61% passing accuracy within the Attacking Third, (95 passes successfully completed), yet they only tallied 13 shots taken with just 2 of them on goal.   Seattle controlled the game only up to the point of setting the stage for shots and shots on goal – two of the most critical steps in Possession with Purpose.

As the year unfolds the counter-attacking style of Toronto, and others, while ceding possession, may be much more clear and additional tendencies should pop up to validate other teams taking this approach.  For now I’ll call it an outlier but don’t expect it to be an outlier later this year as more patterns develop.

Like last year, Portland is finding itself near the top in overall PWP.   As noted in my match analysis there is a potential weakness with Portland this year in telegraphing shots.  With 35 total shots taken this year 17 of them have been blocked before reaching the keeper – a trend to continue to watch for sure!

FC Dallas now have Pareja running the team and, if his team performs like the Rapids did last year, it is likely we continue to see them in the top half of the Index .  Last year Dallas faltered around the midway point and a good indicator then was a drop in defensive performance.  Should be interesting to see if that drop-off manifests itself after week 17 or so if there attack continues to stay aggressive.

Philadelphia have added Edu this year and their attack is considerably different given a more possession based approach – Jared Young offered last week that Okugu provided some very solid defensive play against Portland – we’ll be sure to watch how he and Edu and others look to improve the Union results this year.

All for now; you can follow me on twitter @chrisgluckpwp

Best, Chris

Season Preview: Toronto FC

Toronto FC has been an enigma in their seven seasons in MLS. They have four Canadian Championships and a semifinals appearance in the CONCACAF Champions League in 2011, they had one of the strongest fan bases in their early years, and yet they have zero appearances in the MLS playoffs. But all signs point to an improved franchise as Tim Leiweke became President and CEO of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, and promptly claimed he would make blockbuster signings. With the additions of three Designated Players in the offseason, the Reds are making every effort to end their playoff drought in the coming 2014 season.

2013 Finish: 6-17-11, 29 points; 30 GF, 47 GA. Ninth in Eastern Conference and 17th overall.

2013 Best XI

Toronto FC's best XI in 2013


  Name Pos From where?   Name Pos To where?
In: Jackson M traded from FC Dallas Out: Michael Thomas M option declined
Gilberto M transfer from SC Internacional Darel Russell M option declined
Justin Morrow D traded from San Jose Robert Earnshaw F option declined
Jordan Hamilton F Homegrown Justin Braun F out of contract
Dwayne De Rosario M Re-Entry Stage 2 Danny Koevermans F out of contract
Jermain Defoe F transfer from Tottenham Stefan Frei GK trade to Seattle
Michael Bradley M transfer from AS Roma Bobby Convey M trade to New York
Bradley Orr D loan from Blackburn Rovers Richard Eckersley D trade to New York
Julio Cesar GK loan from Queens Park Rangers Jonas Elmer D contract terminated
Matias Laba M traded to Vancouver

Roster Churn: Toronto FC returns 55.6% of its minutes played from 2013 (9th in the Eastern Conference and 17th overall).

2014 Preview

Median age: 24 *Designated player

Median age: 24
*Designated player

TORINFODo you remember back in high school when a rather ordinary girl that you barely noticed last year suddenly came back from the summer and was a complete knock out ? Well, Toronto FC is that knock out that MLS fans can’t get enough of. For starters, NBCSN will showcase TFC’s season opener against the Sounders on March 15. And even the infamous ginger (Alexi Lalas) has claimed on Twitter that he won’t even consider that the league has started until TFC has played. Amazing how all it takes is a few transfers and you’ve suddenly got Garber’s attention and deepest affections.

Toronto’s 2013 season was forgettable to say the least. They were completely inept on offense—tied for second-to-last in total goals with 30 and also second-to-last in our new Expected Goals For 2.0 at 33.3—and ended their season with a miserable 29 points. But things started to point in the right direction with their first two off-season acquisitions: the speedy winger Jackson from FC Dallas and a strong DP signing in Gilberto. What happened next, though, no one could have foreseen.

Toronto picked up local hero and all-time leading scorer (32 goals) Dwayne De Rosario, who played for the Reds between 2009 and 2011, as a light warmup to what would follow. Then, in early December, rumors began brewing that Toronto was ready to open the checkbook and make a record signing for Tottenham striker and England international, Jermain Defoe. As that story was growing in credibility, in January Taylor Twellman unveiled a shocker that Toronto was also in the race to get USMNT star and Roma midfielder, Michael Bradley. Within days, Toronto FC had both players. It was like Joe Walsh joined the Eagles all over again—except the Eagles were already good and not in Canada, but whatever.

Many of us, myself included, scoffed at the idea that Bradley would return to MLS after claiming time and time again his desire to challenge himself at the highest levels of international soccer. But the lure of a new and distinct challenge, as well as a hefty pay raise (reports state Bradley received a pay raise of six times his salary from Roma), has Michael Bradley back in MLS. As a cherry on top, Toronto plucked Brazilian international Julio Cesar from Queens Park Rangers on loan—probably more a name than a top-level talent at this point—to finalize their off-season transformation from a basement dweller to a potential MLS Cup contender.

But basic math does not appear to a strong suit of the forever changing front office. Toronto already had one DP in Matias Laba, and three more made four total. Toronto had been trying for nearly two months to put Laba on loan, but Laba reportedly wanted to stay in MLS. Intra-MLS loans are a new thingthis year marked the first one in fact—but are indeed possible. However, the loan idea fell through, and as rosters were about to finalize on Friday, Toronto was forced to trade Laba to Vancouver for “future considerations.” Though often ambiguous, future considerations in this case may very well involved them getting Laba back in 2015. But still, the perception of disarray in the Toronto front office (and back office, as Drew noted on our most recent podcast), was done no favors.

With all off-season transactions covered, Toronto now has to back up their talent-rich roster with results. Winning more often than it loses and making the playoffs would be a good start, though it’s a long way to go from the Reds’ status quo to MLS Cup contender. Only in 2009 were they remotely close to the playoffs, finishing 10-11-9 and three points out of a playoff spot in the East. Toronto has won no more than six matches in each of the past three seasons. There will be immense pressure with all the high-profile signings for the Reds to qualify for the playoffs, and qualify comfortably. But can Jermain Defoe adjust to a new league? Is Gilberto as good a finisher as advertised? And most importantly, can Michael Bradley be the key piece in the middle to lead the team?

Alex Olshansky (@tempofreesoccer) did an incredible write up on Michael Bradley, comparing his passing usage rating for the USMNT and his club teams. To summarize it quickly, Bradley is more involved in USMNT’s attack and possession than he is with his club teams. And while many have criticized Bradley’s move back to MLS, the new environment and his role with the team will likely be a greater challenge to him as a player. Bradley will now play the role of facilitator and key distributor, as well as meeting daily expectations to be the team leader for TFC, better preparing him for his role on the national team.

Soccer, as well as other sports, has shown us that adding a few great players does not guarantee success, especially on a pitch shared by eleven teammates. There is no doubt that Toronto is a better team, but an MLS Cup contender? We shall see. Regardless of where your allegiances resided in the past—as a Toronto fan, an American Outlaw, or other—things got interesting north of the border in the past few months, and everyone will have at least one eye on the Reds in 2014

Crowdsourcing Results

A plurality of ASA readers picked Toronto to finish third in the East this season (130 of 404 votes; 32.2%), and an overwhelming majority believes the Reds will make the playoffs in some capacity (355 votes; 80.7%).

ASA Podcast XXXV: The Return of The Cast

We’re back with the podcast!
We return to review the snooze-fest that was the US Mens game last weekend. Stepping our big toe into a bit of the pre-season waters and turn the talk to some of the major moves around MLS and some of the clubs we’ve seen improve the most over the last few months. Lastly we give you a bit of insight to what’s going on with the site and perhaps something to watch for in the coming months.

Vegas Posts Odds on MLS Cup 2014

I’m not usually interested in sports betting. I think most would find that surprising because we run an analytics site, and most analytics fit jointly, at least in Europe, with gambling. I avoid gambling for numerous reasons, but in general because I like the money I have and would hate to lose it.  However, there is a bit of value in looking at the betting lines and understanding which teams are favorites and why. It can give us a bit of early insight into who people consider “the best” teams.

In case you missed it, Las Vegas odd makers metaphorically walked to the front of the class room and posted the first pre-season grades, identifying who they believe to the best teams in MLS. Basically they painted big red targets on the back of the LA Galaxy and Sporting Kansas City going forward.

Here is a little snap shot of the complete lines, courtesy of Steve Davis and NBCSports.

Here are few things that pop out at me just looking at this list.

First, the LA Galaxy are a club that we liked a lot going into the MLS Cup. We ranked them second in terms of the probability of winning the Supporters Shield and then third in the likelihood of winning the end of season tournament. Being cast aside by Real Salt Lake in the first round was not unimaginable, and yet it kind of took us all back for a moment. It’s not surprising to me that they probably hoist the imaginary pre-season trophy at this point.

Second, Portland and Seattle are neck and neck in odds. If you thought the rivalry between these two I-5 teams culminated with the playoff match, you have another thing coming. This season is going to be rife with parity, and the difference between the 1st seed and the 5th could be substantially less than what it’s been in a number of years. This is only going to throw more wood on the fire for clubs like Seattle and Portland, creating an even more tension filled stadium. Oh, hey Vancouver, you’re there also… your just not “there” yet.

Third, Toronto goes from being on the worst teams in the league to big signings and having the 8th best odds to come home with silverware at the end of the season. The tides look on the brink of turning in the Queen City and could yield a very fun summer for the Reds. Some thing well deserved for their fans with the incredible support shown through some disappointing years, and really since their arrival to MLS in 2008.

Lastly, who could blame you if really you wanted to throw five dollars down on DC United. Eddie Johnson/Fabian Espindola, a rebuilt back line, and young potential US internationals in Perry Kitchen and Bill Hamid. 50-1 odds? Heck, I may just throw 20 dollars on them and become a season long United fan.