USMNT IN Switzerland: Beyond the Score by Andrew Olsen

By Jared Young (@jaredeyoung)

The USMNT took on Switzerland Tuesday, their 9th friendly since the World Cup, and in the process relinquished their 6th second half lead. The 1-1 draw wouldn't have been as much of a disappointment if the result didn't tell the same story about a team unable to hold a lead against top competition. The USMNT is now eleven goals against and just one goal scored in the second half of these friendlies. And that’s all I’m going to say about that. Here are three other stats to take away from the latest International weekend.

9: Is Klinsmann too conservative? Jurgen Klinsmann’s team didn't escape Europe with double digit shot attempts, as they finished with just nine. Is the team too conservative when it comes to shot selection? Three goals in nine attempts is an excellent conversion and there were a few shots that could have easily been converted, Michael Bradley’s sitter against Switzerland being the most notable. But are there too few shots taken? Consider that eight of the nine attempts were taken inside the box and even more crazy, inside the area of the spot. There was only one shot attempted from outside the 18-yard box, and that was Brek Shea’s laser goal off of a free kick. In other words, the team didn't attempt a shot outside the box in the run of play. Pause on that one for a moment.

This weekend the USMNT attempted 18.7 passes in the final third for every shot while their opponents attempted 10.8 passes in the final third per shot. Considering the US was playing a more direct style on offense that does imply they may be too picky once they get the ball in position. The results this weekend weren't terrible, especially offensively, but it does beg the question: does the US have the right shot selection balance offensively? More in part III of this post.

19.8: High energy, low team pressure. Colin Trainor has been publishing work on a metric that attempts to measure how much a team employs the high press. The metric takes opponent passes attempted in their defensive half plus about 20% of the offensive half of the field (so about 60% of the field that is the farthest away from their goal) and a team’s defensive actions in that same area. The lower the passes per defensive action, the more intense the high press. A measure of mid-single digits would indicate a consistent high pressure strategy. Here is the PPDA metric chart by team and area of the field.

You can see from the chart that Switzerland was much more aggressively defending up the pitch than the US. When the action was in the defensive end, both teams employed similar pressure. This resulted in the possession being strongly in favor of Switzerland at over 60%. The US did have high individual energy in their opponent’s offensive half but mainly that running around was just to disrupt the Switzerland offense as much as possible. The team as a whole was willing to wait to employ significant pressure. We didn't see a particularly aggressive US team this window and it makes you wonder if Klinsmann isn't perhaps going for results instead of pushing his team to be proactive like he was doing during the last World Cup cycle in these friendlies.

2: Blocked shots against UEFA teams. I now the late game defense is the big issue, but I’m not done harping on the shot selection. In this nine game stretch the USMNT has taken to the road against four European foes and have managed a 1-1-2 (W-D-L), but could easily have been 3-0-1. They did this attempting just 29 shots in the four games, an average of 7.3. The crazy stat is that only two of those shots were blocked, or just 6.9% of the total shots. A typical blocked shot percentage is roughly 25%. You can’t argue with the 17% finishing rate in those four games, but it does make you wonder the team is too picky on offense. 

Let’s do a little thought experiment to see if this trend is something that should change. Back to the latest window and games against Denmark and Switzerland. What if the US took shots as frequently as their opponents but also finished their shots at their opponents’ lower rate. The numbers would look like this:

The US would have only scored 2.6 goals had they been as selective as their opponents, and so while the sample sizes are clearly small, at least it looks from here that Klinsmann isn't too crazy.

Next up for the US is the rowdy rivalry with El Tri in what will hopefully be a Gold Cup Final preview (said by the guy living in Philly, home of the Gold Cup Final).

Year-to-year Correlations with pretty plots by Matthias Kullowatz

By Matthias Kullowatz (@mattyanselmo)

As I began constructing prediction models for this season, I was faced with the obvious problem of dealing with small sample sizes. Teams have played three or four games to this point, which isn't much to go on when trying to forecast their futures. Portland, for example, has produced the fifth-best expected goal differential in the league (xGD of +0.22), but is missing its two best midfielders. I'm skeptical that the Timbers will be able to maintain that in the coming weeks. So I'm looking to last season to help me out with the beginning of this season.

Below are some heat plots depicting the correlation of six metrics to themselves. For example, if we sum each team's goals scored in its last 10 games of the past season and correlate that to its goals scored in the first ten games of this season, we get a correlation coefficient of 0.195. The highest correlations never breached 0.60, so a "red hot" correlation in the plots is about 0.60. Each of these correlations comes from a sample of 56 teams (18 in 2011-12, 19 in 2012-13 and 2013-14).

Notes

For the most part, expected goals stabilize to a greater degree than raw goals across the off-season. 

Goals Allowed is a strange metric where the number of goals allowed in a team's last game of one season--a single game!--correlates strongly to its goals allowed during the next season. My theory is that the teams that have thrown in the towel by season's tend to play more open and are likely to allow more goals toward the end of a season. Those same teams tend not to be good--that's why they're not in the playoffs--and they continue to suck in the following season.

Expected Goal Differential shows a very strong correlation across the off-season, and I'm eager to employ some previous-season xGD data in the predictions models.

Next up, I'll look at the xGD in even gamestates across the off-season, and I'm hoping to publish those prediction models by Even Better Monday (the one after Good Friday). So be on the lookout!

USMNT at Switzerland: Roster Churn, TSR and PDO by Harrison Crow

by Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)

I have a story I'm going to share here. Please bear with me.

People that know me at work feel compelled to try and talk soccer with me. I'm not trying to be mean but I'd like to think I'm a well rounded person that I'm not so limited in talking points to just soccer, sports or numbers in general. But this was the painful conversation that was had.

Co-worker: "Denmark today, huh? I love those bright orange uniforms."

Me: *Wince* "Yep. They're a bit different."

Co-worker: "They did super well last year in the World Cup too, should be a tough match-up."

Within a span of a few sentences we covered a mishmash of a few different European countries none of which were actually Denmark. First confusing the Danes with the Netherlands, which was then confused for Switzerland.

Whatever. I'm not here to be a jerk and mock guys that get these details wrong. Actually it kind of makes my point. Outside of most soccer nerds a late loss to Denmark means relatively nothing except just that we lost, and did so in a manner that is becoming painfully redundant since the World Cup.

But, as you may hear quoted on our podcast this week, the US has circulated 43 different players over the last eight months after the World Cup. Without getting too granular into the call-ups we can simply acknowledge that they've used a lot of people. Add that to there were 41 substitutions being made during those eight matches played and I think it's fair to say that there is a bit of forming and maybe even some storming going on with this roster. 

Because of all of this roster churn, I suggest bringing a bit of skepticism when looking through those numbers that the US has posted over the last eight months.

Matt Doyle, the MLS Armchair Analyst, wrote an article following the match on Wednesday where he mentioned the idea of Total Shot Ratio (TSR) being an example of why the US hasn't been good and linked a graphic displaying how poor USMNT has been since the World Cup.

pdo-tsr.png

Total Shot Ratio is simply used to give some insight into the performance of the team and convey how dominant they are in creating attempts on goal compared to their opponents. These numbers imply that matches leading up to the World Cup the US was really doing well. Like, super well.

But to give that some context, besides saying that .440 is similar to what Sunderland produces, the US had .705 shot ratio over 30 matches prior to the World Cup and leading back to the start of 2013 against Canada. No club team I could find currently boasts a .705 shot ratio. It's crazy high.  The closest team in MLS is Columbus Crew SC with .672 and over the pond in EPL Manchester City reigns supreme with .647.

The primary issue with the US's high TSR is that it largely stems from their domination of the Gold Cup in 2013. That tournament is skewing the numbers in favor of the US which took 129 shots and limited their opponent to only 53 through six matches. If we remove that tournament it paints a bit of a more sober image.

pdo-tsr2.png

Along with their TSR, PDO dropped some too. Implying that it was perhaps the right call to remove the Gold Cup because it removed some of the luck inference, which is what PDO is there to measure, thus giving us a better and more realistic outlook. Devin Pleuler once refered to PDO as a basic proxy for luck as the statistic typically regresses back to the mean. If the mean is 1000, and in this case it is, less than that is bad and more than that is favorable... depending on your perspective. It also questions the sustainability of performances.

The US, despite dropping so many goals in the last seconds, is seen as a team that tends to float "above the line". Mostly because of the amount of goals they've scored relative to the shots they've taken. It's also about the fact they've got great keepers and their save percentage (which is kind of stupid statistic anyways) tends to float above the norm.

So what does this TSR/PDO business all mean in the end? Simply, that things could still be worse but that there is some optimism for their performance to improve in the future.

The oddest thing about this whole thing is the disparity and complete drop-off of  performance following the World Cup. I'm still waiting not convinced that we can take these numbers too serious  until more research can be done about post-World Cup friendlies in general and identify some of the pitfalls of international roster churn in general.

Might I then suggest a new method for watching the game, and something that I'm going to attempt to put into practice myself, follow individual performances. I know this isn't revolutionary and I'm sure most do this anyways. But seriously watch. The following things are checklist items for myself.

  • How many touches does Jozy Altidore get and how many become shots?

The fact is that I've been super unimpressed with how many shots he's actually creating. Looking strictly at the ones he taken, he's had nine shots in 646 minutes according to my home work. This is not good and he's not going to continue finishing shots like the one linked below, it's just not likely.

 

  • Who is winning the duels on this team?

During the World Cup Jermaine Jones, like him, love him or hate him--with help of Kyle Beckerman--stole everything that was loose on the field. Who will be heirs to their thrown?

  • Who is putting passes to boots and creating shots?

I already mentioned my heartburn with Jozy, but the thing is he doesn't have to do all the work. He just has to get into high leverage positions (which he does REALLY well) and then take the shot (which he doesn't do very well). The question is who gets him the ball in these positions. Who is putting passes into the box or running with the ball at their feet dribbling past defenders?

I mentioned last week that Clint Dempsey isn't going to be around much longer. I personally would be surprised if he's on the next World Cup roster. He's a phenomenal player but what makes him so great is that the US has no other player like him in the talent pool. He creates shots, he takes shots and he's an incorrigible enigma. We won't find another like him but we need to find a way to supplement those shots he's creates.

Looking at any of these three things none jump out as being "wow that's it!". Their all actually things people have problem commented about before and even prior to the World Cup. Whatever, I'm cool with not being unique. These items still matter.

Switzerland themselves is ranked 16th overall by Nate Silver's Soccer Power Index and sits just one spot above the USMNT in ELO ratings. Suffice to say this is a team that is pretty equal in quality at full strength. But the reality is that the US isn't at full strength, so what does it matter if Switzerland is or not either?

I dare you to suspend the idea of results for at least until the Gold Cup. They don't matter anyways. Let's just enjoy being indoctrinated to some young and exciting talent. If after the Gold Cup the US doesn't have an auto bid to the Confederations Cup, then I think we can become legitimately frustrated and/or a bit worried about the future of the national team.
But for now let's just enjoy this.

The Weekend Kickoff: No International Break for the Wicked by Harrison Crow

by Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)

While most of the rest of the world breaks for a couple of weeks due to the FIFA international schedule, Major League Soccer, like many of their officiants, play on through. This gives an obvious advantage to those teams who either don't have internationals selected for this break or, as is rarely the case in MLS, have the depth to combat those missing in action.

Taylor Twellman's thought about the possibility of both Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley each missing as many as eight potential matches for Toronto FC due to FIFA/MLS scheduling conflicts shatters the thought of this being just a passing issue. As a whole, MLS looks to have as many as 57 players selected to represent their country. I don't think anyone wants to make light of the honor of playing for your country, but it's obvious that this issue is only going to be more pronounced and compounded by the fact that so many internationals are returning to the states, and the talent in MLS continues to improve.

There are a lot of other numbers that can be extrapolated from 57 players leaving their teams and venturing out for the opportunity of representing their country. But rather than focusing on the absences, lets focus on those who are sticking around. 

The Weekend Matchups:

Numbers in parentheses are expected goals in even game state.

Saturday:

San Jose Earthquakes (-0.26) @ New England (-0.17)
It's kind of funny; SJ has been the "surprise" and New England has been the "disappointment" and yet they're very tight on expected goal differential in even game states. Based off the talent levels I would expect that New England has missed a few pieces and has maybe been unlucky, while SJ is probably on the other end and has gotten lucky more often than not. Time will tell.  Prediction: DRAW

Orlando City Soccer Club (0.10) @ Montreal Impact (-0.73)
Sure, OCSC hasn't been very good at finishing the chances they've been given, but they still have one of the elite players in the league in Kaka while Montreal is fishing to find some consistency. Both teams are missing some key individuals. Prediction: DRAW

Sporting Kansas City (0.97) @ New York City FC (-0.10)
With all eyes turned to the big cities and bright lights (LA, Seattle, New York), Kansas City is very quietly putting together some interesting numbers. KC is first in expected goals differential in even game states and third in expected goals, lending to the idea that SKC might be returning to their dominating ways. That said, both NYC and SKC are in the top four in expected goals created. I think this could be a really good game to watch this weekend. Prediction: SKC

LA Galaxy (0.19) @ DC United (-0.14)
LA has yet to really look like LA this season. But it always seems to take them a month or two before they start caring about the season. DC United didn't look good away at New York, and even with this being a home match, I expect they will struggle. Prediction: DRAW

New York Red Bulls (-1.14) @ Columbus Crew SC (0.85)
I almost feel as if I should call Crew SC a surprise team, but they're not. A very strong season last year has lead to them to building off that and creating a roster that's both fiscally affordable and full of depth. The other side of this is the Red Bulls have seemed like they're maybe almost still a good team. I love that midfield with Dax McCarty, Lloyd Sam and Felipe Martins, and with BWP still putting away shots up top. The problem is that the Red Bulls are in the negative for expected goals differential, suggesting that maybe their defense isn't as good as what it has seemed to this point of the season... or maybe it's still trying to catch up from two disappointing games. I'm not sure at this point. Prediction: Crew SC

Portland Timbers FC (0.52) @ Vancouver Whitecaps (0.41)

Both these teams are depleted; Vancouver with international absences and Manneh's suspension, Portland with injuries to three of their top four central midfielders. Still, both teams have some dynamic pieces available and have strung together a few really strong performances. But this might be the best Vancouver Whitecaps team that we've seen in MLS and it's possible they may just end up doing more than being a fifth or sixth seed this season. Prediction: VANCOUVER

Colorado Rapids (-0.54) @ Houston Dynamo (-0.41)
Neither of these clubs have been good, but both have seen their share of luck. The difference is that Houston has seen mostly good luck whereas the Rapids have seen a rather mixed bag. Prediction: DRAW

Seattle Sounders FC (0.13) @ FC Dallas (0.56)
I had a really great conversation with an FC Dallas fan the other day who felt that I really slighted Dallas because I've been a bit concerned with their defense and card propensity. Their defense is probably a bit overrated but still very good and their attack, while having been good to this point, I don't think has really even gotten started yet--implying I think they probably are going to get better. Conversely, the Sounders are missing pieces, specifically Dempsey, and had a midweek friendly at home against Club Tijuana. Prediction: FC DALLAS

Sunday

Philadelphia Union (0.97) @ Chicago Fire(-1.05)
Our metrics don't seem to think the Fire are as bad as a team as most would think. But that doesn't mean they're especially good. Philly has yet to really have the hallelujah moment, but our numbers think of them as possibly the second best team in the league. This could lead to a Kentucky v. West Virginia moment if there was one. Prediction: PHILLY

Toronto FC (-0.66) @ Real Salt Lake (-0.97)
No Jozy, no Bradley, no Rimando, no Saborio. This game is the let down of the week. It should be fantastic and yet this match-up will be a bit sobering and probably a bit boring. Prediction: DRAW

USMNT at Denmark: Beyond the score by Matthias Kullowatz

By Jared Young (@jaredeyoung)

These three statistics help tell the story behind the latest USMNT result, and look beyond for big trends.

+7, -10. Those numbers represent the USMNT’s goal differential since the World Cup, split up by the first half and second half, respectively. A dominant first half has typically been followed by a more tragic second half coming out of the locker room. It’s well noted that the USMNT second-half defense is being criticized, but did you know that Johannsson’s second half goal against Denmark was the first goal the US team has scored in the second half since the World Cup? The late slump is not just a defensive concern.

Part of the issue could be that Klinsmann is playing less experienced players in the second half. That is somewhat true. Players who were on the World Cup roster have played 75 percent of all of the first half minutes. That number drops to 62 percent in the second half. But that overall percentage isn’t as experimental as it seems. The World Cup players have a strong presence, regardless of the half.

20.4%. The USMNT only squeezed off four shots against Denmark but managed to score on two of them. That extreme efficiency has been the trend more recently, and the World Cup players specifically have been blistering since July. Led by Jozy Altidore and his 44-percent finishing rate, the players on the World Cup roster have scored on 20.4 percent of the shots taken since the big tournament. Compare that to the 4.3 percent finishing rate of the new players on the team.

60%. (We’ll get to what this number stands for in a bit) I’m sorta kinda from New Jersey, and so is Alejandro Bedoya, so I’m probably supposed to root for him. But his persistent presence on the pitch for the USMNT continues to bother me. First, let’s talk about what I appreciate from Bedoya, and it’s well documented. His work rate is exceptional and his positioning is first rate. He’s a defensive minded midfielder that will do the dirty work and doesn’t look for the limelight. His defensive work against Denmark was critical in the first half as he sat deep enough to assist an otherwise sloppy back four. My trouble with him is that, from a playmaking point of view, he offers very little. And the US can’t afford to have players like Alejandro Bedoya play in the World Cup. For me, Bedoya is a stark reminder of the limitations of the team. As long as he is playing, I worry the US is not progressing as much as they need to during this cycle. The US struggled mightily to generate offense on the wings in the World Cup, and they simply have to upgrade that area to be a global force.

Bedoya is third on the team in minutes played since the World Cup with 409 minutes, behind only Mix Diskerud and Jozy Altidore. In the recent match against Denmark he was moved to the center of the midfield, where he typically plays at Nantes and where his lack of playmaking can be better hidden. So where does the 60 percent number come from?  That was the percent of Bedoya’s passes that were backward in the match. A typical team will pass 20-25 percent of their passes backward over the course of the game, and for a deep lying player 60 percent is way too much. Tack on the fact that the US was ceding possession and would have benefited from a more direct approach, and Bedoya’s backwards passing tendency becomes more of a glaring issue. Sorry my Jersey breathren, I’m looking for more in Russia.

To sum it up: The USMNT comes out extremely red hot in the first half, and somehow flips to an even more extreme cold in the second half, and that is what has everyone concerned. Experimentation is part of the problem, but protecting leads should be the key focus until it gets fixed. The players who played in the World Cup are very efficient right now in scoring goals, converting over 20 percent of their shots, while the newcomers are struggling in front of the net. I’ve also got my eye on Bedoya and I’m looking to see who is going to pass him on the depth chart, either on the wing or now at central midfield.

 

USMNT Match (Friendly) Preview: US vs. Denmark by Harrison Crow

by Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)

I could spend about 2,000 words attempting to express my disdain for MLSsoccer.com's website changes and their "cleaning up" of the chalkboard data from previous years. It's not enough to take it down from MLS matches, they're also doing it for all international games too. Which, frankly sucks. Because all the cool things that I would attempt to do in a preview is now pretty limited.

Let's talk about things that are somewhat relevant to this match and being that things are about to get pretty random, let's bulletize it.

 

  • Denmark has an ELO of 1734, ranking them 28th in the world according to ELO.net

The US has played 10 matches against foes with an ELO between 1700 and 1800 in the last 24 months. The most closely comparable according to their scores and rank was Azerbaijan whom the Yanks played just before the World Cup. The US dominated on shots with a 21-9 advantage with 11 of those 21 coming from inside the 18. Not sure if that gives us any real insight to Denmark but it's an interesting thought.

  • If you haven't heard, some Danish magazine is trying to facilitate the nickname of 'Lord' Nicklas Bendtner into actually being just that by purchasing land in his name.

This is just weird and I only wanted to make mention of it rather than actually dedicate a paragraph to it. Europeans are weird.

  • Aside from Nick Rimando who is 35, Clint Dempsey is the oldest field player called into this team at 32.

Yes, Dempsey was injured and won't be out on the pitch but I have been wanting to write about Clint Dempsey and his greatness in relation to the USMNT and that opportunity will not continue to evade me.

Dempsey won't be around forever. Donovan's retirement from MLS and Beasley's retirement from international duty is a nasty foreboding little balloon tied around Deuce's wrist reminding me of the inevitability of his departure. Enjoy him while he lasts, America.

  • Watch out for Christian Eriksen; he'll be the best player on the pitch against the US

Sick nutmeg


Sick free kick

And sick little fancy pass...

Eriksen3.gif

Eriksen is a walking highlight package that doesn't just make fantastic plays that are exciting and fun, they translate to meaningful events on the pitch. Squawka ranks him as a top-10 player by their unique brand of rankings and is fixed in the top-five in key passes, shots created, and shots taken.


----

Denmark is a weird and rather confusing team. On one hand they're not a top European team and they sit rather mediocre on the world scale. However, they have a world class player that is just coming into his prime and posses all the pieces to make the rest of Europe rather uncomfortable. They might not be highly rated but they've got the right pieces to accent the inherent flaws within the US system as it stands.

Dempsey being gone complicates things and maybe forces Jurgen Klinsmann's hand, previewing off how this roster may look in two years. I'm not going to try and "guess" at a starting line-up because that's stupid (and I would fail miserably). Maybe he goes with one striker, maybe he goes with two. Maybe he goes with Yedlin in an attacking position, maybe Gyasi Zardes starts out wide again. The possibilities are many, and your ideas about who he sends out are as good as mine.

The only three things that I want see are:

- Denmark with less than five shots inside the 18 yard box.

- The USMNT with more than five shots inside the 18 yard box.

- The USMNT beating Denmark in shot ratio.

Call me stat obsessed, call me single-minded, call me naive. I believe these things matter and will go a long way to helping the US become a better team. Not to mention it'll also giving us some positive indicators that this might actually be a competent club both in attacking and on the defensive side of the ball.

We find out at 3pm Eastern Time.

The State of the Men's National Soccer Team: An ELO story by Harrison Crow

by Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)

Based on recent results, it’s not surprising that the US Men’s National Team has dropped in the FIFA World Rankings. There were a lot of reasons to expect it, and to act surprised is bit like thinking Sarah Chalke will ever find another sustainable leading role or for Fox to be patient in the ratings game (sorry on both accounts, Backstrom fans). Sure it’s a bit disappointing (back to the USMNT), and you want to see them continue to do well. But to be shocked about it, or to act as if it’s the downturn of the organization, is a bit melodramatic.

If you look at the last two years of US soccer through the eyes of ELO, it helps give us context for the "rise and fall" of the USMNT. Much of their ELO was fueled by an extremely strong finish to their World Cup qualifying, winning the 2013 Gold cup, a win against Ghana, and then a tie with Portugal in the World Cup. Altogether it saw them boost their point total from a measly 1730 in late March 2013 to peak at 1859 just before their loss to Germany in the World Cup group stage a year and change later.

Since being knocked out of the World Cup, the US has felt the frustration of five defeats in seven matches. Despite the eyesore on the field, the team has only lost six spots and 34 points according to ELO. This may not cool off the men and women armed with pitchforks and a general narrative about pandemonium in the USMNT, but it should ease our minds a little. And that drop has as much to do with other teams’ performances as it does with the US performance. Good runs from Croatia, Mexico, Belgium and Costa Rica over the past year have helped to push the US down the rankings.

For some variety in numbers, we also have the Soccer Power Index (SPI )—created by FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver—where you’ll spot the US ranked 22nd overall with 1.99 expected goals for and 0.96 expected goals against. These figures are extremely similar to the USMNT’s 2.00 expected goals for and 1.00 expected goals against during the World Cup, indicating that this year’s results are not some ominous cloud hanging over our boys, foreshadowing future ruin.

I would expect that with this pair of international matches against Denmark and Switzerland you'll start seeing more of the team that we saw just prior to the World Cup, and with a good Gold Cup performance, they'll be back in a very strong world position.

The Weekend Kickoff: Philadelphia vs FC Dallas by Harrison Crow

by Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)

Are you ready for the weekend? Time to finish up those reports, take out the trash at your desk, and start up the stream. I'm not about to start singing Rebecca Black but I am super excited about MLS having Friday night matches. Let's talk a little bit about the game tonight and then what's on tap for the rest of the weekend.

The Burn go to Chester in a match-up of two teams that seem to always be underrated by journalists and pundits alike. The Union hope to be fitted for their glass slippers while Dallas looks to graduate from their carriage turning into a pumpkin. Grab some popcorn; this should be a good one.

 

 

Philadelphia Union:

The Union are a team that has a national narrative that seems to constantly skew towards being them being average rather than a club that seems one or two steps away from being a top club in the East. Just always a shot short defensively or on the attack.

A team that is lead by the veteran prowess of Sebastian Le Toux, the tenacity of Conor Casey and the quiet Cristian Maidana, this is a team that has no superstars but may have a budding one in Venezuelan Fernando Aristeguieta, who ranks 10th in expected goals in this early season.

Their team defense over the past few seasons has ranged between bad-to-terrible, but has shown improvement so far in a small sample size. They currently rank fifth in the league and with it are looking to progress from the bottom of the table defensive performances in back-to-back seasons.

FC Dallas:

One of the most underrated defensive teams over the last few years is FC Dallas. A partnership of Matt Hedges and Zach Lloyd has shown more than promise and did the near impossible last fall in holding the Sounders to a lone goal over 180 minutes, a random Ozzie Alonso header, during the post-season.

Dallas is a team that, much like Philadelphia Union, seemed just one great moment away from facing the LA Galaxy in the Western Conference finals. That moment may have never come last year but much of the roster is returned (72% of the total minutes) and with a healthy Mauro Diaz they may just stand as a dark horse contender for the MLS Cup.

MLS FAntasy perspective:

Blas Perez has been great in this early season. He's a dominant and physical forward that has compiled the second most fantasy points to date on the back of his three goals scored. While he is rocking our "Mr. Luck" title sitting +1.75 goals minus expected goals, he's still compiled the 5th highest expected goals. I fully expect he's going to continue getting these scoring opportunities.

Chris Seitz has possibly been the surprise of the season as we head into week three as the top keeper in MLS fantasy. This is on the heels of Dallas acquiring Dan Kennedy in the off-season. His defense has done a dynamite job of limiting scoring opportunities, something they did exceptionally well the past two seasons.

Aristeguieta as previously mentioned sits 10th in MLS with expected goals and while Perez has been on the lucky side of things, Aristeguieta has been too. He has great providers too but he's going up against a staunch defense that has a history of being good and in their home environment that tends to give the opponent an advantage. Something to consider.

The weekend match-ups:

Montreal Impact (0.07) @ New England (-1.38)

New England hasn't been good this season and is still missing Jones while Montreal has surprised some people with their early-season success.

New York City (0.89) @ Colorado Rapids (-1.97)

NYC may just be a legit team and the Rapids are perhaps the worst club in MLS. We may find out at altitude in Commerce City.

Vancouver Whitecaps (0.18) @ Orlando City (0.15)

This could be the best game on the docket. 

Portland Timbers (0.30) @ Sporting Kansas City (0.91)

Another tough gambit for Caleb Porter and company. The game favors SKC who is still putting up fantastic numbers.

Houston Dynamo (-0.55) @ LA Galaxy (0.95)

A team that has gotten a bit lucky early vs the defending champs. It will be interesting to see where the teams land with the luck settles.

DC United (-0.07) @ New York Red Bulls (-2.09)

It's hard to try and predict anything when two rivals play, but NYRB needs BWP to show up this match.

Chicago Fire (-1.08) @ San Jose Earthquakes (-0.81)

Quakes might not be terrible, while the Fire probably are.

*number in parentheses is our expected goal differential in even game states

Darlington Nagbe may have finally arrived by Harrison Crow

A few days ago, Matt Doyle (aka the Armchair Analyst) called our attention once again to the amazing things that Darlington Nagbe does with a soccer ball.

Nagbe has the ability to do the sorts of things that great players often do. Those miraculous moments that freeze time and leave you wonder struck. Last year it seemed like there were fewer of those moments than in years past. But as Doyle pointed, though it's early, Nagbe looks to be headed in the right direction. 

Average Timber player Usage Rate 2013-2015 was roughly nine percent

Average Timber player Usage Rate 2013-2015 was roughly nine percent

By raw usage, he looks the same as always (about 10.5%). Usage is measured in touches divided by team touches. But as a proportion, his touches have led to either him taking more shots or his teammates taking more shots. So while he's touching the ball about as much, his touches are more dangerous.

Looking at the shots he creates per pass, we really see the meat and potatoes of Nagbe's growth and influence. In 2014, his shots created (shots + key passes) represented just 2.4 percent of his total passes. Now, we're seeing that ratio up closer to eight percent. This is pretty significant if you look at the the company he's enters. He is contributing to the attack thus far in 2015 at a Graham Zusi/Federico Higuian level, rather than hanging around in Harry Shipp/Dillon Powers.

This isn't to say that Shipp or Powers aren't good players. They are, and the majority of MLS teams would been keen to get their hands on either of them, but they aren't great, game-changing talents. This feels like the first time Nagbe's numbers actually corroborate the skill that he shows on a weekly basis out on the pitch. With all the requisite warnings about sample size, it might just be that Nagbe is finally entering into that next tier of player, a moment that has been much anticpated by many Timbers fans and pundits a like.

MLS CBA has Owners seeking “League of Rights” by Andrew Olsen

By Mike Fotopoulos (@irishoutsider)

The winter of our discontent is over. MLS Season 20 is here and the new CBA is in the books. While we will likely have to wait for most of the details and watch new rules inevitably “reveal” themselves, there is a lot to learn here. The process has given us another look into the league’s overall goals, and more importantly, the owners’ priorities. 

The results have been largely disappointing. If you are an idealist, this is a compromise delivering more of the same, and maybe just a little bit more on top. The cap will increase 7% a year for five years, topping out at about $4.2M in 2019. DP slots remain unchanged, though the cap hit will likely increase to remain a fixed % of the overall cap. Finally, free agency arrives for players 28 and up, with at least eight seasons of MLS service time. Those of us looking for a utopian MLS “letting the bull run,” will need to keep dreaming.

The owners’ position here and their motivations all seem to point in the same direction, maximizing the value of the franchises. This is accomplished primarily by increasing sponsorship and broadcast revenues while keeping labor costs down. These streams are crowding out gameday revenues as the league’s primary source of income. Both also have the potential to grow further and faster than traditional staples like tickets sales and merchandising. As a “brand,” the league has an attractive business model here, with more likely suitors lining up for a piece of the action. These new potential markets aren’t viable without the ROI possibilities of a growing media property. 

For the average American sports fan, the value of the league is primarily governed by its star power, not the rank and file. Take a look at any MLS advertising and they are taking pages right out of the NBA / NHL playbook. Dempsey! Bradley! MLS ON ESPN! Talented unknowns on global average salaries aren’t going to move the Nielsen meter. To draw a completely unfair comparison, the vast majority of the football viewing world watches Barcelona for Messi and friends and not for the triumph of skillful team counterpressing. Relating this back to MLS, the league needs to save as much of the coming windfalls for “talent.” 

Dempsey (and very likely Beckham) set the precedent here, showing that the owners as a group will pool their resources to bring in a star player. While he can only play for Seattle, he can increase their local gates once or twice a season and pay dividends on future league sponsor / rights deals. Gerrard, Villa, and Kaka, etc follow this trend to varying degrees of league involvement, though the overall goal is the same: create top-line value by signing as few big contracts as needed, the minimum viable dose. Top-heavy rosters may not be optimal in a football sense, but they act as leverage for franchise value.

Under this system, it becomes much clearer why free agency would be a non-starter, especially for owners like RSL’s Dell Loy Hansen. While RSL is a model small-market club, Mr. Hansen’s investment is controlled by the league’s ability to generate a national audience and his ability to field a team with strictly defined costs. Without accusing development efforts as lip service, part of that cost structure is producing homegrown talent at low cost, and retaining that talent efficiently. This also requires keeping existing core players together as long as possible. If Mr. Hansen can also control a youngster’s rights long enough to profit from a foreign transfer, that’s excellent business. Where the CBA has settled on this protects these issues for RSL and clubs with similar views. 

Those that have directly lost the most from this perspective are the once and future journeymen of MLS. The system has them in purgatory for at least the near-term, unable to massively outperform current contracts, and highly unlikely to see stronger offers from outside of the league.  This is the core position taken during the negotiations, and it has to be cut and dry from the owners’ perspective. They don’t have the resources (yet) to consistently improve rosters in the 150-350k range. That money is better spent on the latest shirt-selling import. More optimistically, once a player reaches 28/8 the DP thresholds are now high enough that teams could double up a salary without locking down a slot. Overall, the deal stretches out their clocks more than they would like without serious breakout seasons.

The future is positively blinding for the league if they can maintain the current tack. The potential is there to earn legitimate multiples on their salary costs, and we likely won’t see an equitable split for the players until the stakes get much higher. Owners want to position the league to earn eye-watering broadcast rights, but the current situation will be harder to maintain if they succeed. The main deal with ESPN/FOX resets after eight seasons, so it may actually benefit the owners to have a five-year agreement with the union. While there is a likely future where MLS’ ratings and revenue continue to grow, it would be optimistic to expect this to occur between the TV deals. With that in mind, this may be the last CBA discussed in strict dollar terms versus percents of league wide revenue. 

Major League Soccer has promoted itself as a “League of Choice” for the best players in the world and certainly the best America has to offer. The new CBA lines up with that vision. Even if many of us would like for the league to spread the wealth around a bit more, the strategy is sound. By focusing on the very top of the rosters and locking down on the rest, the league creates value where it wants it most: broadcast rights and franchise value.