What the heck do pass attempts tell us, anyway? by Jared Young

A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, a sport called baseball ruled American sports universe. I was obsessed with the sport myself. Every day I sat at the kitchen table and poured over the box scores in the daily paper. They were the best way of connecting to my beloved Pirates. So today, as MLS and USMNT games role in, I check out the box scores on MLSSoccer.com and Whoscored. It's a way to get a sense of the game, to connect with a game I didn't see. But what actually are these box scores telling me? As soccer analytics gets more and more reliant on data scientists for insights, I feel like the box scores are still a bit of a mystery. For example, total passes attempted - what do they tell us about a game? One MLS game this year had just 660 passes attempted combined, while another had 1,189. What should I know about such a big swing. Does it matter? Those games probably look dramatically different and my guess is fans would want to see more passing, not less. Wanting to know more about soccer box scores I decided to find out what lies behind the statistic that is total passes.

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How the Earthquakes Can Maximize their Partnership with Second Spectrum by Kevin Minkus

Two potentially paradigm-shifting events took place in the last few weeks leading up to MLS’s All-Star Game media blitz. Tens of thousands of excellent words were written about the massive trade that sent Dom Dwyer from Kansas City to Orlando (including two pieces from our very own Harrison Crow). In light of that shift, what it means for those two teams right now is almost a secondary concern compared to what it means for the league now and in the near future.

Many fewer words were written on San Jose’s only slightly less landscape-altering announcement. The Earthquakes announced a partnership with Second Spectrum, a company that provides data and analytics built around its player tracking system. Details on the exact nature of the partnership are obviously sparse, but it looks like it will make San Jose the first (I believe) club in MLS to have access to tracking data from their games. It will potentially extend to its academy. The partnership is the latest evidence that San Jose’s new GM, Jesse Fioranelli, intends to make the Quakes one of the league’s most forward-thinking teams.

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Replacing the Irreplaceable: SKC and Dom Dwyer by Harrison Crow

With Dom Dwyer sold to Orlando, Sporting Kansas City is now without their mainstay attacking option of the last four seasons. This inevitably means they need someone will need to step into the vacancy.

Dwyer had eaten 77% of available minutes at the position over the last four years. An extremely high rate for a position that that generally sees plenty of turnover among both the world and Major League Soccer. Over the last three seasons he's averaged 2652 minutes played per year.

Only 29 times over the last three years has a striker surpassed the 2,000 minute mark, and only five names aside from Dwyer (Bradley Wright-Phillips, Chris Wondolowski, David Villa, Sebastian Giovinco and Will Bruin), were able to reach the plateau more than once.

Now, as Sporting turns the page on their offense from the last four years, the question begs, who is able to step into that role? Obviously the organization already has two very young and exciting options in Latif Blessing and Diego Rubio, with maybe Soony Saad being the dark horse candidate. Another potential option in Krisztian Nemeth whom the team is rumored to be in hot pursuit.

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Kevin Molino is still very good by Harrison Crow

Two years ago I first composed a list of my top under-appreciated wide midfielders. Guys like Mike Grella, Kekuta Manneh, Patrick Nyarko, Lamar Neagle, Lloyd Sam and Sebastian Le Toux painted the top of my list. Again, no, I’ve never done work for DC United.

When sifting through some old USL numbers, which long ago went extinct due to the merger between USL and MLS, I came away enamored with Kevin Molino. He sat at the top of my list of wide midfielders and I ended up getting him for a steal in our fantasy draft that year.

It seems Molino is the type of player that in a lot of ways floats under the radar of many fans in Major League Soccer. This may be partially due to a wrecked ACL during an exhibition game in May of 2015 which ended his first season in MLS prematurely. The lost season forfeited most of the “possibly interesting” stock that was seeded him coming into the league when he had blown out the scoring and assist records in USL.

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Dom Dwyer to Orlando: what it means and what is next. by Harrison Crow

After years of chasing Dom Dwyer, Orlando City got their guy. They sent a whole helluva lot of various pieces of allocation, financials and back-end laden incentives to Kansas City for the newly minted US international striker.

Aside from Dwyer being a good striker—and we’ll get to that in a second—he has a lot of various marketing appeal to him. He went to the University of South Florida, is newly capped by the US men's national team, and still garners good feelings in Orlando from 2013 when he scored 15 goals in only 13 total appearances for the Lions while on loan. 

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The State of the USMNT Goalkeepers by Bill Reno

The latest drama to break in the American goalkeeping scene was centered squarely on Jesse Gonzalez. After a will-he-won’t-he back and forth that is only rivaled by Pam Beesly and Jim Halpert, Gonzalez has officially tied to the US Men’s National Team. The lovestory dates back to 2015, when he first played for Mexico’s U20s, then received an invite to a USMNT camp, only to drop out of the camp, admitting he was leaning towards Mexico, then ultimately switching to the US last month for his final decision.

It’s been a whirlwind for Gonzalez over the last two years but chances are he isn’t going to be competing for the starting spot until after the 2018 World Cup. Simply with his exclusion from this year’s Gold Cup roster it seems like Gonzalez’s time with the national team will start farther down the line. Hypothetically he could be a Julian Green-esque addition but for a player who has only recently started playing consistently for an MLS side, it’s most likely next cycle. Looking at the rest of the group, only a handful of goalkeepers are truly in the running for a trip to Russia.

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“Skilsinho?” Redefining what a successful dribble is. by Kevin Shank

Skill moves are one of the many great things about soccer. Watching the players twist and turn with the ball seemingly attached to their feet not only makes for fun highlight reels, but losing a defender also gives an advantage to the attacking team. As exciting as it is to see a player nutmeg another, it is equally disappointing to see him take one too many touches or misplace the following pass, squandering the effort put into the successful dribble.

As a Philadelphia Union fan, I have seen many times where Ilsinho uses his Brazilian footwork to dance around defenders, gaining the nickname “Skilsinho” from fans. Early in the 2016 season Jim Curtin lauded Ilsinho’s skills saying, “He catches the eye. He is a great 1v1 player, beat guys off the dribble which is a great skill to have.” And Curtin is not necessarily wrong since Ilsinho’s dribble success rate of 44.19% is just above the league average (43.37%) and better than the likes of players like David Villa (42.55%). So does this mean that Ilsinho is a more effective dribbler than David Villa? Well, not quite since Ilsinho often falls into that category of players I described above who will dazzle then disappoint with his footwork.

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Player Passing Efficiency in MLS 2017 by Jared Young

To anyone who's watched soccer, it's obvious that all passes are not created equal. Some are routine. Some are exceptional. The usual simple statistic that divides the completed ones by the attempted ones is missing quite a lot of context. Last year, to help solve that problem, ASA debuted a passing efficiency model designed to take into account the difficulty of the pass, similar to how expected goals is developed. Over 300,000 passes from 2015 were used to build three different models, and this year those models were calibrated to match 2017 performance. Ted Knutson over at Statsbomb just revealed a similar model build on 20,000,000 passes from Opta's dataset, which calls into question whether or not our 300,000 sample size is sufficient, but alas, all the MLS passes in the history of MLS wouldn't reach a third of that larger sample, so here we are.

This year we've broken out the model by individual player, which makes things pretty interesting because you can see how different players take different levels of risk depending on which part of the field they are on. For example, Philadelphia Union right back Keegan Rosenberry has an expected pass completion percentage of 57.9 percent in his own defensive third. His main competitor Ray Gaddis has 67.7 percent in the same area. They both have actual completion percentages near their expected level. Gaddis makes higher percentage passes when controlling the ball in a defensive position. That may not tell you which player is more effective but it does indicate that Rosenberry is more likely to send the ball up field, while Ray is going to look for a closer teammate.

Here's a link to the table with the latest results, but it also has it's own tab on our menu, titled "Player xPassing". Thanks to the work of Kevin Minkus (@KevinMinkus) and Drew Olsen (@DrewJOlsen) these stats will be updated regularly, along with all our other statistics. 

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Mapping Defensive Actions: A Spatial Analysis of Where Teams Focus Their Efforts by DMP

Every team has its own “style”. Some teams bunker, some teams high-press, some clog the middle, some work the wings. Where they defend is a major part of what defines their style. The recipe for a team’s defensive shape is one part tactics and 11 parts players on the field. Certain players seem to naturally gravitate their efforts to particular areas, be it the wing they’re assigned to, their preferred foot, their favorite partner-in-crime or how they’re instructed to approach the opposition. In the end, the action happens in consistent general areas of the field, but in complex patterns.

One could take an Opta map from any particular game and examine the defensive spatial patterns. You can see the clusters of defensive actions as well as voids where a team hardly seems to find themselves defending at all. But that’s just one game. We all know that teams are forced to adapt their style of play to their opposition, and whatever flukey circumstances played out in that game might not be totally indicative of a team’s overall style. What would really be telling is the aggregate over multiple games.

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