Expected Goals 3.0 is here! by Matthias Kullowatz

You can check out all the updated Expected Goals stats that you're used to, but now they're based on more-detailed data, explained here

The new model thinks differently of Seattle, among other teams, so check out the team stats.

And Bradley Wright-Phillips gets really goods shots from closer to the goal than the six shot zones of version 2.0 could detect.

Bill Hamid remains king of the net, but Expected Goals 3.0 respects the work of Nick Rimando more so than version 2.0. 

Thinking about 60 points seasons by Harrison Crow

Since the start of the post shoot-out era (2000) there have been four different clubs to reach the 60 point plateau. Three of the four have done it twice. Having a look below you will see the list ordered by year with the total number of points earned  in parentheses.

-2005
  San Jose Earthquakes (64)

- 2011
  LA Galaxy (67)
  Seattle Sounders (63)

- 2012
  San Jose Earthquakes (66)
  Sporting Kansas City (63)

- 2014
  Seattle Sounders (60)
  LA Galaxy (60)

The point being is that when we talk about some of the best clubs assembled in modern MLS history we often refer back to those that have hit or surpassed the 60-point mark.

If you were to open the search up a bit wider and look for club that came close to that mark, with the intention of having just a bit of fun on this subject, there have been a total of eleven clubs, in the same time frame, that have come within a win of 60-points. Thus implying that they might be within the veil of consideration.

Those teams are:
Kansas City Wizards (57), 2000
Chicago Fire (57), 2000
New England Revolution (59), 2005
Columbus Crew (57), 2008
LA Galaxy (59), 2010
DC United (58), 2012
Real Salt Lake (57), 2012
New York Red Bulls (57), 2012
Chicago Fire (57), 2012
New York Red Bulls (59), 2013
Sporting Kansas City (58), 2013

As of today there is only one other club (DC United with 54 points) that with two games left have a chance to jump into the 60 point discussion. Now there is a possibility that happens but it is unlikely considering A) one of the game is on the road and B) they still allow buckets shots every match while still taking fewer than they give up. According to our shots data DC United doesn't have a recipe for long term success. Until they can out-shoot their opponents we'll continue to doubt them.

The real point of this all is just to bring a thought provoking question: which team of those listed above was truly the best? Personally I think the 2011 Galaxy have a good leg to stand on but the 2012 Sporting team was very, very good defensive club and I feel that sometimes gets under-appreciated. There are also the clubs of yesteryear that we forget about and/or can't quite quantify. Two examples are the 2005 San Jose Earthquakes/New England Revolution who were two VERY strong rosters with US Men's National team components. The other side of the coin is how much expansion has helped influence this achievement.

No team had earned more than 60 points until Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA were introduced into the league in 2005 and, previous to this season, no team had ever earned 60 points in a non-expansion season. So does that make some of those team accomplishment mean less, or at least weighted less impressive on the scale? Thinking to the last five seasons it has happened now five times with another seven clubs coming within a few points where prior to the 2010 season it happened once and only four clubs coming within a few points of the mark.

Maybe the 60 point mark means less now. It was once said that 60 points would assure you the Supporter Shield. But after the last five seasons the winners' average point total is above 62 points. Maybe the mark should be adjusted. With an expansion year on the horizon, is 70 out of the question?

These are all the questions in my mind and it's not to take away from the achievements of the clubs before us. Seattle and LA have both been very good this season. The Sounders are in the discussion of whether or not they're a "great team" and LA Galaxy have by far the best goal differential in league history. But the consistency with which teams continue to reach the 60 point mark may signal a new era where the number of points needed to win the Supporter's Shield continue to rise.

 

MLS Playoffs Outcomes and Probabilities by Matthias Kullowatz

There remain many races for playoff positioning—Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas for the 3-seed, the entire Eastern Conference for every seed—so let’s break all that down. Based on each team's shot rates and finishing rates, we've created some charts that show which teams are likely to finish in which seeds, followed by a summary of outcomes for the key fifth-place and Supporters’ Shield battles.

Team Playoffs1 Playoffs2 Playoffs3 Playoffs4 Playoffs5 Supporters1 Playoffs
DCU 0.983 0.015 0.002 0.000 0.000 0.000 1.000
NE 0.009 0.538 0.346 0.104 0.002 0.000 1.000
SKC 0.008 0.376 0.430 0.163 0.024 0.000 1.000
NYRB 0.000 0.060 0.139 0.407 0.394 0.000 1.000
CLB 0.000 0.011 0.083 0.326 0.569 0.000 0.990
TOR 0.000 0.000 0.000 0.000 0.010 0.000 0.010

Team Playoffs1 Playoffs2 Playoffs3 Playoffs4 Playoffs5 Supporters1 Playoffs
LA 0.504 0.496 0.000 0.000 0.000 0.504 1.000
SEA 0.496 0.504 0.000 0.000 0.000 0.496 1.000
RSL 0.000 0.000 0.691 0.309 0.000 0.000 1.000
FCD 0.000 0.000 0.309 0.672 0.019 0.000 1.000
VAN 0.000 0.000 0.000 0.019 0.686 0.000 0.705
POR 0.000 0.000 0.000 0.000 0.295 0.000 0.295
The small differences between the probabilities in this chart and those on our Playoff Push page can be attrbuted to the 95% margin of error of up to one percent due to simulation randomness.

Western Conference Hot Races

For the fifth spot in the West, Portland’s only advantage is that it would almost surely hold the tiebreaker if it comes down to that. Both teams would finish with the same number of wins—the first tiebreaker—and Portland’s +7 goal differential is currently well ahead of Vancouver’s +1 for the second tiebreaker. That said, there are still more outcomes that favor Vancouver with its one-point lead and arguably easier schedule.

Vancouver gets the 5-seed if it…

…wins both, and FC Dallas doesn’t lose both its games.

…wins and draws, and Portland doesn’t win both its games.

…wins and loses, and Portland gets fewer than four points.

…draws both, and Portland doesn’t win either of its games.

…draws and loses, and Portland manages one draw at best.

…loses both, and Portland loses both.

Vancouver gets the 4-seed if it wins both, and FC Dallas loses both of its final games.

The Supporters’ Shield features two teams that are currently tied at 60 points apiece, and will also be playing a home-and-home series to end the season. Though Seattle holds the wins tiebreaker, our model likes LA better as a team.

Seattle wins the Supporters’ Shield if it…

…wins both games.

…wins and draws.

…wins and loses.

…draws both games.

Eastern Conference Hot Races

For the fifth spot in the East, Toronto FC needs a small miracle. Toronto will make the playoffs if it wins both its games, and if Columbus also loses both of its games. Though Toronto hosts its first game against one of the East’s weakest teams, Montreal, it still needs to beat New England on the road, and Columbus would have to lose to New York and Philadelphia. While each of those things is very possible by itself, it’s a real long shot for all of them to happen.

As for the number one seed out East, it's just about wrapped up. But here's how it shakes out.

D.C. United wins the East if it gets at least one point from its final two matches.

New England wins the East if it wins both its games and DCU loses both of its games.

Sporting Kansas City wins the East if it wins both its games, DCU loses both its games, New England doesn't win both its games, and Sporting scores two more goals than DCU over those two games. Sporting may not need to score those two extra goals if its goal differential beats DCU's by more than four over the final two games. Note that it's impossible for Sporting to win twice, DCU to lose twice, and for the resulting goal differential disparity to be less than four.

The Sounder's Quiet Move by Harrison Crow

By Harrison Crow (@Harrison_Crow)

When the Sounders unveiled their USL-Pro 'mini-me' club they did something no other team in MLS has yet done. No, no, don't you go rolling your eyes. I'm not talking about the proverbial ‘democracy in sports’ line and the fact that they allowed their supporters group to buy into their new franchise. I, personally, think that's pretty cool aspect of the new venture, but it’s not the subject we’re here to talk about.

Roughly a few months ago the Sounders hired Andrew Opatkiewicz to an unknown position which was kind of vague and just implied he would have a hand in setting up the new USL Pro club. Tuesday came with the announcement of his position, which was probably a lot larger than some had expected, being appointed as the General Manager of the S2. What makes this a big deal is if you do a quick rundown through MLS clubs you'll see that there is no front office decision making types without a baseline of professional or "elite" college level experience.

Well, there is one, so I guess I told a fib. The only other club to have someone in their front office without that experience was… well, the Sounders, when they "hired(?)" Adrian Hanauer.

Hanauer was a business savvy University of Washington grad who became a managing partner of the Sounders back in 2002. He was a minority owner and after being partnered with Joe Roth through Commissioner Don Garber match making abilities—when looking for financial investors prior to the Sounders entering into MLS in 2007—Hanauer took on the Management position that he had held at the USL level.

Beyond the simplicity of being a Sounders fan and him being the team GM, there is something that has long interested me about Hanauer; his background, decision methods and approach with the Sounders and even his past investments and projects. The hiring of Opatkiewicz on the periphery plays that up even more in what seems kind of a risky and odd move that could end up being looked back upon as shrewd and cunning.

So it begs the question, who the heck is Andrew D. Opatkiewicz? Well, how about the former VP of Strategic Partnerships within Intersport, former Associated VP of Strategic Development for STATS LLC, and lastly former Head of Business Development in Americas at Prozone Sports Ltd. He's also got a Masters from the University of Washington.

I have no earthly idea who he is as a person. I don't know how he thinks and I don't have any insight to how he plans on running the Sounders USL Pro franchise. But he has a photo from the Guster Album ‘Keep it together’ as his profile header on twitter and I feel like this speaks a lot about him. Also, he wrote this little pamphlet for the MIT Sloan Sports Conference concerning Salary Allocation Strategies in MLS which was all kinds of brilliant.

Overall this is a move that I've been waiting for the last few years. A team that is interested in finding someone that thinks outside the box. An individual that doesn't have the predisposition that comes with traditional hires.

This isn’t to say that Mr. Opatkiewicz has no idea what soccer is or that he has no traditional grounding in the game. His past work experience, as well as his work with the Seattle Wolves, speak to his involvement with the game through several different mediums.

While all these presented ideas and connections are not facts concerning how he operates or exactly how he thinks or even who he is as a person, I'd like to think they are indicators of what we might expect to hear about during his tenure. And while only indicators they are still indicators that might get a person hot and bothered just thinking about the possibilities of where this might lead. His inclination to be effective through data and experience, in times past, conveying the importance that data can bring to create effective analysis and whole picture concepts are something that has by and large been a topic ignored.

As a baseball fan, I spent years watching division rivals have smart management that put them in a better position as a whole. What Jon Daniels and Billy Beane did to find ways to compete from 2008-now has been annoying and, yet, wildly interesting. The idea that an MLS team is looking at people that have an outside the norm attitude and ideas in how teams are run and constructed in MLS is, yet again, super exciting.

Don’t get me wrong, Hanauer becoming the GM of the Sounders isn't the same thing as Opatkiewicz being hired to be the S2 GM this week. S2 is only an MLS affiliate and Opatkiewicz is only being hired to run an USL Pro team which isn’t ground breaking. But consider he is being given a voice as a decision maker on some level within the organization itself, his experiences and past positions now added to the fact that he has the ear of Adrian Hanauer are all interesting points and leads a person to sit back to wonder how this will all play out over the next few years.

What is going on with Darlington Nagbe? by Harrison Crow

by Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)

I'm not the first person to bring this up, and I'm sure I won't be the last. The year that has followed Darlington Nagbe's 2013 break-out year has been a convoluted mixed bag of results. It's not as if there hasn't been success. I am probably one of the few that believes there has been success. Unfortunately, many will point out his lack of productivity in terms of goals and assists.

Looking upon the surface, it's an oddity that a guy who was a double digit goal scorer the year previous is still awaiting his first goal of the season after his team has completed 32 of 34 games. Will Parchman developed a theory at the end of August on what was/has been happening to Nagbe.

“Nagbe is moving less. That’s the crux of the issue. The reason his dip in form is so puzzling on its face is that Nagbe is largely doing the same thing he’s always done on the left – he pinches in, makes his home in that left-leaning central channel and attempts to play quick exchanges with his central midfielders and strikers.

The problem is that Nagbe isn’t doing this anywhere else right now. He isn’t dragging defenders on top of one another by pulling across the line to his right. His one-on-one moves aren’t biting as much as they were last year. And he’s largely become predictable due in no small part to his general lack of motor.”  (Will Parchman)

This is all very interesting and probably very apt observance from a tactical perspective. I think however that may be over complicating the matter. As pointed out by Shay Awosiyan back in July, the issue may be a bit of an easier solve.

“His problem this season is his unwillingness to have a crack at goal. He has less shot attempts than games played. He has only fired 18 shots and only eight have been on target. Last season he started every league game and attempted to score 62 times. Because of his ambitious approach, he found the back of the net nine times and helped create four goals.” (Shay Awosiyan)

Obviously these are two very different points of view. And while I think Will Parchman is a very smart analyst, I tend think the simplistic answer rather than the tactically inclined one is more likely. It’s not to say that Nagbe is not roaming and/or dragging defenders around less. He probably isn't and really it could explain why he is gun shy. But an important take away is that there haven’t been any real changes in the quality of the team attack of the Timbers. In fact you could make the assertion that it's improved. As by goals scored they've already passed their mark set last year, and right now it’s the third highest tally in Major League Soccer.

If the Timbers attack as a whole was struggling that may play to the idea that there is something tactically amiss with Nagbe, and that would play into faults with the attack as a whole. But that hasn’t been the case. Likewise, just chalking it up to being gun shy is also something that I'm not sure is valid. Looking at the numbers we can see that while his shot attempts are down but his shot leverage has remained the same (0.073 to 0.078) between the two years. That’s to say that he’s taking shots on average from similar placement, beyond the 18 yard box.

That could very well mean his lack of goals scored is to be attributed to lesser attempts and the absences of luck. The more shots that he takes the more likely it is that a shot finds the back of the net. With his shots being down (28 touches per shot to now 38 touches per shot) it’s minimized the opportunities and compressed the chance for luck to influence the play and explains why the ball just hasn’t found its way past the keeper.

Nagbe’s shots created per 90 minutes are relatively similar scaling only slight down from 3.5 to 3. The real key difference in the ratio being that of key passes to shots, which was at 0.7 and this season has changed to 1.3. The idea is that he’s made a change in play style becoming more of a facilitator and creator than a finisher or goal scorer. He does special things and is one of those players that has game changing talents.

I would worry less about his goals scored and more the ones he creates. It’s clear to me that his lack of goals is about luck and a change in how he influences the Timber attack than a real stumble in ability. The only concern should be that he continues to creating shots, regardless of how he goes about doing it.

Nagbe’s role with Caleb Porter's squad has been altered in some way and the only things that I am genuinely interested in knowing is whether or not that’s been done on purpose through some inherent scheme that’s changed his shot-taking responsibility, or if it’s just a byproduct of how this season has flowed and a result of early struggles that have left Nagbe less confident. Perhaps the truth is buried somewhere between these two thoughts.

Playoffs, Expectations and Polls: Western Conference by Harrison Crow

By Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)

Building off what I wrote yesterday, we’re reviewing the community survey that was conducted seven months ago before the MLS season began. We asked you, the reader, to project the final standings in each conference. It's impossible to perfectly predict a sport with so many unforeseeable injuries and transfers. A lot happens in seven months, but it’s great to look back and see how well we did and how things have changed with the benefit of hindsight.

 

Portland Timbers

Predicted: 1st
Currently: 6th

If there was a surprise in the Western Conference it was the fall of Portland. While their attack stayed potent (actually adding 0.15 expected goals scored per match), it was a sharp 0.36 increase in expected goals against that has them earning 0.2 fewer expected goals this season compared to last.

I imagine that changes along the backline are in store for this off-season. That should solve the main issue, and if they can maintain their attack efficiency one would think they’re in store for a return to form next season.

LA Galaxy

Predicted: 2nd
Currently: 2nd

They’ve been every ounce as good this year as last year, and maybe even better. They’re the best team in MLS by Expected Goals, and if it weren’t for an astonishingly slow start like EVERY OTHER year, we’re talking about a team that is beyond great. We’re talking historic. But a year that is surrounded with inconvenience and small little deterrents has prevented history from being made. That being said, with at least four points in the final two weeks, they could still be Supporter Shield champs.

Seattle Sounders FC

Predicted: 3rd
Currently: 1st

Looking back now, it's easier to say, "who would have thought that a team with Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey wouldn't be a top-2 team?" But most people were rather split on the Sounders, perhaps thinking back to their epic fall at the late stages of last season. Looking at things from that perspective, it’s not too surprising that people were rather bearish on the club now leading the way for the Supporter’s Shield.

Real Salt Lake

Predicted: 4th
Currently: 3rd

Despite losing Jason Kries, the team hasn’t lost a beat. Their attack look virtually the same as last year from a statistical standpoint, with similar goals and Expected Goals totals. This is particularly impressive since they have missed a lot of Alvaro Saborio, a key contributor last season. Their point total should be close to--and could be exactly--what it was last year. The drum just keeps on beating in Salt Lake City.

San Jose Quakes

Predicted: 5th
Currently: 8th

There was some thought after the bump the team received with Mark Watson's promotion that the Quakes would return toward their Supporters'-Shield-winning form. Obviously that hasn’t happened, and for a few reasons. Their defense has been awful, the midfield has underperformed, and Chris Wondolowski has had little help in an attack that was reshaped midseason.

The addition of Perez Garcia is going to help, and a full healthy season of both Djalo and Salinas is going to go a long way. Throw in the continued growth of Tommy Thompson, and they're a club that could very well push their way into the playoffs next season.

Colorado Rapids

Predicted: 6th
Currently: 7th

There really hasn’t been much difference overall between this year and last year when it comes to totals and production numbers. However, just a few weeks ago I suspect that would have been a bit different. The defensive injuries, mental instabilities of their goal keepers, and overall bad luck have altogether combined for a less than impressive season. But they’ve largely had a competitive season, and with both Dillion Powers and Deshorn Brown together for the foreseeable future, I can’t help but think this is a club that has a positive future ahead.

Vancouver Whitecaps

Predicted: 7th
Currently: 5th

The Whitecaps had lost one of the league's Golden Boot winners in Camilo, the organization’s top player since its inception to Major League Soccer in 2011. Not only that, but you also had rookie head coach, Carl Robinson, taking over. It was kind of expected that they would take a step back this season. Instead the team found a gem in Pedro Morales, and the growth of both Kendall Waston and Russell Tiebert has helped propel them into playoff position with two winnable games left. In fact, our model gives them a 70% chance at their second postseason berth in just four Major League seasons.

FC Dallas

Predicted: 8th
Currently: 4th

We all believe that Óscar Pareja was a talented coach. But he did more than what most thought was possible after taking the job late into the off-season. Whisking raw and speedy attackers together, he finally molded them into efficient pieces that delivered in major moments. The addition of Mario Diaz was a quick buzz for the season, but his injury created a hole that most expected Dallas to crumble into. Instead his absence was filled by the long awaited maturing of winger Fabian Castillo, who turned into a fringe MVP candidate. If all that wasn’t enough, Dallas still has a chance to snag the Western Conference third seed from RSL and skip the play-in match.

Chivas USA

Predicted 9th
Currently: 9th

Surprise! Chivas was bad this year! I have to admit this was one of my “shock” picks that I got wrong. I seriously thought the addition of Rosales, another year of Torres, and a full season of a settled Carlos Bocanegra could equate to a season of competitiveness from the franchise in complete disarray. And, to my credit, they did improve in both expected goals scored and expected goals against from 2013. But when it just leads to still being the worst team, what does it matter? This was an altogether pathetic showing once again from an organization that, as it turns out, may not play again for a few years.

Playoffs, Expectations and Polls: Eastern Conference Edition by Harrison Crow

At the beginning of the season, we took a poll. We asked you, the reader, where teams were going to finish within their respective conferences. The polls asked readers simply to rank teams first-to-last, and the results for the Eastern conference can be seen below.

We’re going to take a look back at those predictions that were made by the community and compare them to the current table and outlook of the playoffs. Maybe bring up some reasons on why teams are where they are now.

Sporting Kansas City

Predicted: 1st
Currently: 3rd

At the top of the list is none other than Sporting Kansas City, which was about the easiest-to-pick number one that there was coming off an MLS Cup victory. Their defense is near the top of all MLS, and their attack is widely considered to be one of the best with big names such as Dominic Dwyer, Graham Zusi and Benny Feilhaber.

While most people point to the defensive issues they’ve had, I believe their second half drop-off is largely attributed to their attack. They’ve now fallen to a point where their offensive expected goals sit just below the league average. 

New York Red Bulls

Predicted: 2nd
Currently: 4th

Even on our pre-season podcast, I made it known that New York was a team of which I was pretty skeptical coming into the season. However, looking at the 400 of those that voted, 89% thought they would make the playoffs, and after this past weekend’s performance, it would seem that New York is at least bound for the play-in match.

Toronto FC

Predicted: 3rd
Currently: 6th

Speaking of things that no one believed, no one could have guessed that TFC would be sitting six points out of a playoff spot with two games left. In fact, nearly identical to New York, a solid 88% of people prior to the start of the season projected them with a playoff spot.

Sure they’ve had struggles beyond your typical team with front office maneuvers, and losing Bradley and Defoe for stretches essentially left Toronto with the same squad that stunk last year. But things are very bad right now. They need a coach for the future, be that Vanney or someone else; they need stability within the roster; and most of all they need top-to-the-bottom direction and a real vision for the future of this organization, i.e., substance over slogans.

Houston Dynamo

Predicted: 4th
Currently: 7th

We all know that Houston has struggled quite mightily this season, and I’m not sure many could have predicted that. The Dynamo have scored about eight fewer than what one would expected them to score given quality and quantity of their shots, and one could only assume that those goals could have made up a seven-point differential between them and the Columbus Crew for the 5th playoff spot.

Philadelphia Union

Predicted: 5th
Currently: 7th

Philadelphia has been all over the map—both good and bad. While I’m not sure that anyone was absolutely certain that they were going to find themselves in the playoffs, their fifth position in our poll is enough to at least think they could come much closer to 50 points than 40.

New England Revolution

Predicted: 6th
Currently: 2nd

I was genuinely shocked at the lack of respect that was given to the Revolution; a young team that came to prominence on the back of their youth which had a very strong showing against Kansas City in the playoffs while on the road. Though it was close enough to be a legit question mark as to who between the Revs, Union, United and maybe even the Fire would sneak into that last spot, New England is instead pushing Sporting for being number two club out of the East.

Chicago Fire

Predicted: 7th
Currently: 9th

It’s sad to say that we saw this coming--missing the playoffs anyway. Harrison Shipp provided a huge boast when needed, but it’s hard to survive when your star player goes down for the season. Mike Magee is a huge influence on the club, and without him it’s clear Chicago has to depend on creating more chances each match rather than depend on the consistency and quality of opportunities that Magee helps to create.

D.C. United

Predicted: 8th
Currently: 1st

Our model doesn’t love them. The readers didn't love them. They don’t create a lot of chances, and they give up a lot of chances. What's happening here is that they are outperforming their xGD by 20 goals, split almost perfectly between offense and defense. Twenty goals is more than enough to explain DCU's current position, and it would seem that regression is coming. But we've been saying that for a while.

Montreal Impact

Predicted: 9th
Currently: 10th

Surprisingly everyone just about hit the nail on the head with Montreal. I’m not sure if it’s because of the significant drop off at the end of 2013, their third-worst xGD in the East last season, or if it was just because of the lack in changes to an aging team. Probably some combination of the three. Their last place position was predicted pretty accurately, and it’ll be interesting to see the changes that will be in store for the club this off-season.

Columbus Crew

Predicted: 10th
Currently: 5th

Lastly, there's Columbus. By ranking disparity, the Crew is the second biggest surprise of the 2014 season behind DCU. But a positive xGD suggests that Columbus is actually this good, which perhaps makes it the most surprising. Unless you’re me, who predicted that they would make the playoffs, and I said they would push for a top-3 spot. Honestly I’m all about the Higuain, which has become a meme on this site for the season. I consider Federico Higuain to be a top-5 player in this league, and those types of players can influence huge results. They’re likely to become last club in the conference to nail down a playoff spot, currently sitting at 98.8% playoff probability. Hat tip to Higuain and the Crew.

 

Take a sneak peak at some new Expected Goals 3.0 stats by Matthias Kullowatz

By Matthias Kullowatz (@MattyAnselmo)

We have been hard at work on Expected Goals 3.0, which utilizes more-detailed information like distance to goal and angle off center for each shot. Additionally, we have information about the passer on each shot, which has led to the creation of xAssists--a weighted version of key passes. Here are your top 19 players by the sum of xGoals and xAssists. Why 19? Because I can't count.

Name Goals xGoals G - xG Shots Available UnAst Pct KeyP Assists xAssists Cross Pct Through Pct xG + xA
Robbie Keane 19 17.36 1.64 121 6.23 0.16 51 9 8.38 0.07 0.03 25.75
Bradley Wright-Phillips 25 21.42 3.58 101 6.27 0.16 19 1 2.35 0.29 0.12 23.78
Pedro Morales 10 11.33 -1.33 95 6.89 0.42 82 9 8.54 0.02 0.00 19.88
Dominic Dwyer 21 18.05 2.95 107 6.32 0.22 17 1 1.66 0.29 0.08 19.71
Landon Donovan 10 9.13 0.87 61 6.11 0.33 104 14 10.57 0.08 0.05 19.69
Clint Dempsey 14 14.98 -0.98 109 6.54 0.28 39 7 4.35 0.07 0.04 19.32
Obafemi Martins 17 13.19 3.81 73 5.94 0.12 52 9 6.06 0.14 0.12 19.25
Diego Valeri 11 7.91 3.09 98 6.26 0.29 96 10 10.62 0.07 0.02 18.53
Thierry Henry 10 7.59 2.41 84 6.14 0.25 75 10 9.95 0.25 0.04 17.54
Federico Higuain 11 10.68 0.32 70 6.88 0.41 85 6 6.74 0.09 0.01 17.42
Deshorn Brown 10 14.58 -4.58 118 5.60 0.20 15 0 1.33 0.16 0.06 15.91
Giles Barnes 11 12.02 -1.02 105 6.29 0.15 36 5 3.64 0.18 0.06 15.67
Erick Torres 15 14.13 0.87 87 6.47 0.33 20 1 1.51 0.26 0.01 15.64
Sebastien Le Toux 12 10.13 1.87 49 6.14 0.29 39 5 5.31 0.10 0.06 15.44
Javier Morales 9 7.02 1.98 60 6.73 0.50 92 12 8.37 0.02 0.00 15.39
Gyasi Zardes 16 11.13 4.87 71 6.08 0.11 28 2 3.61 0.31 0.10 14.74
Chris Wondolowski 14 11.41 2.59 71 5.99 0.20 27 5 2.53 0.24 0.07 13.94
Lee Nguyen 15 8.01 6.99 78 6.56 0.33 65 4 5.41 0.05 0.00 13.42
Andrew Wenger 7 9.45 -2.45 62 5.48 0.16 29 4 3.90 0.18 0.06 13.36

Available: Average width of goal mouth available per shot, calculated from angle and distance.

KeyP: Key passes are passes that lead to a shot. We only count the final pass before the shot here.

CrossPct: The percentage of key passes delivered via a cross.

ThroughPct: The percentage of key passes delivered via a through ball.

xG + xA: The sum of expected goals and expected assists. 

The MVP Race (Mostly) By Numbers by Harrison Crow

by Harrison Crow (@Harrison_Crow)

**disclaimer: all numbers or references to production were mostly taken as of 9/28 and prior to the start of weekend games. There may be some slight discrepancies or things that general cause you to scratch your head, if so please direct your questions to the comment section or feel to e-mail me at harrison.m.crow [at] gmail.com**

It's that time of the season where we all dissect, argue and try to make out what the term MVP really means. Last year, I remember we had a podcast on this very subject that we talked for a good hour plus. We just ran in circles after a while because this subject is, well, subjective.

This time around I went about the whole process in a rather production based, analytical approach. That is kind of what we do around here.

As it stands there are no defensive or goalkeeping performances that stands out enough to warrant talk about an MVP candidacy. You could, I suppose, try to point to Chad Marshall or Omar Gonzalez. Both have been elite, stand on your head, defensive stalwarts. Unfortunately both stand in the shadows of their respective attacking counter parts on the other end. Scoring goals is sexy; preventing goals from being scored... not as sexy.

It also doesn't help that we don't fully understand how to account and value defensive actions.. Even our own expected goal model is good enough and yet lacking in areas. It's still likely infantile compared to what we will have at our disposal just a year or even a few years down the road.

Adding to the problem of how to take into account defensive statistics is also trying to compare the accomplishments of the keepers (such as Bill Hamid, Jon Busch and Steve Clark) to other positions. How does that compare to what guys are doing on the other end?

So with all of this in mind I went full on attack mode. I know, I know--you never go full attack mode. But it's where I went. Adding to our expected goals scored format I wanted to account for other possible means of contributing to a teams expected goals through the means of expected assists.

I used a weighted metric based upon the average leveraged shot and used that to calculate added expected goals from key passes. This bequeathed us the ultra-mega-metric of 'Expected Created Goals' or xCG.

Using xCG and taking other influential details into account such as the percentage of available minutes played, player percentage of team expected goal, shot leverage (which would basically be the location of the average shot) and assisted shot percentage, we've made an attempt to value the attacking players in MLS to find and evaluate potential MVP candidates.

Below are my top candidates, assuming I got to submit a vote in a top-10 format, like a writer in the BBWAA for the Major League Baseball MVP.

Notable omissions:

Jermaine Defoe, Striker, Toronto FC – it’s kind of a bummer that he couldn't stay healthy this year. It’s been a really promising season and his xCG per 90 alone almost put him into this discussion. The problem is that when it came down to he hasn't been the one shouldering the load. He accounts for less than a quarter of his team’s expected goals playing in just over half the games. You’re going to have to do something substantial if you’re in that situation.

Joao Plata, Striker, Real Salt Lake – Yes, we hate Real Salt Lake (our model does, anyway). It seems like at every opportunity we slight them. But Plata has been really good at converting the opportunities presented. His combination work with Morales, Gil, Grabavoy and his numerous strike partners presented highlight reels and clips for SportsCenter which all speak to his budding talent that is blossoming. But he didn't create much on his own and his xCG p90 was lower than anyone else in the top-10.

Thierry Henry, forward/midfielder/demi-god, New York Red Bulls – I tried to write him into the top-10. I don’t want to say I’m proud of that, but I really attempted to fit him in somewhere. The problem became where, where does he fit?

He is still immensely talented, we all know that. Henry is probably the best player to ever play in Major League Soccer. Yet this just wasn’t an MVP year for him. A lot of people will probably contribute the accolades of BWP to Henry, but I’m not convinced that’s fair.

Obafemi Martiners, striker, Seattle Sounders - He's does back flips... WHAT MORE CAN YOU ASK FOR?!? But seriously, outside of #Obaflips (editor's note: Harrison, you're fired), you can't ask for much more. His pass usage and what he's meant to the Sounders while Dempsey has been away has been tremendous. Unfortunately that sometimes means unselfish play takes away opportunities that would otherwise highlight the individual accomplishments.

We've only begun to get more granular with our data and at this point we're still lacking effective means of understanding passing and positioning as well with how technical ability meshes with physical ability. So while our data indicates that he's in the top-15 for xCG, I think it's fair to state that this doesn't even come close to encapsulating what Martins has done to positively influence the Sounders attack. He's been key to their ability to get by without Dempsey and those are huge boots to attempt to fill.

Benny Feilhaber, Midfielder, Sporting Kansas City – I tweeted out this past weekend why I don’t like Feilhaber, yet many analysts do. It’s the talent vs. production argument. There are plenty of guys who are more talented yet post similar, if not, sometimes, worse production numbers. Production numbers are your tangible evidence type numbers. Things that can easily tell you what they did for the team.

He’s also goes on spells of inconsistency. Kind of like Marco Pappa, Chris Rolfe, Diego Fagundez and Darlington Nagbe, just to provide some examples. All are exceedingly talented. However due to their occasional lulls, their numbers are volatile and they're often forgotten about in certain ways.

The other problem is Benny does a lot of things that aren't intrinsically valued by guys like me… at least for now. It’s very similar scenario, though to a lesser extent, with Seattle’s Brad Evans. While both bring value trying to articulate that value can be lost in translation. So they get unappreciated and undervalued by number snobs and for that I apologize.

Javier Morales, Midfielder, Real Salt Lake – I have no excuse with Morales. He’s so good and he absolutely deserves to be on this list. I’d make him an honorary 11th selection if I could. But I can’t. So that wish is just stupid. But what I can say is that he's a very good player and among the top at his position.

Comparing him with some of his peers; Morales is ranked 5th in xCG (13.79), 4th xCG per 90 minutes and 4th in total key passes (71).  It's all very good.

Lee Nguyen, Midfielder, New England Revolution – He’s had a really good season. His omission isn't taking that away. He’s just not in my top-10… maybe (probably)(highly likely) I could find room for him in the top-20 (which would make him part of the top 5% of talented players in the league) but I just couldn't do it.

Fabian Castilo, Midfielder, FC Dallas – Back in May everyone thought that Mauro Diaz would be on this list should Dallas keep up their pace to the Playoffs. However, the injury to Diaz and problems that cropped up a result opened, created the opportunity for Castillo to finally show how good he can be and it’s really good. But it’s not worthy of an MVP.

Fabian Espindola, Striker, DC United – Had it not been for Espindola at the beginning of the season who knows how it would have gone for DC. But he took over games and seemingly willed them to 3 points in situations that they needed. Had he been there for the full season he would have forced himself on to this list. However, injuries derailed what might have been his best season yet in MLS.

Sebastien Le Toux, Midfielder, Philadelphia Union: He’s a great player and a corner stone figure for the Philadelphia franchise. But as a guy who doesn't even regularly start, I just can’t justify him as MVP.

Okay, here we go. My top-10:

10. Brown, Deshorn Brown—I’m sorry were you expecting someone else?

Look up any article that’s related to the MVP race, any article—they all look a lot like mine only with less numbers—and you’re probably not going to see this Browns name. Heck, most people probably don't even consider him the best player on his own team. That begs the question how is this guy the Most Valuable Player in the entire league?

He’s on this list because of pure, unadulterated, chances… and a lot of them. The second most in all of MLS. Analysis will point to Nguyen or Plata for this spot but Brown has a larger percentage of creating his teams expected goals and adding to those chances he also has a higher shot leverage meaning he finds better looks at the goal.

Adding to all of this is the fact that he creates almost 20% of these shots on his own--which is above average for his position. Add this to his technical ability and physical tools, leads to the thought that two years ago the Rapids scored a real gem in the draft.

9. Diego Valeri is whelming, or is whelmed... err whatever. Regardless of how you put it Valeri is who we thought he is, an excellent play maker.

Valeri is a weird case of not being over hyped but not being under hyped either. He's perfectly thought of as he should be. He's an MVP candidate but not really a high end one. He's probably one of the three or four best Central Attacking midfielders playing in the states and that isn't to undercut him. The problem is there are just better people.

I remember back in Junior High School I was on a baseball team that had four guys go on to pitch in college and two of those got drafted. I wanted to be a pitcher and I was actually pretty decent. But in that context pretty decent wasn't going to get me innings or even a shot. It didn't mean I was bad, there were just better options. The coach always went out of his way to make sure I got the accolades that I deserved I just didn't get any quality time on the mound.

I feel like this is me making mention of Valeri so that someone doesn't yell at me later. Much like a parent would at my coach if their kid didn't get to pitch (and no, it wasn't either of my parents).

8. Erick Torres is the real deal, savor it.

Torres is in a weird situation where MLS can buy his contract at the end of the season from Chivas Guadalajara--except his current team Chivas USA won't exist. So where does he go from here? Rumor has both Seattle and LA extending opportunities to the young striker so it's going to be interesting to see where he falls. 

Torres is the one redeeming quality about the Goats the past two seasons. I wish there was more but there just isn't. And despite the distractions he’s been very good. Not very many 20 year olds can do what he’s doing through all the adversity to excel. He has a bigger portion of his team's expected goals than any other player in MLS this season.

7. Dom Dwyer... surprise, he's successful.

The Englishman has grown into an elite striker. A top-5 striker in MLS by my own subjective criteria; his development into a force of nature berating and hounding defenses both with and without the ball has been well documented and his loan with Orlando City, last season, has become the poster child example for the partnership between USL and MLS.

Beyond the hype, he’s been the perfect edge of the Sporting Kansas City speared attack, pushing DP Bieler to a mostly substitute role. His athletic ability and fitness make him the perfect candidate for Peter Vermes's starting XI, where team based play is paramount. Outside of those team based efforts he stands out individually with +4 goals above his expected goal tally. His 77% assisted shots shows that he’s able to create and work with others while being the preferred apex of the Sporting Kansas City attack, having been involved in 40% of Sporting's expected goals.

I think it’s a reasonable expectation to think him higher on the list due to how many goals he’s scored and the fact that if Bradley Wright-Phillips wasn't having an inhuman type year he’d be in the midst of a golden boot race. His biggest knock against is the lack of ability to create for others. He maintains the lowest key pass rate on the top-10 which, in turn, keeps him from getting higher on this list.

6. Pedro Morales: next man headed to Higuian purgatory?

There is only one other person that is as under appreciated for what he does and we'll cover him in fuller detail later. For now let's talk about the fact that if it wasn't for Pedro Morales his club would likely not be sniffing around the 5th and last playoff spot. I would even say they would be very near San Jose's position in the table if it weren't for him.

Morales has done everything without having a consistent striker. Not only has he not had a lack of assistance up top in the formation, but there is also the small detail of him having little help to create for him too. He’s had his hand in 152 total shots, second in all of MLS, and despite that has the lowest assisted shot creation of anyone in this list (or even those in the honorable mentions) at 56%.

He’s a difference maker and one that many seemingly gloss over in lieu of his regional counter parts Dempsey and Valeri. But make no mistake, he’s going to be a central piece for them in the next couple of years and I suspect he has room to get better. This should frighten both the Cascadian rivals and Western Conference foes. 

5. Landon Donovan: A farewell tour that's fair and deserved

I can't think of many guys that have retired in American sports and done so at the top of their game. Michael Jordan of course comes to mind but then he came back. Barry Sanders did it, but that's not a very good example in relation to age and career progression. If you wanted to go way back Sandy Koufax is one that may be an interesting comparison. Really, I don't know if there is another apt comparison for Donovan. A guy who is still thriving despite being in what should be the decline of his career.

LD has a combined total of 16 xCG which is fourth best in MLS. He's also leading MLS in key passes and adding to it with an incredible .138 shot leverage. It's not even that he's doing things well for a guy his age. It's that he's still a dominant figure in the league and still a superstar for MLS. Not to get all sappy on you but I, for one, am going to miss him. The tough thing about being on such a great team is that despite the fantastic performance, It's not even the best on his team.

4. Federico Higuain, the most underrated player in Major League Soccer.

I don’t recall which podcast it was but in the last month or two I declared Higuain as the best player in MLS, which I got scoffed at by my associates Matthias and Drew. Now, admittedly the thought came out a bit half-baked initially but expanding upon it I called him the most perpetually underrated and under-appreciated player in MLS. I stand by that.

There has been much ink spilled writing about the Espindola’s, Feilhaber’s and Nguyen’s of the world, but Higuain seems to be consistently overlooked. I see people pounce on the fact that he missed a couple penalty shots. Yep, none of the three aforementioned individuals would do that, simply because their “too clutch”.

Okay, put aside my condescension and mocking tone.

Higuain has the third highest xCG and the third highest percentage of his team’s xCG in all MLS. Completing the theme of three’s he’s also got the third highest shot leverage on this list. He’s viably been the sole reason that the Crew are in the position for the playoffs. As crazy as this sounds, they could even push the Revolution or Sporting back into the fourth spot should they keep up their crazy pace.

Not convinced? Think of any player you could take away from a club that would instantly not make them a playoff team. Take Higuain away from Columbus and their basically a worse version of Montreal, which is all kinds of terrifying.

3. Clint Dempsey is really good. No, like, for reals. He’s really good.

Okay, the thing about putting Dempsey up this high is trying to justify without coming across as a biased Seattle fan. I mean, most Sounders supporters I don’t think would even put him in front of Oba Martins. Soooo…. What am I doing here?

You can look at this two ways, either the World Cup hurt Dempsey in a season that is probably one of his best or it helped garner him attention that he otherwise wouldn't have gotten. Omitting his 2011-12 Fulham season, which might be considered the best season for an American ever, he’s never scored as many goals or assists in a single season. That is even more impressive when you note that he's only played 60% of available minutes for the Sounders this season, and there are still 4 games left.

Digging deeper into the stats, he has the third highest xCG p90 (.72) in MLS and in the matches that he plays has his hand in roughly 48% of all goals that are scored by the Sounders. That’s higher than any other player in MLS but one, the MVP himself.

One year ago Dempsey came into MLSand was instantly considered one of the best players in MLS (and got paid like it). This season, albeit with some sample size questions, he’s shown it. There are a lot of good players in MLS now. More now than what there was just one year ago and certainly more than there was just a few years ago. Still, Deuce stands out as a member of the 1% and top-3 players in this league.

2. Robbie Keane might be a robot.

At the age of 34 most soccer players are either in retirement or making plans for it. Robbie Keane is one of those rare and obscure cases that could easily be explained away by him being a robot. I mean who joins the 15/15 club (goals/assists, done by only two other players in MLS history) years beyond their peak? That’s rare. It’s an outlier… unless, again, he’s a robot. It would just makes sense on so many levels.

Outside of the traditional numbers; Keane is the leader in xCG (with near 19) and second in total shots created (153). He just makes everyone around him that much better. He’s Theirry Henry, only Irish and more angry.

1. Bradley Wright-Phillips is the simply the best player in the league and you can all get over it.

This seems kind of cliché. Give the guy that scores the most goals the MVP award, right? Okay, you caught me. I have a soft spot for guys that break records. But it’s not as if he hasn't done something amazing. He still had the top xG in MLS by multiple goals, the highest shot leverage of any one in MLS and edges Robbie Keane on xCG if you convert it to a per 90 minute metric.

Call it the "Theirry Henry effect" if you want. I don’t care. This guy has done legit things to legit opponents (ahem, my Seattle Sounders) and has an opportunity to break a record in his first full season in the league. That’s special. Sometimes we, as fans of a newer league in the world, become callous about these events because they've happened more recently. That doesn't make them less special. In fact, if anything, it speaks to the quality of the league and the quality of the talent the league is attracting and creating.

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So there you have it. This was my top-10... what is yours? Leave your comments and feed back in the comment section, or tweet us @analysisevolved.