An ASA MLS Cup Preview / by Harrison Crow

By Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)

Here we are, the final match of the 2014 season. The MLS Cup, a game for the whooooooole enchilada, the whoooooole ball of wax, aaaaaaaall the marbles. Okay, let's end my John Candy moment and press with the real stuff.

It's been a long, fun and strange season when you look back on it. One club produced possibly the most dominating statistical season ever in MLS history. And here they stand at the last point in the season to bring home a trophy. The other team is one of the younger and more energetic clubs in MLS playing fun, attacking soccer. They are a band of lesser appreciated talents wearing a chip on their shoulder and seeking to prove themselves, led by Lee Nguyen.

TEAM xGoals For xGoals Against xGoalDifference xGoal Even Difference Duels*
LA Galaxy 62.9 32.98 29.92 18.02 1534
New England 47.26 46.92 0.34 -3.74 1529

As you can see above, the LA Galaxy stand out far above any competition in the league. The Seattle Sounders are probably their closest competitor, and with them being dispatched in the Western Conference Finals, this becomes their cup to lose.

Most handicappers generally 'gift' the home club a half a goal going into the match, added to the top of what we would expect from their goal scoring talents. The LA Galaxy and their outrageous scoring ability and tremendous defense have a clear advantage in this situation because of those details.

That said, you're talking about what was a top-5 MLS defense last season, and one that held it's entire line together. While it's had its faults this season in terms of allowing opportunities, we've seen some very strong games from them that it wouldn't be outside the realm of possibility to keep LA off the board, or perhaps to allow a single goal in this match.

Right now our projection system has LA Galaxy as just over a 75% favorite to beat the New England Revolution. A very huge gap that is reflective of their season accomplishments.

Let's dig a bit deeper into these teams.

New England Revolution

# POS Player Age HT WT Min. xG xG/90 Duels Won DW/90 Salary
13 M Jermaine Jones 33 6' 170 613 1.49 0.22 57 8.37  $ 3,252,500.00
27 F Jerry Bengtson 27 6' 1" 165 238 1.21 0.46 17 6.43  $    144,000.00
39 F Geoffrey Castillion 23 6' 3" 170 14 0 0.00 1 6.43  $    329,033.00
11 M Kelyn Rowe 22 5' 8" 150 1960 8.14 0.37 138 6.34  $    181,000.00
23 D Jose Goncalves 29 6' 2" 180 2381 1.63 0.06 151 5.71  $    479,375.00
10 F Teal Bunbury 24 6' 2" 185 2446 8.23 0.30 154 5.67  $    233,000.00
7 F Patrick Mullins 22 6' 1" 175 1198 6.5 0.49 75 5.63  $    100,000.00
24 M Lee Nguyen 28 5' 8" 150 2750 14.59 0.48 170 5.56  $    193,750.00
2 D Andrew Farrell 22 5' 11" 185 2840 1.96 0.06 150 4.75  $    176,000.00
30 D Kevin Alston 26 5' 9" 160 683 0.98 0.13 35 4.61  $    143,333.00
6 M Scott Caldwell 23 5' 8" 150 1553 1.08 0.06 76 4.40  $      59,813.00
12 M Andy Dorman 32 6' 1" 160 1237 1.07 0.08 59 4.29  $    135,000.00
5 D A.J. Soares 25 6' 170 2806 2.68 0.09 118 3.78  $    159,180.00
25 D Darrius Barnes 27 6' 1" 175 1628 2.15 0.12 67 3.70  $      86,666.00
16 M Daigo Kobayashi 31 5' 10" 155 1867 3.49 0.17 74 3.57  $    136,666.00
4 M/F Steve Neumann 23 6' 165 538 1.97 0.33 21 3.51  $      86,250.00
8 D/M Chris Tierney 28 6' 170 1930 6.28 0.29 69 3.22  $    103,333.00
15 D Stephen McCarthy 26 6' 5" 190 90 0 0.00 3 3.00  $    132,582.00
9 F Charlie Davies 28 5' 10" 160 1143 4.39 0.35 37 2.91  $      78,940.00
92 F Dimitry Imbongo 24 6' 160 32 0 0.00 1 2.81  $    122,375.00
14 M Diego Fagundez 19 5' 8" 140 2142 9.45 0.40 55 2.31  $    137,200.00
33 M Donnie Smith 23 5' 11" 160 45 0 0.00 1 2.00  $      36,500.00
17 F Andre Akpan 26 6' 0 0 0.00 0.00 0.00  $      51,333.00
40 GK Larry Jackson 24 6' 1" 180 0 0 0.00 0.00 0.00  $      36,504.00
21 M Shalrie Joseph 36 6' 3" 195 0 0 0.00 0.00 0.00  $    294,000.00
44 D Jossimar Sanchez 23 5' 9" 170 0 0 0.00 0.00 0.00  $      36,504.00
36 GK Luis Soffner 24 6' 4" 210 0 0 0.00 0.00 0.00  $      36,500.00
19 M Alec Sundly 22 6' 170 0 0 0.00 0.00 0.00  $      36,504.00
99 F Tony Taylor 25 6' 170 9 0 0.00 0 0.00  $      79,371.00

It kind of feels like this whole team's attack, and possibly its existence to this point in the season, is based upon Lee Nguyen. It is... but then again, maybe not. Nguyen has turned into something beyond what the Revolution could have possibly imagined him being this season. and timely goals have had a lot to do with the Revolution's success. His 14.59 total expected goals (xGoals + xAssists) over the season indicates his imperative role in the Revolution's attack.

However, while many people want to wave the flag of Nguyen, the reality of the situation is that he doesn't rank in the top-10 in terms of creating scoring chances, that according to our shot metrics.

Nguyen has been the team leader, and as mentioned, scored some mighty crucial goals. That being said he hasn't been entirely alone, and had some help from key pieces a long the way.

An interesting story line for me is that which concerns Diego Fagundez. The narrative seems to be that he's regressed in terms of goal scoring and assists ability, and that this season was a step back overall. Yes, that is true, but Fagundez is still probably the second most dangerous piece in the Revolution arsenal. He's produced a fair share of scoring chances for the attack and finished second behind Nguyen in total expected goals created for the Revolution. 

The thing is, as Drew mentioned on the podcast, Fagundez didn't make an appearance in the Eastern Conference finals. Instead Jay Heaps chose to go the direction of Kelyn Rowe in the first leg and then Chris Tierney in the second for his defensive prowess and ability to mark out the Red Bull's Lloyd Sam. The question going into this weekend is how will Heaps negotiate the situation with what is likely New England's second best attacker on the bench, and needing to score goals against the best defense in MLS.

The problem isn't just slowing down the mighty Empire's fleet of Zardes, Keane and Donovan. It's the in the ability to produce goals too. Omar Gonzalez and AJ DeLaGarza are two of the most dominate centerback pairings in MLS, and even if Bruce Arena decides to push AJ out wide to a full back spot, Tommy Meyer or Leonardo both provide a superior ability to win duels and limit shots at the keeper.

If the Revolution want to win, they're obviously going to have to find a way to outscore the Galaxy. Duh, right? Well, that doesn't necessarily just start with their attack, which is potent enough, the responsibility for winning this game is going to have to lie with their defense to produce a gem of a performance.

LA Galaxy.jpg

LA Galaxy

# POS Player Age HT WT Min. xG xG/90 Duels Won D/90 Salary
19 M Juninho 25 5' 7" 145 2758 4.83 0.16 141 4.60  $    325,000.00
10 F Landon Donovan 32 5' 8" 155 2720 20.66 0.68 109 3.61  $    260,000.00
7 F Robbie Keane 34 5' 9" 160 2549 25.93 0.92 88 3.11  $ 4,500,000.00
20 D A.J. DeLaGarza 27 5' 9" 150 2491 0.92 0.03 76 2.75  $    155,000.00
33 D Dan Gargan 31 5' 11" 175 2400 2.97 0.11 116 4.35  $      48,500.00
11 F Gyasi Zardes 23 6' 2" 175 2392 14.91 0.56 142 5.34  $    198,000.00
8 M Marcelo Sarvas 33 5' 10" 155 2218 5.78 0.23 125 5.07  $    192,500.00
6 M Baggio Husidic 27 6' 1" 172 2197 6.91 0.28 109 4.47  $      90,000.00
4 D Omar Gonzalez 26 6' 5" 205 1902 2.65 0.13 120 5.68  $ 1,250,000.00
24 M Stefan Ishizaki 32 5' 11" 165 1898 8.26 0.39 88 4.17  $    213,000.00
22 D Leonardo 26 6' 2" 185 1837 0.51 0.02 95 4.65  $    105,000.00
14 M Robbie Rogers 27 5' 10" 165 1372 2.71 0.18 103 6.76  $    167,500.00
21 D Tommy Meyer 24 6' 2" 175 926 0.26 0.03 47 4.57  $      64,598.00
9 F Alan Gordon 33 6' 1" 190 511 7.16 1.26 50 8.81  $    206,666.00
16 F Rob Friend 33 6' 5" 205 376 2.22 0.53 70 16.76  $      91,000.00
2 D Todd Dunivant 33 6' 175 370 0.37 0.09 11 2.68  $    160,750.00
34 M Kenney Walker 25 5' 9" 170 329 0.36 0.10 17 4.65  $      48,825.00
26 D James Riley 32 5' 10" 150 254 0.17 0.06 12 4.25  $      80,000.00
30 F Chandler Hoffman 24 6' 160 61 0.8 1.18 3 4.43  $      48,500.00
40 F Raul Mendiola 20 5' 8" 150 57 0.27 0.43 2 3.16  $      36,500.00
38 F Bradford Jamieson IV 18 6' 1" 165 23 0.08 0.31 2 7.83  $      36,500.00
5 F Jose Villarreal 21 5' 8" 160 19 0.16 0.76 5 23.68  $      50,700.00
25 M Rafael Garcia 25 5' 6" 150 16 0.09 0.51 1 5.63  $      48,825.00
36 D Oscar Sorto 20 5' 8" 155 15 0 0.00 2 12.00  $      50,700.00
31 D Kyle Venter 23 6' 3" 190 0 0 0 0 0  $      61,000.00
32 F Jack McBean 19 6' 175 0 0 0 0 0  $      48,500.00
27 F Charlie Rugg 24 6' 175 0 0 0 0 0  $      48,500.00

It was hardly a far fetched idea that LA could return to an MLS Cup in 2014 after they bottomed out against RSL last year in Rio Tinto. Fast forward 12 months, and Robbie Keane has earned every bit of his MVP award. Not to mention the historic attacking force aided by the development of Gyasi Zardes and the resurgence of Stefan Ishizaki and Baggio Husidic. There was also this guy, Landon Donovan. Not sure if you heard of him. He was really good, too. I heard he's retiring, hopefully the league does something to honor him and what he's done for MLS.

Top to bottom, LA is the clear the favorite...mostly. While, yes, they have dominated in almost every facet of the game thus far into the season, the worrisome figure that I have is that while they don't allow a lot of shots the ones they do allow tend to be of a higher quality. Danny Page has shown that a few high quality shots are more dangerous than a lot of low quality shots.

Going into the game, with all the talk of having a dominant attack, the Galaxy do not have one player inside the top-30 for duels won. A lot of that could be due to their ability to hold possession and their high press, which creates bad passes and turnovers, rather than the need to win duels. Still it's something. Or maybe just half of a something to worry about with New England's monster in the middle.

Jermaine Jones is a beast in the midfield, and while I talked on the podcast about how he could have issues competing with both Marcelo Sarvas and Juhnino in the midfield, the truth is that he's bolstered the New England midfield with a one-man layer of protection. Since Jones signed with the Revs, the team has been 11-1-2. Through those 14 matches they allowed just 16 goals, which includes some high-scoring playoff games. Perhaps more importantly, during that same time the Revs have allowed only about one expected goal per game, a metric that means more in small sample sizes. 

The Rev's defense was pretty good last season, and while they returned all the same pieces, they've fallen away from where they we last year, allowing an additional 0.19 expected goals per game. That drop in performance is partially due to Jose Gonclaves not being the transcendent talent he was one year ago. Last season Goncalves was the team leader in duels won and made the top-10 in MLS, leading to his defender of the year award. Despite that, Goncalves has fallen away from where he was last year and it's distinguished by the fact he doesn't even lead his own team in duels won.

If the Galaxy want to win, they're going to have to continue to expose the opposing defense and play their usual dominant brand of soccer. This shouldn't be hard, playing at home. What may disrupt their dominance is New England's versatile midfield, featuring the attacking Nguyen, and the tougher, more defensive Jones.

It's the Empire's game to lose, and while that seems to slight the Revolution, it's more about the fact that LA has been one of the most dominating teams in MLS history. It's compounded by the fact that emotions are going to be running high, with it being Landon Donovan's last career match, a match in which the most decorated American soccer player is going to be looking to go out on top.

While I favor the Galaxy 3-1 in the end, my heart will be rooting the classic underdog in Lee Nguyen.*

*Drew favors the Galaxy 2 - 1, while Matthias thinks it will be 2 - 0.