2015 ASA Preview: Portland Timbers by Andrew Olsen

*xG = expected goals, xA = expected assists, xGD = expected goal differential. For more information see our xGoals by Team page.

By Drew Olsen (@drewjolsen)

The 2014 season was a disappointing one for Portland. A preseason favorite by many to win MLS cup after an impressive run to the 2013 Western Conference finals, the Timbers ultimately finished one point out of the playoff picture.

But there is reason for Timbers fans to have high hopes for 2015. After sitting dead-last in MLS eight weeks into last season, Portland found its old form. The only team that accumulated more points in the 2nd half of the season was the eventual MLS cup winning Galaxy.

Portland made big offseason moves to bolster their suspect defense, but have also endured a slate of injuries to their midfield. And Coach Caleb Porter still needs to find a way to balance the playing time and talents of his young strikers. The success or failure of the Timbers season depends on how those three issues are handled.

Defense

Since the beginning of our dataset in 2011, below are each of Portland’s expected goals against (xGA) and where that ranked in the league. A prolific offense has made the team's goal differential look respectable, but aside from the 2013 season when Donovan Ricketts won Goalkeeper of the Year, preventing goals has been a recurring struggle. 

Year GA Rank xGA Rank GD Rank xGD Rank
2011 1.39 14th 1.22 12th -0.29 15th -0.11 13th
2012 1.58 17th 1.43 15th -0.65 16th -0.18 14th
2013 0.97 2nd 1.13 3rd 0.59 1st 0.23 3rd
2014 1.49 14th 1.54 17th 0.23 8th 0.00 10th

For that reason, nearly all of Portland's offseason changes came to improve their struggling defensive corps. Step one was addition by subtraction; aging goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts was selected by Orlando in the expansion draft, fullback Michael Harrington (with his large salary) was sent to Colorado, and controversial and unpredictable centerback Pa Modou-Kah departed for the Whitecaps. While all three players had extended periods of success wearing the green and gold, each had their problems. The 37 year old Ricketts had begun to show serious signs of slowing down, Harrington had lost his starting job to the more attack-minded Jorge Villafana, and Kah was prone to inexplicable and costly mistakes.

Stepping in for Ricketts and Kah are two players that Porter hopes to build his team around. Veteran Nat Borchers was acquired in a trade with RSL and Ghanaian Adam Kwarasey (who you may remember from the first minute of the USA's the World Cup) was brought from the Swedish Allsvenskan where he won 2013 Goalkeeper of the Year.

The intentions of these signings are clear. Kwarasey is a Neuer-light style keeper; he isn't afraid to come at attackers outside his box, and is very comfortable with the ball at his feet. This style is in direct opposition to Ricketts, who rarely ventured outside the 18 yard box and preferred throwing the ball into touch rather than kicking it. Kwarasey would seem to fit much better into Porter's possession and passing focused system, allowing the team to build up from the back rather than beginning with Ricketts' booming punts.

While Kwarasey is still largely unknown, Borchers is an established MLS vet. He'll bring plenty of playoff experience to the backline, pairing with DP Liam Ridgewell in an attempt to provide some stability to a centerback pairing that has been in flux seemingly since Portland's first MLS season.

The young Alvas Powell, who already has 12 caps for Jamaica, came on strong in the second half of 2014 and will start on the right side of defense. While his defending is sometimes suspect, he has proven very effective in aiding the attack up the sidelines.

Villafana lines up on the left behind Rodney Wallace, with whom he has developed a great rapport. Like Powell, he isn't afraid to get forward, and his crosses are often things of beauty. For the first time to start a season, Portland seems to have its back four locked in place. It isn't overstating things to say that the success or failure of the Timbers' season may ride on the ability of Kwarasey and Borchers to seamlessly integrate themselves alongside Ridgewell, Powell, and Villafana.

Midfield

In front of Borchers no significant changes were made. This has been one of the top scoring teams in MLS since the arrival of Porter, and the team looks content to stick with the attacking talent it already has. When healthy, this is arguably the best midfield in the league. Unfortunately, playmaker and magician Diego Valeri is out until at least May with a torn ACL, captain Will Johnson will miss the first month of the season recovering from a broken legand Ben Zemanski, who was filling in for Johnson, tore his ACL in the timbers preseason game on Sunday. To say the Timbers' midfield is has been depleted by injury is an understatement.

But that is not to say the midfield will be a bad one. Wallace has been an elite attacking wing down the left since Porter moved him up from defense. Diego Chara can be counted on to be in the top five in MLS in both fouls and tackles, and is one of the most intelligent and underrated players in the league. Darlington Nagbe continued to progress last season despite a dip in goal-scoring (he had a career high in assists), and led all of MLS with 238 duels won. Finally, Gaston "La Gata" Fernandez has proven a capable fill-in for Valeri, and would probably be a regular starter on most MLS teams.

The question mark in the midfield will be who steps into the hole left by Johnson and Zemanski. If Porter opts not to change his formation or tactics, Jack Jewsbury or rookie Nick Besler are the closest to a like-for-like swap. But Porter has suggested in interviews he may instead switch to a single holding midfielder - Chara - which would likely move 2nd year player George Fochive or newcomer Dairon Asprilla, who has impressed in preseason, into the starting lineup.

Unlike the defense, Portland's midfield is likely to look the same at the end of 2015 as it did the end of 2014. It also is likely that a very different lineup will start game one than game thirty-four. Establishing balance for a midfield that has been ravaged by injuries will be the most challenging job for Porter to start the season.

Strikers

Adi or Urruti? Urruti or Adi?

While it is still unclear who will be providing them service from the midfield, Fanendo Adi and Maximiliano Urruti are the clear-cut choices up top. With nine goals in 24 appearances last year and a DP contract, Adi is Porter's choice to start. He is a giant 6'4", 185 pound target-man who will hold up play and work off of Fernandez and Nagbe to create chances. His 0.7 expected goals per 90 minutes put him among the likes of Alvaro Saborio, Obafemi Martins, and Bradley Wright-Phillips last year.

But Urruti is the fan favorite. His pace and flair off the bench was a big lift for the Timbers last season, and he seemed to only score important goals in close games. That was in contrast to Adi, who had four multi-goal games, but all four of those games were decided by two goals or more. Adi running up the score against Chivas just wasn't as impressive as Urruti getting winners versus the Galaxy and Red Bulls. 

These are two young (both are 24) goalscorers that many teams would clamor to acquire. For Portland to do well it will have to avoid the early-season scoring drought that dragged down the 2014 season. Rather ominously, goals have been hard to come by for the 1st team in preseason. If they want to contend for MLS Cup, Adi and Urruti will be counted on to produce.

Prognosis

Plenty of questions remain for the Timbers. Will this season emulate 2013's success or 2014's disappointment? Is the defense finally stable or will the new additions fail to fit in? Will Valeri and Johnson return to their old form when they come back from injury, or will they be slow to recover? Will Adi and Urruti score in bunches, or will they struggle to find service in the right positions? The answer to the first question will be determined by the answer to the others.

This is a team with a wide range of possibilities. If the defense is reliable, the midfield can adapt, and the attack is as expected, Portland is a dark-horse candidate for MLS Cup and the US Open Cup. If Kwarasey and the defense can't mesh, the injuries to the midfield can't be covered up, and the goals don't come, this team could just as easily finish near the bottom of a loaded Western Conference. Only time will tell.

 

2015 ASA Preview: Philadelphia Union by Andrew Olsen

*xG = expected goals, xA = expected assists, xGD = expected goal differential. For more information see our xGoals by Team page.

By Jared Young (@jaredeyoung)

It was a tale of three seasons last year for the Philadelphia Union - a 2013 offseason that saw the Union build a dream midfield quickly turned into a start that can only be labeled as the worst of times. The Union’s midfield was tasked with possession oriented play, and while that was successful the team was unable to create enough quality chances in the final third. During one early stretch, the Union actually went 419 minutes without a player scoring a goal. The first tale ended with the firing of John Hackworth and the hiring of Jim Curtin.

The second tale was the best of times. Curtin implemented a counter attacking style of play with forward Conor Casey dropping deep to collect and distribute, and resurrected Sebastian Le Toux’s season by placing him higher up on the wing. The Union flourished. In Curtin’s first twelve games the Union offense was one of the hottest in the league, averaging 1.91 goals scored per game. They inserted themselves into the playoff picture, but more importantly,  went on a fantastic run to the U.S. Open Cup Final against Seattle. The Union lost that game in extra time.

The Union never recovered from that loss. Casey and Le Toux were nursing injuries and there was no one in reserve who could take their place. Curtin inexplicably abandoned the counter attacking style that got the team’s confidence back, perhaps to compensate for the lack of forwards. The team finished the season how they started, averaging 1.0 goals scored per game and 0.8 points per game. The Union finished one position out of the playoffs but eight points clear of that goal which seemed attainable at the beginning of the campaign.

What’s changed going into the 2015 season?

The Union made significant strides in bolstering the forward position. They brought in Ligue 1 reserve forward Fernando Aristequieta to lead the attack, as well as high flier CJ Sapong from Sporting Kansas City. They also re-signed Casey. This trio should give the Union a decent threat up top.

The midfield stays largely intact with only the loss of defensive midfielder Amobi Okugo to Orlando City a serious concern. Maurice Edu, now officially transferred to the Union from Stoke City, will team with star Vincent Nogueira, top set up man Cristian Maidana (2nd in the league in key passes p90), and wingers Andrew Wenger and Sebastian Le Toux.

The defense is where things look dicey, especially if Curtin wants to revert back to a compact defensive shape. The Union lost Carlos Valdes to Nacional in Uruguay but replaced him with reserve Benfica centerback Steven Vitoria. Vitoria has only played in seven games in the last season and a half, and how well he pairs up with Ethan White, who himself only played 1,042 minutes last season, will be the key to the Union’s defensive success. The good news is they are surrounded by a solid pair of young fullbacks in Ray Gaddis and Sheanon Williams.

What the Union do well

Due to their talented midfield the Union are very efficient when it comes to creating and suppressing shots. They ranked just 14th in possession last year but were 8th overall in shots taken and 4th in fewest shots allowed. In fact, they were the best team in the league in shot efficiency when adjusted for possession. Their Total Shots Ratio (54 percent) to Possession (48 percent) ratio was just ahead of the LA Galaxy.

As mentioned earlier, the Union are best when on the counter, as they led the league in goals scored on the counter attack with seven. They are a disciplined bunch from a shot location perspective as well. Sixty percent of the Union's shots came from inside the 18 yard box, good for 3rd highest in the league.

The Union are also exceptional at signing goalkeepers. They had a young goalkeeper in Zac MacMath, who has more starts than any keeper under 24 in MLS history. They then traded up to draft Andre Blake with the first pick of the 2014 SuperDraft, and seven months later signed World Cup Algerian goalkeeper Rais MBolhi to a designated player deal. This embarrassment of riches resulted only in embarrassment for the Union and the eventual loaning of MacMath to Colorado. The Union's 3rd keeper for 2015 is recently signed USL PRO goalkeeper and rookie of the year John McCarthy. After all of the talent acquired, the goalkeeper with the least experience, McCarthy, will play meaningful minutes this season. Both Blake (Jamaica) and M’Bolhi (Algeria) are consistently called-up for duty during the international windows.

What the Union don’t do well

While the Union can limit an opponent’s shots taken, they are susceptible to deplorable breakdowns on those shots. Despite giving up the 4th fewest shots, they were 5th worst in opponents’ finishing rate. Teams scored on 12.6 percent of their shots taken. While the shot locations the Union allowed were worse than average, there was simply too much space allowed for many of the goals scored against them.

On the offensive end of the field, the Union are poor in build-up play and ineffective entering the ball into the box from the center of the field. They were often forced to play the ball wide and led the league in crosses attempted to game. And remember, that is with much lower than average possession.

The big questions to be answered in 2015

Will Curtin try to build a possession oriented team with his strong midfield and new forwards? Or will he revert back to the counter attacking strategy that was so successful for a time last year, and look to protect a new backline that will take time to gel?

Will another season together with the core midfield compensate for integrating new pieces on either end of the pitch? And did the Union do enough this offseason to keep up with the influx of stars in the east?

The Union appear to be yet again on the edge of the playoff picture. Strong performances from newcomers Aristeguieta and Vitoria would prove big for the Union’s chances. On the flip side, if Vitoria and White struggle to anchor the center of the defense, there really is no backup plan or capable backup players. 

Optimism is cautious in Unionland as they learned hard lessons last season. The talent upgrades really have only happened on the offensive end of the field, leaving the defense as the big unknown. That’s where the improvement is really needed. No playoff team allowed more than 50 goals last season and the Union allowed 51. If they can improve that number, they’ll make it to the playoffs for the second time in their six year history.

 

 

2015 ASA Preview: Houston Dynamo by Andrew Olsen

*xG = expected goals, xA = expected assists, xGD = expected goal differential. For more information see our xGoals by Team page.

By Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)

The winds of change are blowing down in Houston. Dominic Kinnear, the only manager the Houston organization had ever known, has gone back to his old stopping grounds in San Jose. In his place steps manager Owen Coyle and new Vice President/General Manager, Matt Jordan. Coyle formerly managed both the Bolton Wanderers and Wigan Athletic of the English Championship and moves from England to the land of Texas and will team with Jordan to start a new era for the Dynamo.

The hiring of Jordan is intriguing on a few different levels. The organization previously didn't have a General Manager as the duties seemed to be a cumulative set of responsibilities among Kinnear and other staff members. Specifically mentioned at the time of Jordan being hired is the purpose for him to usher in an era of data analytics for the club.

This got an eyebrow raise from some, but his credentials are legitimate. Jordan, a former MLS Goalkeeper and all-star for the Dallas Burn, graduated from Clemson with a degree in Marketing and was hired away from his Technical Director role with the Montreal Impact, where he had also previously  worked as the club's Director of Soccer Operations. This progression shows an increase in responsibility and performance within the organization, but nothing that really conveys the thought that he was someone that pushed the use of data or “outside of the box thinking”.

Moving forward, the role in hiring and bringing in outside services and consultations to really build an analytical department and use data to provide a unique and fresh decision making process is a storyline we'll be closely following over the year and, really, over the next three to five seasons. I’m honestly a bit skeptical that this is a real thing and not just a bit of lip service being paid to a market that is saturated with the idea of smart management.

Maybe that’s a bit pessimistic, but  it seems like the majority of teams still don’t even take advantage of the data license they have with Opta under the umbrella of the league offices. In fact, it’s downright shocking to me that an organization that is as penny pinching as Houston isn't using nerds with numbers to make the most of their money.

Let me step down off my soap box and let’s talk some Forever Orange.

The (new) Coach

Owen Coyle is a guy that’s shown some tactical flexibility in his time with Bolton and Wigan, often using the players he has and keeping them within the roles for which they are best suited. His time with both English clubs was more of a case of disaster management than a true push for promotion.

The question at this point surrounding Coyle is if he can make the transition to coaching in MLS versus coaching in Europe. I’m sure there are changes in both culture and tactics, and there is not much history of MLS success by managers coming from foreign leagues. That said, Matt Jordan will help alleviate confusion surrounding roster rules and Coyle is primarily responsible for what happens on the pitch, which should help minimize the distractions of MLS's rules and off-field nuances.

The Keeper

Going into just about any camp you’ll always hear a coach preach about competition. Why? Because if you have someone pushing you the belief is that you can achieve more than what you might have. The 14th and 15th century is rife with these examples; much of the artwork produced in Florentine, Italy was out of competition and rivalry between skilled artists.

Tyler Deric had a solid first half of the season by the accounts of most fans on social media and his ascension to the thrown of starting keeper looked rather secure. But after acquiring former DC backup Joe Willis, there is now an open camp competition for the job.

Still, I’d be surprised to see Deric not made the starter. According to our Expected Goals (xG) data, he saved nearly three goals that the average goalkeeper wouldn't have, all in less than half a season of play. I've preached that xG numbers for goalies this isn't necessarily a good method by which you can determined talent, but I think it can certainly validate the eye test and what many supporters already thought of Deric.

But Willis isn't a bad keeper either. While we have three years of data for Willis, it only accounts for 103 shots faced, which isn't really even a full season. If we are using roughly the same sample size to judge both Deric and Willis, it would seem Deric may be the better keeper.

The Defense

Last year was a bit rough on the defensive side. Sometimes a team's goals and shots surrendered numbers aren't as bad as they look. But last year Houston might have been one of the worst defensive teams last season, giving up roughly 1.7 expected goals per match, the most by any team in MLS, and second worst over the last four years.

The thing about MLS is that with the budgetary constraints it leave little in the way of adequate depth. Having replacement level defensive players on your bench is rarely something that happens. Instead, teams are stuck using either inexperienced players or below average MLS players.

The team settled for the later and went with rookie AJ Cochran. While Cochran was serviceable in a pinch, it was a lot of pressure to be put on a rookie. While Cochran improved as the season went on, it doesn't look like Houston is making the same mistake twice as they threw some mighty big pennies at 27-year old Catalonian centerback Raul Rodriguez, who terminated his contract with RCD Espanyol to be in Houston at the start of the season.

Rodriguez has played roughly 80 games in the Spanish first division of La Liga and has taken on some tough competition. Based off data supplied by Whoscored and Squawka, we can make an educated statement that Rodriguez was one of Espanyol's better defenders, which despite their mediocre standing in the table, is a compliment. Also, Rodriguez won nearly 60% of all headers and a bit over 60% of all his tackles in Spain, suggesting he can read the game and knows when to pounce. 

With Rodriguez almost assured at least one of the CB positions, that leaves either Jermaine Taylor or David Horst, two starting caliber MLS central defenders still on the roster from last season, to fight it out for the other position.

While the lesser athletic and technical of the two, Horst is a bully of a defender (lead Houston in total duels won, 191) and is great at clearing out the ball, winning 72% of aerial duels. However, I'm leaning towards the thought that Taylor will win the job, at least in the short term, because of his leadership, athleticism and positional awareness that might just end up meshing better with Rodriguez.

Give someone within the organization a lot of credit for some how convincing Corey Ashe to stick around, even after he was kind of tossed aside when DeMarcus Beasley arrived. While DMB is a great fullback, maybe one of the best in MLS, Ashe was no slouch and had been involved with the US 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup team. He can play either side and should the team decide to push Beasley into the midfield they have excellent depth.

Looking to the other side of the field, Kofi Sarkodie is a great right back and doesn't get the respect he deserves. Over 2871 minutes last year he delivered 24 passes that resulted in shots, 5th most for defenders and worth almost three expected assists. 

The Midfield

The deepest and most talented part of this team comes from the midfield. Ricardo Clark, Boniek Garcia, Alex Lopez, Luis Garrido, Leonel Miranda and the granddaddy Brad Davis will all expect get regular minutes from Owen Coyle. I’m leaving out Giles Barnes here being that he is something of combination of attacking midfielder and striker. But make no mistake, Barnes has been a revelation over the past two seasons by collecting 22 expected goals from 5,700 minutes and may occasionally play as an attacking midfielder.

Davis of course has the mighty boot of <insert your favorite greek god> but he’s getting on in age (33) and playing right in front of the also-aging DeMarcus Beasley could create some overload opportunities for fast opposing teams. Garrido and Clark are going to have to do some work dropping back to save Davis from running 10+ miles a match. If successful, they are going to keep a top-10 goal creator who projects for almost 9 expected assists over 2500 minutes on the field.

The Dynamo are also going to need Garcia to be more effective out wide on the right wing. In the 2013 season Garcia produced nearly seven expected assists (xA) over 1900 minutes, but the Honduran dropped down to only four xA in 2200 minutes last season, effectively doing less with more. Obviously last year was a World Cup year and playing in the summer heat in Houston is a bit more intensive than any other part of the country, but last season might be an indicator of continued decline in his play.

The Strikers

Two words: Cubo. Torres.

Torres is a top-10 goal scorer. Last year he produced the fifth highest xG* in MLS (15.20) on one of the worst teams in the league, and with no support. In the 2013 season with only 1300 minutes and on perhaps the single worst club in MLS history he managed to inch his way into top-30 expected goals scored (6.19).

Over the past two seasons, Torres has averaged more expected goals created per 90 minutes than Javier Morales, Marco Di Vaio or even Brad Davis. Creating almost four shots a game, In other words, in two MLS seasons Torres has scored 22 goals over a period when he would have expected 24. He is about finding the back of the net and does it regularly with both position and technical ability. If trends continue, he projects to score 15 goals over a 2,500 minute season.

But he's not alone. Somewhat surprisingly, Will Bruin is right there with him, projecting to also score near 15 goals over 2,500 minutes. But over the past four years Bruin has scored 35 goals, while he was expected to score 53. Finishing talent plays into that and while I am skeptical about how that talent plays into these sorts of things, it’s fair to say that Bruin has had some… well, frustrating moments.

Oh, and add all those accomplishments of Giles Barnes that I mentioned above and the maturing Jason Johnson, who has left some impressions that he could profile as a starting caliber striker in MLS in the future.

In short, Coyle is going to have some options at his disposal. Considering Torres is (probably) going to be in Mexico the first few months of the season. there will some opportunity early on in the season for one of these role players to make a name for themselves. However, the eventual pairing of both Torres and Bruin together is likely to create a lot of chances that are going to lead to plenty of goals, regardless of whether either of them are “clinical” finishers. They’re going to create both quality and quantity, which is a very scary combination.

The Summary

In 2014 Houston had a good attack, they found plenty of shots, scored plenty of goals and kept things tough against their opponents. But they easily had one of the worst defenses in MLS history last year and I can't help but think they played below their talent level, which is a weird thing to say about a Dom Kinnear team.

The team added two huge talents, a bit of depth, and they are seeking new ways to make their team better over the season. The Dynamo is going to challenge for points and position in the table. With lots of depth and a strong attack they're going to be able to stay fresh farther into the season than most MLS clubs.

I don't think it's beyond this group of players to win the Supporter Shield. That said, I think a three or four seed is more likely. I can't envision a season where they don't make the playoffs, and it would be a big disappointment for that to happen for a second year in a row.

*minimum 2500 minutes played to qualify

 

2015 ASA Preview: Toronto FC by Andrew Olsen

*xG = expected goals, xA = expected assists, xGD = expected goal differential. For more information see our xGoals by Team page.

By Jason Poon (@jasonpoon)

Some things just never seem to change: The grass is always greener, the other side of the pillow is definitely cooler and people are still speculating whether Toronto will finally make the playoffs or not. It's been eight years since Toronto entered the league and they are still the running joke of the league (besides the recently folded Chivas USA) that they will forever be the groomsmen and never the groom when it comes to MLS success. There was even a joke that I could have used the exact same preview from 2014 and just replaced a few names and just hit submit.

Even after making it rain to bring in big name talents in 2014 (a forward that shall not be named, Michael 'The General' Bradley, Gilberto, and Julio Cesar), Toronto still fell short of the playoffs. But none of that discouraged them from doing it again this past offseason, as the front office continues to embrace the "Go Big AND Go Home" model. All eyes will be on Toronto again, at least for the first few weeks of the season. They will either come true with their plans to build a successful club and fans will maintain their attention, or they'll start fizzling out by week ten and continue to be the the model team for consistent futility.

Spend Big (Again)

The biggest surprise this offseason came from Toronto managing to convince Sebastian Giovinco to come to MLS in the prime of his career. Bigger foreign names have come to these parts of the world to ply their trade, but none came at the supposed height of their powers. Exactly what TFC's front office offered Giovinco is a mystery, but my gut is telling me "unicorns and pizza with Canadian bacon."

To round things off, they also brought in some striker who can't score goals at the club level by the name of Jozy Altidore, who oddly enough seems to do just fine at the international level. They also brought in a stable veteran in Benoit Cheyrou of Marseille to pair with Bradley in the midfield. And while people are focusing on those big names, the one that will probably make or break this team is Polish international central defender Damien Perquis. TFC shipped a lot of goals in 2014, 5th worst in MLS to be exact, and bolstering their defense was a must.

The big question of course is how will all these new acquisitions adapt to playing together and to a new league simultaneously? The thing is, no one really knows. It could be anywhere from 'instant impact' to 'needed a year to adjust' and in even more extreme cases, 'complete bust'. It's really that wide open and really that unpredictable. But there is some sense of hope that at least Altidore will adjust quickly having been a product of MLS during his teenage years and that he has a reliable teammate in Bradley to consistently get him the ball. 

It's no surprise Toronto has the funds and the ownership willing to spend big for marquee signings, but the question remains whether they have the patience to let those signings settle into the league before they blow up the roster again if things go bad for the club.

The Stats

As disappointing as 2014 was for TFC after splashing the cash, there were actually quite a lot of improvements for Toronto last season. Despite finishing at a disappointing 7th place in the Eastern Conference, TFC actually set a club record of 41 points in 2014, a 12 point improvement over their abysmal 2013 campaign. On top of that, they also set a franchise record of 11 wins (granted they secured 10 wins in 2009 in 30 games as opposed to 11 wins in 34 matches for 2014). And finally, TFC also set a club record of scoring 1.29 goals per game last season, breaking their previous record of 1.23 goals per game in 2009. So while the playoffs eluded TFC yet again, at least there were marked improvements across the board.

To dive into the stats a bit more, TFC's 2014 Expected Goals For (xGF) was 1.50, which is significantly higher than their 1.29 actual GF that they were able to generate. Their xGA was 1.53 while their xGA was 1.33. Based on that, I would venture that they would do pretty well in 2015 had they kept their roster mostly intact, but since the Front Office blew up the roster again, it's hard to know whether this trajectory is sustainable or not.

The Fans

I found this the other day, and found this quote to be rather fascinating:

"If Toronto FC loses 3 consecutive matches at BMO Field in 2015, all beer sold inside the stadium on match day will be half price until next TFC victory at home."

I don't actually know if the club will come good on that when that actually happens. This was the same group that said to "write it down" that they'll make the playoffs last year, so there's not a lot of credibility here, but this does show a mark of understanding that there's a growing discontent among their supporters from the lack of on field production and results. And generally speaking, if the front office picks up on it then it's probably one to two seasons too late. 

The Toronto faithful have stood and cheered their team for nearly a decade of unprecedented failures and underachievement. Just how much more of it can they take is up in the air. I for one am curious if the supporters will renew their love and passion for the club and help push them into years of success, or will they feel that enough is enough and do a self exile, leaving BMO Field a nearly empty stadium for the first time in club history?

Prediction

I actually think the playoffs will happen for Toronto this year, but not before they endure a roller-coaster regular season filled with winning streaks followed by losing streaks. I'll also say they go past the 47 point mark this season (assuming there's no lockout) and not because Altidore or Giovinco come good as DPs, but by the sheer will and determination of a healthy Michael Bradley. Bradley's always been pegged as the one that's "not good enough" at any level for any number of reasons, yet has somehow found the way to disprove all of that nonsense. The joke's out there that TFC isn't good enough for the playoffs in 2015, and I believe that Bradley is up for the task to disprove that nonsense. 

2015 ASA Preview: Colorado Rapids by Andrew Olsen

By Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)

*xG = expected goals, xA = expected assists, xGD = expected goal differential. For more information see our xGoals by Team page.

By Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)

Looking back on a season and attempting to define it with terms as “successful,” “unsuccessful” or even “failure” is tricky business considering the fine lines between the terms, the few number of points that separate one definition from another and the amount of luck that influences results.

To a certain extent, all these terms apply to the Colorado Rapids' 2014 season.

Rapids ended last season with 32 points, good for 8th place in the Western Conference (second to last) and even finished behind defunct perennial catastrophe Chivas USA. Still, I’m not convinced last year was a “failure”. Obviously, ending a season by losing 12 of your last 14 games is a miserable end. The problem with this narrative that is that prior to their slide the Rapids were in the thick of a playoff spot and even a dark horse to steal RSL's token third seed.

Colorado's last win of the season came on July 25th and put them at 30 points in 20 matches, good for 1.5 points a game. Had the Rapids kept up with that pace through the remainder of the season, it's likely that they would have had at least the 5th seed in the MLS playoffs. Indeed, they also had an outside shot at that third place seed with four of their 12 loses coming at the hands of rivals Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas, two clubs that finished ahead of them in the playoff race.

The Coach

Second-year coach and organization icon Pablo Mastroeni's first year was a bit of a rough go for a lot of reasons. The expectations that were placed on Mastroeni from the start was likely a bit unfair to him. After a season of being team captain under Óscar Pareja, many believed he would be a like-for-like replacement.

But when we remember the years of time Mastroeni spent around the likes of Bob Bradley, Bruce Arena and of course Gary Smith, a different style comes to mind. These influences and his defensive mindset pulled the throttle back on a young run-and-gun club and instilled a more disciplined team that went from 10th in fouls committed to a team that committed the fewest in all of MLS.

Mastroeni also ran into a complex set of problems the regression of Clint Irwin, the second year slump of Chris Klute, a litany of injuries, and poor finishing that plagued their strikers, leading to the club scoring only 12 goals in their last 14 matches. These combined issues are all reasons for why the Rapids trotted out six different formations over 34 MLS matches.

Primarily deploying a two striker system in 22 out of 34 matches there was also some room for some flexibility and rumor has it Mastroeni is playing with a few new ideas. I think the gist of any positional arrangement implemented will bring the club to being true a possession-centric club with emphasis on defense and limiting oppontents' shots.

The Goalkeepers

Going into the 2014 season there was no doubt Clint Irwin was the man between the posts for Colorado. Unfortunately, Irwin was injured early and then never really seemed to recover his form after that time off. Unfortunately, Colorado didn't have much in the way of a back-up plan and Joe Nasco was forced into the line of duty. Things were never were the same after that.

This season Colorado takes advantage of the Philadelphia Union's problem of too many starting keepers and adds Zach MacMath to the equation. Our numbers haven't loved MacMath, but he's considered him average, which is still relatively good. Looking at the 423 shots at MacMath, he's allowed 136 goals, almost three more than our expected goal metrics believe he ought to have (133.28, total expected goals against).

Over four seasons allowing three additional goals isn't necessarily a lot or considered bad. As an example, last year our metrics believed that Clint Irwin allowed almost 11 more goals than he should have. However, that's not to say he's a bad keeper. Player metrics swing pretty wildly from year-to-year and while we can see the influence they have on the team for good or bad one season, it's not necessarily a barometer for talent. MacMath is a perfect example of needing more data to round out an impression of who he is and still, with four years of data, he is still evolving and getting better. It seems likely that Irwing and MacMath will compete for the starting job all year, and maybe that competition drives them each to get better. Maybe.
 

The Defenders

Press pause on my centerback thoughts and let's get to something that's near and dear to my heart, the trade of Chris Klute. He didn't have a great season in 2014, but he was still compensated far less (only $80k) than what many of his peers (roughly $140-180K) were at the same position. The club says they earned a nice chunk of allocation money from the deal so maybe it was good business, but quality MLS fullbacks are hard to come by. To properly evaluate the move we're going to need more than a single year.

The fullback situation short of Klute is one that has a lot of good answers for the Rapids; Michael Harrington comes from Portland, the booming left boot of Marc Burch is still present and Marlon Hairston has had some fun moments early in preseason. Outside of those, questions abound.

Shane O'Neil could end up as the solution in a fullback but most seem to see him as a central defender. A move isn't preposterous, but then who takes his place in central defense? Do they throw first round draftee Axel Sjöberg? There are many question marks remaining.

The only thing that isn't in question on this back defensive line is Drew Moor. Moor could probably sit down with Chad Marshall, have some beers and talk about being consistently snubbed by USMNT coaches. It also might help Matt Hedges to have a collective pool of support to tap into over the years.

Moor was considered one top centerbacks in MLS by both Squawka and WhoScored metrics last season. Even understanding that they both have their own little quirks and subtle nuances, it still provides some context to how good the numbers think he is, putting him in the same company as Aurélien Collin, Omar Gonzalez and Marshall. The only thing about Moor is that he'll miss some of the start of the season due to recovering from an ACL. It's not known when he'll return, but until he does it's going to complicate an already volatile situation.

The biggest challenge Colorado right now is undoubtedly it's defensive situation; the fact that a tactically conservative coach has so many question marks on his backline is worrisome. If my writing doesn't convey the disarrayed state this defense is in, maybe this will; James Riley, who supposedly retired this off-season, showed up on the bench in a pre-season match last weekend.

The Midfielders

The Rapids have done a good job at revamping their central midfield. After mutually parting ways with Jose Mari and his elegant deep play making abilities, then declining the option on Nick LaBrocca, the team needed to add talent and did so wonderfully by acquiring Marcelo Sarvas and Sam Cronin through a couple of trades.

Sarvas was a midfield staple for so many of those LA Galaxy Championships and despite his age looks to be the prize piece of the Rapids midfield this season for Mastroeni. But he won't be alone, as the Rapids swung another trade a few days later to nab Sam Cronin in what I presume is to pair the two together. Both Cronin and Sarvas are big at duels won and while they don't probably play traditional roles as “destroyer” or “creator” they both play solid box-to-box roles that should be upgrades at the position.

Looking out wide, one of my favorite things is when clubs take advantage of Youth Designated Player. Colorado added 21-year old left midfielder Juan Ramirez from Argentinos Juniors. Only the second ever Designated Player in club history, the question is how much playing time will be afforded to him.

The club still has Vincente Sanchez, who was featured out wide in all but four of his 12 appearances and is adored by our expected goal metrics for his near four shots per 90 he creates and where on the field they come from.

Additionally, the club has budding star Dillon Serna who, despite only turning 21 next month, has shown to be a fun wide player with his tricks, moves, and goals. The Rapids then also grabbed 23-year old midfielder Lucas Pittinari, also from Argentina. Oh, there is also Gabby Torres.

Break out 2013 Gold Cup star Gabriel Torres is still looking to find that form that once suggested that he'd be special, and this is a bit of a do or die season for him in Colorado. His performances last year make him out to be something of an average goal creator, but average doesn't seem to be what anyone in Colorado is looking for at the moment.

Once we all accepted the idea that Dillon Powers would eventually be Diego Valeri or Javier Morales, a near-elite attacking midfielder. Now that is nowhere particularly close to being true. It's partly the “he's got the body of a soccer player” reputation that goes on with him.

Yes, Power's is technically superior soccer player. Yes, he's got a supreme amount of physical gifts that are needed to succeed at the international level. But statistically he doesn't have it. He's combined for a total of 25 goals in roughly 4800 minutes. Our model has him at 17. Diego Valeri has 34 in roughly the same amount of time.

Some say he's a creator and he's not going to score a lot of goals. His shot to key pass ratio is .472 validating the thought he's going to take that pass more frequently than he's going to shoot the ball. But his shot leverage (the average location where he takes a shot) is just a touch above 10%, meaning that when he does shoot it's not really good anyways.

I'm not sinning against the US/MLS prospects gods or whatever. Powers has a lot of potential and all the right things are there, but they aren't clicking yet and they may not ever. That's okay. He's still a usable player for what the Rapids need. I wouldn't throw a tantrum if he's moved back into a deep central midfield position, where statistically he wins the ball at a very good rate.

For all the question marks that are in the defense for Colorado, there is almost a reverse question mark thing going on here. There are probably eight suitable starting candidates in the midfield with at very most five positions to fill.

It's a good problem to have, but you have to question why they are still adding to the depth and not really addressing the true issue of the roster.
 

The Strikers

Deshorn Brown or GTFO.

I'm serious. The amount of people that are talking about him slumping or not passing enough makes me feel like I'm taking crazy pills. Using a filter of a minimum of 2,500 minutes, Brown comes in 12th for players—let me reiterate that again—PLAYERS (meaning midfielder or strikers) in total expected goals per 90 minutes (p90). He's 14th overall in creating shots p90. He's basically Edson Buddle, only 24 and actually really good.

Brown gets the brunt of it from fans and pundits alike because he hasn't been good at finishing and, in fairness, you've got to score goals for them to count and influence games—I'm not such a nerd that the concept escapes me. But last year was such a weird and improbable season that I can't help but bet on him to return and return strong.

There are other available choices available up top but really I would hope that with adding Pádraig Smith they'd be smart enough just to stick with the young Jamaican at striker. Potentially, and possibly likely, Brown could teamed with either Sanchez or Torres. 20 year-old, Charles Eloundou is also a possible pairing option for Brown. He has showed promise on the training ground and played well enough over 400 minutes that supporters are interested in seeing him get minutes.

The Summary

The Rapids seem like they're on the way to getting fixed. But it won't happen without some bumps along the way. I think this season they'll score goals, but their defense isn't encouraging and their midfield is rather scatter-brained.

If Deshorn Brown has as big of a season as I think he is capable of, it may be difficult to hold onto him beyond the January 2016 transfer window. I can think of at least one or two English Championship clubs that might be interested in his talents, and I'm not sold that Colorado values all that he brings to the table.

Last season, Colorado had some up and down results. Their overall season stats aren't good and it's a legitimate question as to whether they end up finishing in last place this season. They're a team that still seems to be seeking their identity from a tactical and personnel perspective. There is a lot of talent, but without it being molded and then pointed in the right direction I'm afraid that they'll become aimless and have another season where they underachieve.

The height of their potential is probably the 4th seed in the Western Conference, but everything would have to break right for that to occur. I'm much more cynical about their organizational direction at the moment and I tend to believe that between tinkering and pressure at the early stages of the season could leave things in a house of cards situation. I'm apt to believe they are closer to a last place club than a playoff team.

2015 ASA Preview: Chicago Fire by Andrew Olsen

*xG = expected goals, xA = expected assists, xGD = expected goal differential. For more information see our xGoals by Team page.

By Mike Fotopoulos (@irishoutsider)

Frank Yallop is the sixth manager of the Chicago Fire in the past nine seasons. When you stop and look at that, it should be no surprise that the club has struggled to settle on a strategic plan, unable to rebuild the roster post-Cuauhtemoc Blanco. Most “designated player” signings have required fans to make air-quote gestures when referring to “impact players” like Federico Puppo, Sherjill MacDonald, and Juan Luis Anangono. Front office turnover and lack of strategic vision have turned the most recent versions of the Chicago Fire into the MLS’ “Three Amigos.” Sure, they put on the costumes and dance around, but those other guys are using real bullets.

While it is still officially preseason, I will be optimistic and say that is about to change. It became clear in 2014 that Yallop and technical director Brian Bliss were going to have to fully rebuild the Fire, and there were likely few players, and more importantly few contracts, that would make the cut in 2015. The two have put together one of the busiest winters in memory, implying that this season is where they start to put their mark on the club. Indications have been they would like to structure the roster around a 4-3-3 formation, and the bulk of the new additions appear to confirm this. Having an actual plan and sticking to it are reason enough to get excited.

On offense, this is a team that has struggled to consistently threaten opponents (1.2 xGF in 2014, 16th overall) and has two of its main attacking options on the shelf for the near future. Both Mike Magee and Patrick Nyarko will be coming off of injury to start the year, leaving Quincy Amarikwa as the main striker left from 2014. While Harrison and I have had lengthy discussions about his total value and upside, one thing is clear: a team cannot survive on #QuincyTime alone. The Fire have gone out and spent “DP Money” (yes, still air quotes for now) on David Accam and Kennedy Igboananike, two young attackers from the Allsvenskan. The Swedish 1st Division is a better comparison to MLS than the likes of LDU Quito, so both will be expected to add value right away, providing talent and depth to the wings. Guly do Prado comes in from Southampton as the likely center forward, aiming to play a more traditional target role at least until Magee returns.

In midfield, Shaun Maloney is now officially the Next Big Thing. He will be taking the number 10 from Nowak and Blanco and hoping to be the dynamic playmaker the Fire have been missing for the last 5 seasons. Under the radar is the addition of Michael Stephens, a local boy by way of Stabaek, and I, for one, hope he can be Mix Diskerud without the poetry or the price tag. Both Maloney and Stephens add offensive potential to a midfield that has traditionally been more defensive than creative. The defensive midfield roles have been relegated to some combination of Alex, Matt Watson, and Chris Ritter, and it appears the Fire are still looking for an upgrade if at all possible. Jeff Larentowicz would be fine here at his natural position, however the current plan is to continue his move to CB.

The Fire defense needs all the help it can get. While Sean Johnson is a fine young goalkeeper, he hasn’t been able to work miracles behind shaky backlines. Larentowicz adds experience and leadership to the backline and will likely partner with newly signed 31-year-old Adailton from Bahia. The plan is to surround the two veterans with enough young talent and hope a decent backline presents itself. Joevin Jones, Eric Gehrig, Patrick Doody, and Matt Polster join Greg Cochrane and Lovel Palmer, a group that has little experience playing together. They will have to find their feet quickly, even if the offseason seems to be geared towards bombarding on offense and hoping for the best.

Depth-wise, it is usually damning with faint praise to say this is the deepest Fire team in years. However, it might actually be true this season. MLS fans on Twitter have been pulling their hair out trying to find a role for Harry Shipp on this roster. I’m of the opinion the season is a marathon, and there will be plenty of minutes to go around. Shipp is going to get plenty of playing time to start the season and having a would-be Rookie of the Year as your 1st sub is not a terrible problem to have. The discussion itself confirms the fact that the Fire have made enough upgrades to keep most of the 2014 team on the outside looking in. This plays directly into Yallop and Bliss’ plans, creating competition for positions outside of defense, and maybe, just maybe, some honest-to-goodness rotation opportunities. At best it is a complete rebuild, at worst it is the same old Fire, flipping over the roster and doing the dance for another year.

Most importantly, however, is that this plan was fully designed and implemented in a single offseason. There should be less reliance now on the summer transfer window to salvage a playoff run. Almost half of the roster and potentially the majority of the new starting XI have been signed this winter, leaving little doubt how the technical staff has planned for 2015. If a foundation has been built this offseason it will put the club on a path it has not had after wandering for several years.

2015 ASA Preview: Montreal Impact by Harrison Crow

*xG = expected goals, xA = expected assists, xGD = expected goal differential. For more information see our xGoals by Team page.

By Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)

Last year was a long one for the Impact organization and their fans.

This off-season seemed, at least on the surface, to do very little to inspire hope and convince the supporters that this season will be any better than the last. Following the retirement of Marco Di Vaio, leading scorer over all of the franchises' three MLS seasons, they've done little to replace the star power they once had.

Making things seemingly worse, they traded another established attacking player in Felipe Martins, who was second only to Di Vaio in every goal-scoring-related category since the team joined MLS. It was a move that seemed to further disconnect the fan base from the front office, and it further complicated an uncomfortable situation that even club President Joey Saputo has acknowledged is creating an air of despondence among the fan base.

Still, while their offseason moves have paled in comparison to the flashy signings of rivals Toronto, the Blues have quietly made some capable and complementary additions. Dilly Duka and Jack McInerney were brought in last season to join the war-forged talents of Justin Mapp and Hassoun Camara, but it's the additions to the beleaguered and aging defense that will most improve the team. However unlikely the possibility seems at this stage of pre-season, Montreal has assembled a crew that has the potential to stick around and remain relevant longer than most may think.

The Coach

Head coach Frank Klopas has not been one to utilize a traditional “go-to” formation. He dropped his propensity to use a 4-4-2 in Chicago after moving North of the border, and showcased his managerial flexibility by sending out a 4-2-3-1 last season. The choice of formation seems to be an adaptation to the personnel at his disposal. Depth at central midfield, coupled with last year’s late addition of playmaker Ignacio Piatti, suggests continued use of a 4-2-3-1 or even a mutated 4-3-3 in some way in 2015.

The Goalkeepers

The Impact dropped the pricey and declining Troy Perkins in lieu of the more affordable Eric Kronberg; a good piece of business for the club despite Kronberg losing his starting position to Andy Greenbaum in Kansas City. Kronberg seemed to be the perfect player to compete with Evan Bush, the club's long-time backup, for the starting goalkeeper job.

Bush is ranked the 12th overall among US Keepers by EverybodySoccer.com and at age 28 seems primed to finally take over the starting job at an MLS club. Three years of our Expected Goals data (2012-2014) and 89 shots show bush Bush to be an average goalkeeper, allowing 27 out of an expected 27.5 goals. This suggests a potential improvement over the 34 goals allowed of 30.51 expected by Perkins last season.

The Defenders

Most would probably say the biggest move this offseason came in the form of 23-year-old attacking full back Ambroise Oyongo, a promising young member of Cameroon’s national team. However, the biggest hesitation with Oyongo is the volume of duels won (4.0 per 90 minutes, 64th among defenders with at least 18 matches played) and the low frequency in which he won them (42% win percentage). This, coupled with his turnover ratio (0.9 per 90, 126th), raises a flag on Oyongo. He has plenty of youth and physical attributes that may offset some technical deficiencies, but he needs to solve those things to prevent them from impairing his upside.

Whether Oyongo even ends up with Montreal is still very much in the air as the legitimacy of his contract with MLS is being questioned by a team in Cameroon. This appeal seems unlikely to succeed, but could delay when Oyongo starts the season with his new club.

The real offseason jewel for my money is Laurent Ciman, a 29-year old Belgian who's tallied nine caps since 2010 and a call-up as recently as 2014. His ability as a stand-up central defender will greatly improve the backline, and he comes without the cost of a designated player contract.

Bakary Soumare is the third and last newcomer to this party that I'll mention. He arrives to his third club in three years, coming off a poor season in Chicago. Despite the rough 2014 season, he is projected to start and brings league experience and athleticism.

Oyongo, Soumare and Ciman are likely join Camara on the backline, though it’s a bit of an unknown how they will fit together with Wandrille Lefèvre and Donald Toia, who was picked up via the Chivas USA dispersal draft.

All told, this isn't the same defense you've seen the last few years in Montreal. This season it’s truly upgraded with both youth and talent that could be one of the primary roots which could grow and spring the club towards a relatively successful season.

The Midfielders

The Impact revitalized their central midfield depth this off-season by adding veteran Nigel Reo-Coker through the Re-Entry draft, and dipped their toe back into the comfortable pool of Serie A, signing Marco Donadel. Both talents look to combine with designated player Piatti to give him the defensive support and transition to create goals. Piatti’s role as the primary playmaker will determine how many goals this team creates. If he can continue his end of season form, creating shots in high leverage locations, we can likely expect him to be a success. Still, that's a tall order for team whose offense has been rather inconsistent over the years.

Out wide will feature such attacking talents as Andrés “don’t call me Chris Rolfe” Romero, the ever undervalued left foot of Justin Mapp, and the project that is still Dilly Duka. All have unique talents that will be added to the club, but how that rotation will work and who starts is still up in the air.

I also wouldn't discount Blake Smith finally seeing some daylight this season, and there's a chance Maxim Tissot is used in some capacity in the midfield. as some believe he’ll be consistently selected for the 18.

The Striker

A five-man midfield implies the use of a sole striker. It seems that choice will come down to one of either Jack McInerney or newly acquired veteran Dominic Oduro getting the nod up top.

JackMac is still only 22 has plenty of upside. But let me be honest with you for a moment, I’m a huge fan of Oduro.* There are only 13 other players that over the past four years have accumulated as many expected goals (45.31) in MLS as Oduro.

It seems strange but many like to dismiss Oduro’s and his lack of eye-catching style as an MLS 1.0 player. People on twitter say things like “he’s all physical attribute no real substance” and “he’s lightening in a bottle, you just have to hope to get lucky.”

Sure, Oduro isn’t the type of striker that is going to bring you 20 goals in a season and win you MLS Cup. He can be a starting striker on an MLS playoff team and one that will still score goals; some pretty, others not so pretty. If he gets 2,500 minutes, I’d be willing to bet he’ll score more than 10 goals, looking at a combination of past years' shot placement and average shots per 90 minutes, he is estimated to net 12 goals.

A nice give and take relationship between him and McInerney must be formed. Neither striker is perfect, so Klopas would be wise to try and use both to accentuate each other’s talents and get the most out of his players. Focus the strengths of one to exploit the weaknesses of that day's opposing defense.

Additionally, there are youngsters Romario Williams, drafted out of Central Florida third overall in the MLS draft and Anthony Jackson-Hamel to serve as depth. Because of their age and lack of experience at MLS level, plus Klopas' past reluctance to play youngsters, I expect either Williams or AJ-H to end up at the USL level with the newly minted Montreal FC.

The Summary

While scoring the third fewest goals last season didn't help get the results they needed, Montreal's expected goal numbers were only just below average last season. This provides some confidence that a few good bounces may come back their way, raising their goal scoring numbers and with it their placement in the table.

The other problem in 2014 was allowing too many shots (13.4 per 90), 5th most in MLS. This, in turn, resulted in surrendering the 4th most goals (1.68 per 90), and increasing their expected goals (1.42 per 90), good for 8th most. An improved defense should help reduce those numbers, and could even push them into contention for a playoff spot, especially since the expected goals story is better than the actual goals story.

The Impact are a bit of a hard team to evaluate. It seems equally likely this season could end in disarray with everyone losing their job, or that the team could finish in the 5th or 6th seed in an MLS playoff spot. It's not very likely they finish dead last in the East again. Some happy medium between the two seems most likely.

*Harrison is rarely honest with you for longer than a moment.

2015 ASA Preview: San Jose Earthquakes by Andrew Olsen

*xG = expected goals, xA = expected assists, xGD = expected goal differential. For more information see our xGoals by Team page.

By Tom Worville (@worville)

San Jose finished bottom of the Western Conference last season and 18th overall - a very poor season by any standards. Considering they finished first in the Western Conference just two years ago (reaching the quarter-finals of both the playoffs and the open cup) this drop in form is quite remarkable. 

But, as with all new seasons there is renewed hope. Dominic Kinnear is back as head coach and San Jose have made several strong signings, reinforcing the core of the squad. They also look forward to playing in the brand new Avaya Stadium, which hosts its first game on February 28th where the Earthquakes are set to face LA Galaxy in a friendly.

Looking at the data from last season, San Jose faced the most shots per game (16.1) of all teams in both conferences. Considering the next highest was the 14.4 a game faced by FC Dallas, and the league average was 13.0 this is a very high figure. It’s evident from this data that San Jose are very open to conceding shots in games. Whether this comes down to poor positioning or defending cannot be concluded from this data - but it highlights the need to bolster the defensive side of the team.

Turning our attention to the number of shots per game, San Jose had the 4th joint lowest of all teams, averaging 11.4 shots. While this is not as bad as their shots faced last season, it does not represent much of an improvement either. It indicates the number of chances created is very low; 285 last season being the second lowest in MLS (lowest being Chivas with 216 chances created). 

To put it bluntly, San Jose were bad last year. For any decent side in any league in the world you need to restrict the number of shots that the opposition has and/or out-shoot them. San Jose did neither and their league finish reflects that. The upside is that they can probably only improve. The 2015 season is an opportunity to re-build, and effort which has begun in the offseason with a set of fairly strong roster moves.

San Jose now has three DP’s on their roster following the signing of Innocent Emeghara - adding to the incumbent duo of Chris Wondolowski and Matias Perez Garcia. Emeghara, a Swiss international, comes from Azerbaijanian side Qarabag. He joins the Quakes with a goalscoring record of roughly one goal in every three games. If he can add 10 goals to San Jose’s tally this season it would be a great return on investment for the 25 year old.

It will also be the Quakes first full season with Garcia, as he only managed to play 6 games last year after joining in the summer. It would be unwise to look at his contribution to the team in such a small sample size of games and takeaway any meaningful conclusions, but a goal, an assist and a duel win percentage of 61% are all good signs.

The other new arrivals are Leandro Barrera, Mark Sherrod, Marvell Wynne, Sanna Nyassi and Fatai Alashe, who was picked up from the 2015 Superdraft. The team lost Jason Hernandez to NYCFC in the Expansion Draft and declined the option on longtime goalkeeper Jon Busch. They traded Sam Cronin to Colorado and Yannick Djalo’s loan expired. Finally, Andy Gruenebaum decided to retire after joining San Jose from Sporting Kansas City.

From the departures, Cronin is one of the more standout names. He was with the Quakes for four seasons and played for them 140 times, scoring five goals in the process. Clearly not an attacking midfielder, Cronin predominantly plays as a defensive, box to box midfielder. His place is likely to be taken up, at least in part, by Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi. The Frenchman will be coming into his second season of American soccer with a more than capable defensive skillset. He made more tackles and interceptions than Cronin per 90 minutes, and committed fewer fouls, and received fewer yellow cards. He was tied with Cronin on 87% pass accuracy last season, but created a lot fewer chances and scored fewer goals. Evidently not an attack minded player - it will be up to Pierazzi to break up the attacks and start them from deep. 

Another important player this season is going to be Shea Salinas. The wide-man will be hoping to build on a decent year last season and potentially add a few more goals to his game. Comparing Salinas’ 2013 and 2014 seasons, he created fewer chances last year than in 2013 (2.23 vs 2.97 per 90 minutes) and scored fewer goals (0.09 vs 0.04). He also took fewer shots and made fewer assists per 90 last season compared to 2013. His pass completion rate increased from 75% to 78%, indicating he’s potentially becoming more cautious when on the ball. Hopefully, with the addition of Emeghara and a full season of Garcia in the midfield, Salinas is able to create some more chances and become more of an attacking component for his side.

Finally, I’m going to focus on San Jose’s talismanic striker Chris Wondolowski. Wondo is entering his 7th year with San Jose over two spells. He managed an excellent 14 goals in 20 games last season, building on a solid 11 in 29 the season previous. This goals p90 of 0.54 was good, but this tally represented 40% of all of San Jose’s goals last season. As much as this highlights how much of an asset he is for San Jose, you can’t help but think he’s leaned on by the team too much. If San Jose want to be a force in the Western Conference, they'll need to hope the new signings can alleviate some of the pressure. Compared to his expected goals, Wondo overscored by 2.1 goals last season. This highlights despite overscoring last season, it was only by a marginal amount. For this reason it’s unlikely that his scoring will regress at all - and I’d be very surprised to see him score under 15 goals this season if he’s fully fit. Wondo also over-assisted last season, getting 5 vs the 2.6 that the model says that he should have. 

To conclude, San Jose can’t really get as bad as last season. Fans should look forward to a strong season at their new home, with a nicely rebuilt squad and a third DP to help lift the goalscoring pressure on striker Chris Wondolowski. The departure of Sam Cronin to Colorado shouldn’t affect the team too much, as Jean Baptiste-Pierazzi is more than capable of filling the gap. Shea Salinas could also be in for a productive year, and at 28 it would be a great time to have a career season.

 

Finishing rate as a predictor of future performance by Matthias Kullowatz

By Matthias Kullowatz (@mattyanselmo)

Finishing ability can loosely be described as the efficiency with which a player or team puts the ball in the back of the net. A simple finishing metric might be goals divided by shots---in other words, a shooting percentage. The finishing metric I'll use here is goals divided by expected goals, or G/xG. Soccer nerds like me have bantered about whether or not finishing is skill, and that is still a controversial topic, but what's not controversial is how finishing rates can improve prediction models. I'll show you.

Jared pumped out an article a few weeks ago about how certain types of teams are capable of overperforming their expected goals. Jared suggested that some of it may be due to style of play. Counter-attacking teams, for example, are likely to get fewer shots, but those shots are probably of higher quality. Specificially, those shots are probably taken with more time, space, and physical momentum toward the goal than the average shot---three things not currently included in our expected goals. If this is true, then it means that finishing rate (G/xG) could be a stable metric, one that predicts future success. But not because finishing is necessarily a skill, but rather because of the influence of team style on finishing.

In fact, finishing rate is a stable predictor. Below is a smoothed curve showing the correlation between expected goal differential (xGD) in the first X games and actual goal differential in the final 34 - X games. Correlation here is the square root of the R-squared value. The red curve includes only expected goals as a predictor, and the green curve additionally includes finishing rate.

Even early on in the season, we see that the addition of finishing rate into the model helps the existing expected goals to predict future goals. Technically, this graph is showing the correlations between goal differentials, so let me break it down by goals scored and goals allowed. 

The two graphs above suggest that the entire increase in predictive correlation comes from offensive finishing rate, not defensive finishing rate allowed. I think this can probably be explained by the fact that a counter-attacking team will always be a counter-attacking team, but will not always play against a counter-attacking team. I think it's similar to the reason that pitchers find it hard to control their BABIP (Batting Average of Balls in Play). They're facing a variety of opponents, and they can't control what comes back at them. (Sorry, non baseball fans.) 

Skeptics with a good feel of linear regression may point out that any time you include more explanatory variables, the R-squared must increase. Yes, that's true, but on a case-by-case basis I also noticed that the p-value on the finishing rate coefficient became consistently significant by a team's 12th game. Some out-of-sample model diagnostics also showed that the average absolute error on predicted goal differential is less when including finishing rates, which is probably even stronger support for the usage of finishing rates.

As Jared and others have already suggested, some form of finishing rate should be included in predictive models, as well as in the general evaluation of a team. I'm just a little late to the party. I like to avoid awkwardly arriving first, anyway. 

Of Minutes and Men: A story about the importance of minutes played by Andrew Olsen

By Jared Young (@JaredEYoung)

A few miles south on the list of soccer statistics is a little number called minutes played. It doesn’t stand out much and feels more obligatory than anything. Of course we need to know how much a player plays. Then we go ahead and divide it by 90 because “per 90” puts all the players on the same scale. That’s better. Minutes played is used and brushed aside just as quickly. But I came to find out that minutes played might tell us something we didn’t know about the good teams and the bad. 

This story begins not with me trying to resurrect minutes played, but with me wondering how to understand the importance of a team’s depth. The first thing I wanted to do was to look at the distribution of minutes across a team. Is there a healthy level of minutes played for starters and for reserves?

To simplify the calculation I added up the total minutes played of the top eleven players on every MLS roster and divided that number by total minutes. It turns out about 75 percent of the total minutes played are accumulated by the eleven players on a team who played the most. The highest percentage in 2014 belonged to DC United (79 percent) while the lowest percentage belonged to the Colorado Rapids (68.5 percent).

It was natural to wonder, given DC United’s success and Colorado’s up and mostly down season, if this simple metric would at all predict, well, anything. The best thing to do when one wonders is look at the data.

While there is a fair amount of variability in the plot, there is a significant Rsquared for a metric that is pretty far from having anything to do with goals. When you draw the likely playoff line of 50 points and cut it off at the average of 75 percent an interesting thing occurs. Just 1 of 7 teams with a ratio lower than 75 percent scored 50 points or more. On the flip side, 8 of 10 teams scored 50 points or more when having a ratio of 75 percent or higher. It looks like you want to get your best players as much of the playing time as possible. The teams that simply do that have a higher percentage of success.

Of course there are other factors to consider. For example, a team with a better starting XI will be more likely to limit reserve players’ time, as the quality of the starting XI demands they play. A team with a weaker starting XI would be more prone to test reserve players as the marginal difference between players may not be that great. So the minutes played distribution could definitely be a proxy for player quality. Injuries are another factor that would drive a lower percentage and cause a team to perform more poorly. 

Nevertheless the 75% heuristic can be used to determine if a team is distributing the minutes in a productive way or if the reserve players are getting too much time (which may just be an indication that the starting players aren't all that good or are hurt more than usual).

For readers wondering if adding up eleven players is the right choice, as it is purely chosen for convenience and a desire to use roman numerals, the answer is no. It looks like how many minutes the first fifteen players play is actually most predictive of a team’s points.

Still, I like the XI player and 75 percent target as it’s easy to remember and gets most of the predictive quality. And if you didn't think there was thick cream on this milk quite yet, I’m not done. This minutes played distribution metric remains statistically significant when used in a multivariate regression with expected goals. You might think that expected goals would erase its predictive value as the variables would be correlated, but the Rsquared increases to 38 percent and the minutes played distribution has a slightly lower p-score. This metric holds up even when use in conjunction with a metric that’s closer to measuring goals which is closer to actually winning.

So minutes played has some use after all. An application for its use would be to look at last season’s minutes for a team’s starting XI and analyze how well-suited the team is to achieve at least 75 percent of the team’s total minutes (that’s 25,425 minutes in an MLS season). You could also look at a team’s reserves and see if they have enough quality to play the over 8,000 minutes they’ll likely need to play in a season. 

But even if you don’t take it that far, perhaps the next time you look at a soccer boxscore you won’t be so quick to glance past that first lonely and misunderstood statistic, minutes played.