Examining Pace in MLS by Kevin Minkus

There’s been a decent amount of discussion this week about how the pace of play in MLS looked quicker in week one than it typically does. Teams like Atlanta, New York Red Bulls, Kansas City, and Houston all came flying out of the gate, with fairly up-tempo styles of play both with the ball and without the ball.

Unfortunately, coming up with a metric for pace is pretty tricky, and it depends specifically on what type of pace you’re talking about. Going all the way back to 2013, Ted Knutson looked at pace as the total number of shots taken in a game. More recently, Thom Lawrence looked at pace as the distance covered over time within a team’s possessions. Both of these definitions speak to a certain amount of directness of play that I don’t think meshes with what people currently mean when they say MLS is playing ‘faster’ so far this year.

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Validating the ASA xGoals Model by Matthias Kullowatz

It was more than two years ago that we built the current model for determining the expected goals of each shot, so let’s go back and see how it’s doing. I've included some R code for fitting our generalized linear model (GLM), as well as a gradient-boosted tree model (GBM) for making comparisons. I selected the training dataset to be shots from 2011 - 2014, and the validation dataset to be shots from 2015 and 2016. Actual and predicted goals per shot are shown across each variable of the model.

First, I fit the original model as seen on the ASA website. This is a logistic generalized linear model, which is designed to predict the probability of binary outcomes like shots (goal vs. not goal). Coefficients will differ somewhat from what we posted long ago, as this is a different training dataset.

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A Deep Dive Into Shot Location and Placement by Alex Rathke

The 2017 MLS season began with a bang over the weekend! During this time, I had a look in the archive room on shots taken (2011-2016) and thought it would be a nice time to examine shot placement in MLS. This analysis will use some of the ideas from Colin Trainor’s article from Statsbomb a couple of years ago (using one season data from Europe’s Top five leagues (2012/13), while also building upon his piece and examining shot locations and placement in further detail.

At the start of Colin’s piece, he straight out stated that one thing has to be reiterated time and time again: “you can never just take the first metric at face value as further analysis can be undertaken, and inevitably this second level of analysis can provide insights that are missed at the higher end of data review”. Now that is not to say that my piece will be anything better, that was actually Colin’s second analysis on the topic (the first you can access when you read his post above). I will try and build upon his analysis by using MLS shot data to look at more ‘specific zones’ in greater detail and how these end up in placements/areas (in the goal). Before I do that, let’s look at the placement conversion rates in MLS.

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Every One of our 2017 MLS Season Previews by Drew Olsen

By Drew Olsen (@drewjolsen)

We've spent the last two weeks previewing every MLS team, and finally the season starts tonight! If you missed any or just want to get primed for every team's season, here's the full list:

Eastern Conference

Atlanta United FC by Jared Young
Chicago Fire by Mike Fotopoulos
Columbus Crew by Kevin Minkus
D.C. United by DCU Exile
Montreal Impact by Aaron Nielson
New England Revolution by Coleman Larned
New York City FC by Benjamin Bellman and Drew Olsen
New York Red Bulls by Coleman Larned
Orlando City SC by DCU Exile
Philadelphia Union by Jared Young
Toronto FC by Aaron Nielson

Western Conference
Colorado Rapids by Benjamin Bellman
FC Dallas by Phil Luetchford
Houston Dynamo by Phil Luetchford
L.A. Galaxy by Phil Luetchford
Minnesota United by Phil Luetchford and Drew Olsen
Portland Timbers by Drew Olsen
Real Salt Lake by Jason Poon
San Jose Earthquakes by Kevin Minkus
Seattle Sounders by Benjamin Harrison
Sporting Kansas City by Jason Poon
Vancouver Whitecaps by Aaron Nielson

Minnesota United 2017 Season Preview by Phil Luetchford

Minnesota United is new to MLS, but unlike fellow expansion side Atlanta United (everyone is united nowadays) this is not an entirely new team. The Loons leave the NASL, where they have played under a few other names since 2010.  While it's a club with a solid history and strong supporters, for most MLS and USMNT fans Minnesota didn't enter their consciousness until October 2014, when winger Miguel Ibarra became the first 2nd division player to train with the national team since 2005. He was called up five times by Jurgen Klinsmann, and parlayed that international exposure into a contract with Club Leon in the summer of 2015, before returning to sign with Minnesota this season. But while Ibarra is certainly an attacking threat, he never led the team in scoring. For each of the last three seasons that’s been Christian Ramirez, who led the NASL in scoring two of the last three years (he finished 2nd in 2015).

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Atlanta United FC 2017 Season Preview by Jared Young

Writing a data based season preview for an expansion team is an interesting proposition. The only data available are individual player statistics with other teams, but projecting how those players will work together in the new whole is nearly impossible. What data we do have for Atlanta United is that owner Arthur Blank, currently the most depressed sports mogul in the universe, has spent significant money to bring excitement to the city of Atlanta.  Exactly how much remains to be seen but given the names on this list it’s safe to say that Atlanta United will be among the spending elite in MLS.

They started by signing a big name coach in Gerard “Tata” Martino, most recently the coach who oversaw Argentina’s drubbing of the United States in the Copa America Centenario. The roster is impressive as well. They signed Kenwyne Jones, the Trinidad and Tobago striker who scored more than 70 goals in England. There’s the young Venezuelen DP striker Josef Martinez, and USMNT left back Greg Garza, on loan from Liga MX. On the wing will be Hector Villalba, another DP from Argentina’s San Lorenzo. Blank also shelled out to have USMNT keeper Brad Guzan arrive in the summer. Oh, and I almost forget their prized signing, worth a reported $8.5 million transfer fee, the Arsenal target Miguel Almiron, a 23 year old attacking midfielder. This list keeps going with MLS veterans Michael Parkhurst and Jeff Larentowicz, and more. Arthur Blank might be feeling better real soon.

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FC Dallas 2017 Season Preview by Phil Luetchford

US Open Cup. Supporters’ Shield. Coach of The Year. Defender of the Year. You might not believe it, but Dallas will be even deeper and scarier in 2017.

2016 Review

Finally, some hardware! In 2016 FC Dallas ended a 19-year trophy drought by winning the US Open Cup and the Supporters’ Shield, but fizzled out in the playoffs without the magic of Mauro Diaz, who went down due to an Achilles tendon tear. Interesting how the injury occurred against Seattle and then it was the “#NotMyMLSCupChampion” Sounders that benefited in the playoffs, isn’t it? Real fútbol fans know that the team at the top of the table is the true league champion (eds note: we puked a little in our mouth, too. The homerism dies down from here, we promise).

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New York Red Bulls 2017 Season Preview by Coleman Larned

The 2016 season culminated in yet another MLS playoff exit for New York Red Bull. A furious pace was set in the regular season galloping towards playoffs and finishing second in the supporter's shield. But Jesse Marsch and RBNY came up short. The team identity was in place, the intended peak timing was set and the squad was healthy. But once again the cup rewarded opportunism over exacted intention.

The addition of Aurelian Collin and the internal promotion of Alex Muyl were the key additions to the squad that ended the season top of the Eastern Conference. Another season with the same core group allowed for Marsch's high, energetic press to steep and refine. After a miserable start to the campaign which saw them take three points from a possible 21, RBNY proceeded to lose only three more games all season.

The usual suspects were some of the league's best throughout the year. Bradley Wright-Phillips won golden boot on 62 fewer shots than the second place finisher, David Villa. Dax McCarty once again dictated one of the league's best offenses by averaging 68 passes per 90 minutes (fifth best in league for players who played at least half of the games in the regular season). The defense allowed the second fewest goals against in the Eastern Conference, allowing for the best goal differential in MLS. But it was the year of Sacha Kljestan in Harrison, NJ. While sporting a disconnected pirate goatee Kljestan connected phases of possession and controlled territory in the offensive third of the pitch better than anyone in MLS. He led the league in key passes (105), assists (16), and expected assists (9.97) while ranking second in total passes (1723) by an attacking midfielder.

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Colorado Rapids 2017 Season Preview by Benjamin Bellman

Apart from the mid-season miracle of Nicholas Lodeiro’s arrival in Seattle, the Colorado Rapids were surely the biggest turnaround in MLS in 2016. Pablo Mastroeni’s first two years as head coach saw the Rapids finishing in 9th and 10th in the Western Conference. But after a flurry of offseason moves, Colorado finished 2nd in the West and league tables, competing with FC Dallas for the Supporter’s Shield until the very last week. New Designated Players Shkelzen Gashi and Tim Howard, and bonus pick up Jermaine Jones, helped cement a team culture and identity consistent with Mastroeni’s reputation of sacrifice and grit, and the Rapids didn't lose at home in 2016 until the Western Conference Championship.

While the Rapids were far more successful than last year, their tactics didn't change dramatically. The 2016 Rapids rank among the best defenses in league history, giving up 32 goals against, fewer than one goal per game. (And consider that five happened all in one game!) A mix of old and new-comers solidified Mastroeni’s vision. Axel Sjoberg earn his place as a finalist for Defender of the Year. Michael Azira, a Sounders cast-off, made a perfect match to Sam Cronin as a pair of dominant defensive midfields also dangerous in springing counter attacks. Offensively, the Rapids capitalized on opponents’ mistakes, quick breaks, and flashes of brilliance from across the roster. Gashi also scored an outrageous number of outrageous goals. Still, the Rapids only produced 39 goals from 37.47 xG (20th in MLS), tying the Dynamo for second-fewest. Yet no team let in fewer goals than the Rapids, who allowed fewer than one per game (32 goals against on 41.91 xGA, 4th in MLS). This team is defined by its defense, and after this offseason it’s clear that won’t change in 2017.

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