By Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)
I heard something last night that made my brain tick. If you tuned in to Wednesday's edition of "The Best Soccer Show," co-host Jared DuBois posed a common "Pick Your Poison" question to his counter-part Jason Davis. The question was simply, "Who would you rather be with half a season still to go, the Portland Timbers or LA Galaxy?"
This is an interesting, thought-provoking question from DuBois. First, you really have to define what your goals are. My thought process is based on each club's positions for an MLS playoff spot. Having dropped out of the US Open Cup, each team can only earn silverware by making the playoffs and winning the MLS Cup.
Rose City is a full 14 points behind their rivals from the north, and that with having played an extra game. LA is in a bit of a different situation. Also trailing by 14 points, the Stars of Hollywood have three games in hand, potentially translating into as many as nine points---just a five-point deficit to the top of the conference. Neither are mathematically eliminated from the Supporters' Shield or first place in the Western Conference, but that is not a probable outcome (especially for the Timbers).
Again, I'm not saying that it's likely that the Galaxy will win three straight and get Seattle in its sights, just simply stating the obvious. The LA Galaxy are in a better table position by virtue of having as many points as Portland with more games left to play. I think the typical thing to say based on their position is that LA is showing their age (or some other thing like that). Most people point to the fact they've been "less dominant" on the attack, likely based on just 19 goals in 14 matches which is good for just 13th (1.32) in goals scored per game. The other hand reveals the Timbers sitting 3rd in MLS with 1.57 goals a match.
Set aside the Champions League competitions at the end of the year and all the travelling that comes with it. Conventional wisdom would tell you that the Timbers are clearly a team that is eventually going to find it's footing and probably make a push for the playoffs.
However, if we ignore that "wisdom" and look at our numbers based on shot locations for and against, LA's Expected Goal Differential (xGD) is the best in MLS (0.62). This makes their second year in a row sitting at the top of our leader board, as they did the same last year (0.65). Despite what everyone's eyes are telling them, the LA Galaxy are still a very good team and one that, for all intents and purposes, could still to be a top-three club in the Western Conference.
On the flip side, our Expected Goals data, especially by even gamestates, betrays Portland. Their -0.57 expected goal differential in even gamestates suggests they are constantly falling behind, and more than that, their opponents are dominating shot locations when the Timbers should be playing competitively. I know it's become vogue to call them "Draw City," and maybe that's fair due to their continuing to spot the opposing team goals early. But that defense has so many leaks and problems that Liam Ridgewell by himself may not be the answer to recover this season.
Yes, there are health reasons that can help to explain some of those troubling results. And it may even be foolish of me to base this opinion on only 18 games with 16 still to play. But I think that---based on Matthias' research from last year about how the first 17 games of xGD is a decent prediction of the future (seen below)---I'm not going out on a very thin branch here.
All things being equal, and if I had to choose between the two, I'd go with LA. Compound the situation with the fact that Portland also has the Champions League that I'm sure they'll want to focus on, and it becomes that much easier of a decision.
Now with Silly Season in full swing, we'll see if changes in LA make me look stupid in the coming months.