Looking for the value in the MVP race / by Harrison Crow

By Tom Worville (@Worville)

In just over a week's time, the Volkswagen MLS MVP award will be decided. The three players in contention are Robbie Keane of the LA Galaxy, Lee Nguyen of the New England Revolution and Obafemi Martins of the Seattle Sounders. The basis of this article is to look at the stats and decide which player deserves the title of MVP.

The MVP award rewards exactly what it says on the tin: it’s an award for the most valuable player in the league. In order for a player to generate “value,” he needs to contribute on the pitch through goals, tackles, assists, etc.

It’s not necessarily purely down to goals either; Bradley Wright-­Phillips’ current total of 27 goals in 32 league games was not deemed enough to get him into the top three. To win the MVP award, you need to create value apart from goals (either that or there’s some anti­-English bias going on).

The table below shows the per-90 figures for the final trio over a variety of on-field metrics. I’ve included a small mix of attacking, defending and possession-based metrics so that the focus isn’t purely on goals scored. The data come from the regular season, in addition each player's first two games of the playoffs. The figures in bold indicate the top player in that category of the three.

Player Nguyen Keane Martins
Total Team Goals 58 74 66
Guarenteed Compensation $193,750 $4,500,000 $1,753,333
Games Played 34 31 33
Goals 0.59 0.61 0.53
Tackles 1.49 0.13 0.65
Interceptions 0.65 0.26 0.16
Pass Completion 80% 79% 72%
Blocks 0.09 0.03 0.00
Clearances 0.40 0.20 0.13
Assists 0.12 0.40 0.39
Key Passes (without assists) 2.05 1.48 1.59
Total Chances Created 2.17 1.88 1.98
% of Team Goals 34.5% 25.7% 25.8%

Keane has the highest goals per 90 of 0.61, followed by Nguyen (0.59) and Martins (0.53). This isn’t that surprising. Keane plays as the out and out striker on his team, whereas Nguyen plays as more of an attacking midfielder, occupying the space between the midfielders and the strikers.

To put this into perspective, I’ve included the percentage of total team goals each player scored. Nguyen leads the way, accounting for 35 percent of his teams goals, with Keane and Martins accounting for about 26 percent each. This highlights the Revolution’s reliance on Nguyen, as well as the need for them to sign a good quality striker to lead the line in the 2015 season.

Next up is Chance Creation. Chance Creation is made up of Key Passes (pass leading to a shot) and Assists (pass leading to a goal). It’s important to break these down as it shows what chances lead to goals and which go unfinished. Nguyen once again leads the way with 2.17 chances created per 90, followed by Martins (1.98) and Keane (1.88). But by breaking it down into assists and key passes, we get perhaps a better idea of the quality of the chances created by each player.

Note: For me the quality of a chance created depends on the ability of the player who takes the shot, as well as the position of the ball and opposition in the chance’s context. Poor finishing ability or a relatively threat-free chance location would mean a low quality shot, but passing into a lot of space in a threatening position, or to a striker who can finish would result in a high quality shot.

Assists-­wise, Keane leads the way with 0.40 assists per 90, followed by Martins (0.39) and Nguyen (0.12). For Keane and Martins this is partly because they are surrounded by such good attacking players on their respective teams. LA Galaxy have Gyasi Zardes and Landon Donovan, and the Seattle Sounders have Clint Dempsey and Lamar Neagle. For New England and Lee Nguyen, there are less threatening options as mentioned earlier. However, based on ASA's shot data, Keane also outpaced the pack with 8.48 xAssists, compared to Martins' 6.55 and Nguyen's 5.51, so maybe it's not all about quality of teammates.

Looking at pass completion, Nguyen leads with 80%, Keane next (79%) and Martins last (72%).  Strikers usually have a lower pass completion than midfielders, so this isn’t surprising, although Keane has relatively high pass completion for a striker.

Finally, looking at the per-90 defensive stats, Nguyen leads in tackles (1.49), blocks (0.09), clearances (0.4) and interceptions (0.65). It may be unfair to compare strikers to midfielders in a defensive sense, but this provides another argument in favor of Nguyen regardless. If I were choosing a candidate I’d pick Lee Nguyen in a heartbeat. Sadly it’s not up to me. l believe from reading this article you can appreciate how valuable Lee Nguyen has been on the pitch for New England.

If all the points I’ve provided aren’t enough, then take into context the wages that these players receive. I’ve used the guaranteed compensation value from the MLS Players Union’s annual release of wage data. These figures are likely to change slightly, but these are the most accurate figures available: Nguyen is going to earn $193,750, Martins $1,753,333 and Keane a huge $4,500,000. Percentage wise Nguyen cost 11% of Martins and 4% of Keane. If we’re talking about value, you can’t look past those figures.