Playoffs are a real possibility for the Whitecaps

Vancouver finished outside the playoff picture last year in a conference that allows 55.6 percent of its members to advance into November. Despite passing the “eye test” with a lot of talent, and despite producing a positive goal differential, the Whitecaps did little to convince our more advanced soccer statistics that they were a good team. Vancouver fired off 12.9 shots per game, but allowed 15.1. Furthermore, when those shots are valued based on quality, Expected Goals suggests Vancouver was below average, posting a negative xGD. Supporters may have pointed to their excellent shot accuracy and finishing rates as signs of talent and reason for optimism, but those things don’t stabilize quickly, and the man who was most responsible deserted them for Liga MX.

To kick off the season, we provided previews of all 19 teams. Jacob covered Vancouver, and he justifiably wrote, “As the 2014 season gets set to begin, Vancouver is one of just a few teams in the league that don’t appear to be as good as last year.” Losing internationals Kenny Miller, Y.P. Lee and Camilo would probably make any MLS team worse, and before the acquisition of Matias Laba, Steve Beitashour was probably the most notable addition. On average, you readers picked the Caps to finish 7th in the West, and 76 percent of you guessed that they would miss the playoffs. I’m quite confident that I picked them to finish in 8th place. Missing the playoffs may very well still happen, but that outcome doesn’t seem to have a majority of the probability anymore.

I think it’s fair to say that Vancouver’s 2014 has been surprising for most everybody. After ten games, nearly one-third of a season, Vancouver finds itself in third place. More importantly, it has an above-average shot attempt ratio (1.1) and positive expected goal differentials both overall (+0.13 per game) and in even gamestates (+0.36 per game). In 2013, the first 10 games of the season proved to be reasonably predictive of points earned in the final 24, as shown below.

Predictor Correlation P-value
GD 0.43 0.091
AttRatio* 0.55 0.000
xGD 0.78 0.000
xGD (zero) 0.75 0.000

A team’s actual goal differential during the first 10 games had the weakest correlation to its points earned in the last 24 games, as any reader of this blog would have expected. But look at the correlations between xGD in the first 10 games and points earned in the last 24 games. Only more seasons of data will tell us if the correlation is truly that strong, but it’s definitely a good indication for Vancouver. The xGD model would expect them to earn another 37 points, totaling 53 points for the season—a figure that, in combination with our playoff chances, suggests the playoffs might be more likely than not likely for the Vancouver Whitecaps.

*The correlation for Attempt Ratio was calculated from all team seasons between 2011 and 2013, while the other correlations could only be calculated from 2013 with the available data.

Advertisements

How it Happened: Week Ten

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

Portland Timbers 1 – 1 LA Galaxy

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

lapor10

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

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

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

Columbus Crew 0 – 1 Vancouver Whitecaps

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

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

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

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

Philadelphia Union 0 – 1 DC United

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

dc10

 

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

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

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

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

How It Happened: Week Two

I’ll be frank: either week two of the MLS season was much less exciting than week one, or I did a poor job of picking games to watch and analyze this week. My bet is that both are true. Anyway, onto the show in which I take a look at three games from the weekend and pick a stat or Opta chalkboard image for each team that tells the story of how they played (last week’s version is here if you missed it):

Sporting Kansas City 1 – 1 FC Dallas

Stat that told the story for Dallas: outpassed 418-213, including 103-41 in the game’s first half hour

A thought occurred to me when watching this game: Sporting Kansas City has to look a lot like a prototype of what Oscar Pareja wants out of his teams. From the formation to the high-pressing, KC has long made their money by manhandling opponents as soon as they get on the ball and not letting them get comfortable. In this game, Sporting came out fired up at home and simply punched Dallas in the mouth (not even completely a figure of speech – this game was brutally physical). The high-pressing from KC’s entire team had FCD out of sorts for most of the first half, particularly the first 30 minutes, when they mustered only 41 completed passes.

But the Hoops managed a road draw against the defending champs, so the game wasn’t completely a story of getting worked over. As the game wore on and Sporting found it difficult to keep up the constant pressure, Dallas was able to grow into the game a bit. They certainly were never dominant, but another very good game from Mauro Diaz and some smart counter-attacks allowed Pareja’s team to stem the tide for the majority of the game. In the end, it was fitting that the slugfest of a game saw just two goals, both from set pieces, but Dallas should feel good about how they played as the game progressed and were able to steal a point.

Stat that told the story for Kansas City: lack of production from forward line: 15 offensive actions in attacking third

kc2

Sporting KC won MLS Cup last year and has unquestionably been one of the league’s best teams for the last few seasons. But few would argue that this success is built on a very strong defense and midfield. The forward line has often been sort of an Achilles’ heel for this squad, especially now that Kei Kamara has moved on. In this game, Graham Zusi was held out so he could stay fresh for CONCACAF Champions League action, and DP forward Claudio Bieler only came on for the last 13 minutes. But the five players who saw time at a forward spot for KC (Bieler, Dom Dwyer, Sal Zizzo, CJ Sapong and Jacob Peterson) combined to register 15 offensive actions in the attacking third. 

To be clear, that ‘offensive actions’ stat that’s illustrated above might have been made up by me just now, but it encompasses successful passes, dribbles, and all shot attempts. Too often on Saturday, and really for the last few years, Kansas City has dominated the game until the last thirty yards of the field, where they lack ideas. Getting Zusi back will likely help, as would playing Claudio Bieler for a full 90 minutes, but Sporting will need some more creativity and production from their forwards if they hope to lift another trophy this season.

Chivas USA 1 – 1 Vancouver Whitecaps

Stat that told the story for Vancouver: only 53 passes in the offensive third (23 of which were after Kekuta Manneh came on in the 60th minute)

I tuned in for the Chivas-Vancouver matchup excited to see an offensive battle between two sides that combined for 7 goals in week one. Instead, I saw an early red card to the Goats’ Agustin Pelletieri followed by a lot of dull possession for Vancouver against a surprisingly organized team in red and white stripes. After looking so deadly in attack against New York, the Whitecaps looked completely lost for ideas on Sunday, with the only forays into the offensive third seeming to come from chips over the top from the superb Pedro Morales. That all changed when Kekuta Manneh came on, as he attacked the Chivas defense with and without the ball, causing fits for Eric Avila and eventually scoring the equalizer for the ‘Caps. Still, after playing 87 minutes against 10 men, Vancouver has to be rightfully disappointed at only earning a point.

Stat that told the story for Chivas: Mauro Rosales turning back the clock: 151 actions

chv2

The Seattle Sounders traded Mauro Rosales to Chivas this offseason because he was too expensive and too old to fit into the club’s plans for 2014. Nobody even really argued with the decision, though Rosales is undeniably a classy player and won the league’s Newcomer of the Year award in 2011. So far in 2014, playing in the red and white of the Goat Zombies, Rosales has looked a lot like the 2011 playmaker that Sounders fans knew and loved. Playing down a man, Rosales was everything you could hope from a smart, skilled veteran; he hoofed it up field when in trouble so his team could get organized, he led smart counter-attacks and he kept the ball when possible (with the help of Erick Torres, who also played very well). All in all, he registered 151 actions in Opta’s chalkboard, 12 more than any other player and a whopping 47 more than his nearest teammate. Not bad for a washed-up 33-year-old.

Houston Dynamo 1 – 0 Montreal Impact

Stat that told the story for Montreal: Marco Di Vaio‘s non-existant heat map

mtl2

I’ve watched about 120 minutes of Montreal Impact soccer in the season’s first two weeks, and just about every one of those minutes has been more impressive than I expected from the Impact this season. Despite having zero points from their first two games (both on the road), they’ve actually looked pretty good on the field. Justin Mapp is doing Justin Mapp things (like this awesome run & assist from week 1), Hernan Bernardello and Patrice Bernier are pinging beautiful balls to open up space, and Felipe and Andrew Wenger are getting in pretty good goal-scoring spots. So what’s the reason behind the zero points? Well, not putting chances away against the Dynamo killed Montreal. ASA’s shot numbers had their xGF at 1.15 this week, but there were plenty of other times that they wasted dangerous opportunities (one particular Wenger near-breakaway early in the first half stands out). If All-Star Italian striker Marco Di Vaio wasn’t suspended, I have a hard time believing the Impact gets shutout last week.

Stat that told the story for Houston: 8 fouls conceded in the defensive third

This was another game where what I ended up watching did not line up with the expectations I had going in. After an open, attack-filled opening game with New England, Houston came out and didn’t really do much offensively against Montreal. It was actually sort of a gameplan of old-school Dom Kinnear, as the Dynamo got an early goal thanks to a deflected Will Bruin shot, and then packed it in and made themselves hard to beat. They sat in two organized banks of four so that only the perfect ball from Montreal would be enough to beat them, and when it looked like they might get beaten, they did the professional thing and took a foul. Eight of Houston’s 14 fouls conceded were in their defensive third, and while I can’t offer much perspective on whether that’s a high proportion compared to league average, I can tell you that many of them occurred when Montreal players were breaking away and getting ready to provide a scoring chance.

Agree with my assessments? Think I’m an idiot? I always enjoy feedback. @MLSAtheist or MLSAtheist@gmail.com

Season Preview: Vancouver Whitecaps

The Vancouver Whitecaps are still one of Major League Soccer’s newest teams, as 2014 will be just their fourth season in the league. However, the franchise has already shown a penchant for rather high turnover, both among its players and coaches. Seen through an optimist’s viewpoint, this could be commendable, as the front office is never satisfied with mediocrity and clearly strives for success. From a pessimist’s point of view, the constant tinkering robs the club of any semblance of stability and contributes to the team’s mediocrity. Either way, 2014 will be a fascinating time to watch Vancouver as they look to return to the postseason.

2013 Finish: 48 Points, 7th in the Western Conference, Missed MLS Playoffs

vancouverXI

Player Added Position Acquired from: Name Position To
Christian Dean D  2014 SuperDraft (Cal) Lee Young-Pyo D Retired
Andre Lewis M 2014 SuperDraft (NY Cosmos) Greg Klazura D Option Declined
Mehdi Ballouchy M San Jose Joe Cannon GK Option Declined
Steven Beitashour D San Jose Simon Thomas GK Option Declined
Sebastian Fernandez M/F Loan – (Boston River) Brad Rusin D Option Declined
Nicolas Mezquida M/F Free Transfer (Boston River) Jun Marques Davidson M Option Declined
      Daigo Kobayashi M New England
      Tommy Heinemann F Option Declined
      Corey Hertzog F Option Declined
      Brad Knighton GK New England
      Camilo F Queretaro (Mexico)

Roster Churn: 58.82% returning minutes (4th lowest in MLS)

Vancouver Whitecaps' 2014 Roster

Median age: 23
*Designated player

Their 2013 was underwhelming, and could probably be filed as underachieving. Based on roster talent alone, Vancouver probably should have made the playoffs in 2013, just as they did in 2012. But for a variety of reasons, the Whitecaps never quite got it together and missed out on the postseason by three points. As mentioned, the individual talent was certainly there: Brazilian striker Camilo won the Golden Boot by hammering home 22 goals, Nigel Reo-Coker is as powerful a central midfielder as you’ll find in MLS, and Russell Teibert flashed the potential of a franchise cornerstone. Truth be told, a lot of issues seemed to stem from the chronic indecision in the franchise, whether it was the front office acquiring goalkeepers like they’re penny stocks, or manager Martin Rennie changing tactics as though he was in an Old Navy dressing room.

VANINFOAll in all, Vancouver finished above .500 with a positive goal differential, but an awful, late-season stretch saw them win just two of twelve games, surrendering any real hopes of title contention. According to a key off-season personnel decision, Vancouver may believe the main culprit for underachieving was Rennie himself, who was relieved of his duties. Some of his lineup choices often seemed like puzzles for team beat reporters—who were constantly guessing as to who was being shifted to what position—and his apparent inability to see eye-to-eye with talented players like Darren Mattocks can’t have helped his chances at keeping the job in 2014. Regardless of the front office’s reasoning, Vancouver will return in 2014 with a new coach, and a few key faces missing. 

Vancouver’s offseason was, in a word, turbulent. First, they swung for the fences in filling their coaching vacancy by approaching former US and Egyptian national team coach Bob Bradley. They struck out on that front, but ‘Caps fans will be hoping they knocked a solid base hit with the appointment of former assistant Carl Robinson.

Then, there were a couple of ugly sagas revolving around a few players—chiefly Camilo, last season’s Golden Boot winner. Basically, Mexican club Queretaro came to an agreement for the Brazilian forward to join their club despite the fact that Camilo’s contract with Vancouver was supposed to extend through the 2014 season. The player made it clear that he planned to play in Mexico this year, so eventually a fee was agreed to compensate the Whitecaps, but they still lost their top player from last season. Finally, fans were surprised to find out that draft pick Andre Lewis had apparently already signed a contract to play for the NASL’s New York Cosmos. The team and league both eventually covered themselves by saying that an agreement was already in place for Lewis to play this season in MLS with the ‘Caps, but all in all, a boring offseason this was not.

As the 2014 season gets set to begin, Vancouver is one of just a few teams in the league that don’t appear to be as good as last year. Camilo and fullback Lee Young-Pyo are both huge losses, as they were easily two of the club’s best players last season. They did fairly well in replacing Y.P. Lee by trading for Steven Beitashour, who is probably an above-average left back in the league. However, none of this offseason’s other additions appear to have the potential to help replace Camilo’s goal-scoring ability.

That said, the Whitecaps still have a good deal of talent on their roster. Even without Camilo, their forwards include former #1 overall draft pick Omar Salgado as well as #2 overall pick Darren Mattocks. Both have had issues staying healthy and on the same page as the coaching staff, but their draft position alone should signal some of their potential. They’ve also got Kenny Miller, a long-time Scottish international who is a very good playmaker in his own right, as well as Kekuta Manneh, another young phenom who was rumored to have interest from super-clubs Chelsea and Arsenal. And that’s just the forwards!

In midfield, Nigel Reo-Coker is an absolute beast in the center of the pitch, and it was always a curiosity that he saw time at right back last season. Russell Teibert can provide some fantastic service from out wide, and Gershon Koffie and Matt Watson are both serviceable, at the very least. The defense in 2014 should get a pretty huge boost from captain Jay DeMerit’s return to health – that is, if he can maintain it for a full season. But there are no glaring holes on the backline, as Johnny Leveron and Jordan Harvey both enjoyed quiet breakout seasons last year. There is the slight oddity of Vancouver only having one goalkeeper on the roster as of this writing. I’m sure a second will be added after training camp, but David Ousted had a couple of wobbly moments last season and a trustworthy backup is likely high on the shopping list for Vancouver.

Overall, Vancouver’s a tough team to figure. Last year they probably should’ve been better than their record indicated, but is first-time head coach Carl Robinson the right man to help them reach their potential? And as other teams around them got better this offseason, the ‘Caps mostly stood around and watched people flee Vancouver. Steven Beitashour seems like he should be an adequate replacement at left back, but by watching guys like Jun-Marques Davidson, Daigo Kobayashi and Camilo walk, Vancouver guaranteed that they’ll be giving a lot of minutes to unproven and inconsistent young players like Gershon Koffie and Darren Mattocks. 

Again, this roster has the talent to stay in the fight for a playoff berth, but a lot rides on some of that talent finally stepping up and performing this season. In the brutal Western Conference, they’ll need a number of performers to make that leap if they hope to return to the postseason in 2014.

Crowdsourcing Results 

7th place in Western Conference; 89 of 404 voters ranked Vancouver 7th in the West (21.9%), and 307 felt that the Whitecaps would miss the playoffs (76.0%).

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

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

PPG-sinceMay24

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

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

For now anyway…

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

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

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

Analysis Evolved: Podcast XIV – The One Where We Talk American Value

This week we talk US National Team and look back on their group play, specifically the game against Costa Rica. We also take a look at some things that we’re glad for, and for other things…well, not so much. We also talk Jozy Altidore and American soccer players’ market values. And to conclude, we review our predictions from Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas match from last week and preview LA Galaxy at home against Vancouver. I hope you enjoy!

DC United Score Alain Rochart On The Cheap

Today, the Vancouver Whitecaps traded defender Alain Rochart, their starting left back, to DC United for a second-round selection in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft as well as an conditional pick in 2016. Vancouver gets a rough lottery ticket, a little bit of freed up cash and the United get a veteran defensive back.  It’s not specified if Vancouver will still be on the hook for Rochart’s salary, but considering the lack of return, for the basis of this work I’m going to assume that to be the case.

The trade on the peripherals seems rather odd and strikes a few questions in my mind as to why this move was even made and what EXACTLY did each team acquire.

Looking at the Swede, Alain Rochat, DC United obviously get a guy who is average positionally in the league. He’s not brilliant by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s not bad at what he does. He’s going to give you minutes; he’s given the Whitecaps back-to-back seasons of nearly 2,500 minutes. While being able to provide minutes is great, the larger issue is the quality of those minutes. How does he compare to the rest of the league?

Continue reading