The MVP Race (Mostly) By Numbers / by Harrison Crow

by Harrison Crow (@Harrison_Crow)

**disclaimer: all numbers or references to production were mostly taken as of 9/28 and prior to the start of weekend games. There may be some slight discrepancies or things that general cause you to scratch your head, if so please direct your questions to the comment section or feel to e-mail me at harrison.m.crow [at] gmail.com**

It's that time of the season where we all dissect, argue and try to make out what the term MVP really means. Last year, I remember we had a podcast on this very subject that we talked for a good hour plus. We just ran in circles after a while because this subject is, well, subjective.

This time around I went about the whole process in a rather production based, analytical approach. That is kind of what we do around here.

As it stands there are no defensive or goalkeeping performances that stands out enough to warrant talk about an MVP candidacy. You could, I suppose, try to point to Chad Marshall or Omar Gonzalez. Both have been elite, stand on your head, defensive stalwarts. Unfortunately both stand in the shadows of their respective attacking counter parts on the other end. Scoring goals is sexy; preventing goals from being scored... not as sexy.

It also doesn't help that we don't fully understand how to account and value defensive actions.. Even our own expected goal model is good enough and yet lacking in areas. It's still likely infantile compared to what we will have at our disposal just a year or even a few years down the road.

Adding to the problem of how to take into account defensive statistics is also trying to compare the accomplishments of the keepers (such as Bill Hamid, Jon Busch and Steve Clark) to other positions. How does that compare to what guys are doing on the other end?

So with all of this in mind I went full on attack mode. I know, I know--you never go full attack mode. But it's where I went. Adding to our expected goals scored format I wanted to account for other possible means of contributing to a teams expected goals through the means of expected assists.

I used a weighted metric based upon the average leveraged shot and used that to calculate added expected goals from key passes. This bequeathed us the ultra-mega-metric of 'Expected Created Goals' or xCG.

Using xCG and taking other influential details into account such as the percentage of available minutes played, player percentage of team expected goal, shot leverage (which would basically be the location of the average shot) and assisted shot percentage, we've made an attempt to value the attacking players in MLS to find and evaluate potential MVP candidates.

Below are my top candidates, assuming I got to submit a vote in a top-10 format, like a writer in the BBWAA for the Major League Baseball MVP.

Notable omissions:

Jermaine Defoe, Striker, Toronto FC – it’s kind of a bummer that he couldn't stay healthy this year. It’s been a really promising season and his xCG per 90 alone almost put him into this discussion. The problem is that when it came down to he hasn't been the one shouldering the load. He accounts for less than a quarter of his team’s expected goals playing in just over half the games. You’re going to have to do something substantial if you’re in that situation.

Joao Plata, Striker, Real Salt Lake – Yes, we hate Real Salt Lake (our model does, anyway). It seems like at every opportunity we slight them. But Plata has been really good at converting the opportunities presented. His combination work with Morales, Gil, Grabavoy and his numerous strike partners presented highlight reels and clips for SportsCenter which all speak to his budding talent that is blossoming. But he didn't create much on his own and his xCG p90 was lower than anyone else in the top-10.

Thierry Henry, forward/midfielder/demi-god, New York Red Bulls – I tried to write him into the top-10. I don’t want to say I’m proud of that, but I really attempted to fit him in somewhere. The problem became where, where does he fit?

He is still immensely talented, we all know that. Henry is probably the best player to ever play in Major League Soccer. Yet this just wasn’t an MVP year for him. A lot of people will probably contribute the accolades of BWP to Henry, but I’m not convinced that’s fair.

Obafemi Martiners, striker, Seattle Sounders - He's does back flips... WHAT MORE CAN YOU ASK FOR?!? But seriously, outside of #Obaflips (editor's note: Harrison, you're fired), you can't ask for much more. His pass usage and what he's meant to the Sounders while Dempsey has been away has been tremendous. Unfortunately that sometimes means unselfish play takes away opportunities that would otherwise highlight the individual accomplishments.

We've only begun to get more granular with our data and at this point we're still lacking effective means of understanding passing and positioning as well with how technical ability meshes with physical ability. So while our data indicates that he's in the top-15 for xCG, I think it's fair to state that this doesn't even come close to encapsulating what Martins has done to positively influence the Sounders attack. He's been key to their ability to get by without Dempsey and those are huge boots to attempt to fill.

Benny Feilhaber, Midfielder, Sporting Kansas City – I tweeted out this past weekend why I don’t like Feilhaber, yet many analysts do. It’s the talent vs. production argument. There are plenty of guys who are more talented yet post similar, if not, sometimes, worse production numbers. Production numbers are your tangible evidence type numbers. Things that can easily tell you what they did for the team.

He’s also goes on spells of inconsistency. Kind of like Marco Pappa, Chris Rolfe, Diego Fagundez and Darlington Nagbe, just to provide some examples. All are exceedingly talented. However due to their occasional lulls, their numbers are volatile and they're often forgotten about in certain ways.

The other problem is Benny does a lot of things that aren't intrinsically valued by guys like me… at least for now. It’s very similar scenario, though to a lesser extent, with Seattle’s Brad Evans. While both bring value trying to articulate that value can be lost in translation. So they get unappreciated and undervalued by number snobs and for that I apologize.

Javier Morales, Midfielder, Real Salt Lake – I have no excuse with Morales. He’s so good and he absolutely deserves to be on this list. I’d make him an honorary 11th selection if I could. But I can’t. So that wish is just stupid. But what I can say is that he's a very good player and among the top at his position.

Comparing him with some of his peers; Morales is ranked 5th in xCG (13.79), 4th xCG per 90 minutes and 4th in total key passes (71).  It's all very good.

Lee Nguyen, Midfielder, New England Revolution – He’s had a really good season. His omission isn't taking that away. He’s just not in my top-10… maybe (probably)(highly likely) I could find room for him in the top-20 (which would make him part of the top 5% of talented players in the league) but I just couldn't do it.

Fabian Castilo, Midfielder, FC Dallas – Back in May everyone thought that Mauro Diaz would be on this list should Dallas keep up their pace to the Playoffs. However, the injury to Diaz and problems that cropped up a result opened, created the opportunity for Castillo to finally show how good he can be and it’s really good. But it’s not worthy of an MVP.

Fabian Espindola, Striker, DC United – Had it not been for Espindola at the beginning of the season who knows how it would have gone for DC. But he took over games and seemingly willed them to 3 points in situations that they needed. Had he been there for the full season he would have forced himself on to this list. However, injuries derailed what might have been his best season yet in MLS.

Sebastien Le Toux, Midfielder, Philadelphia Union: He’s a great player and a corner stone figure for the Philadelphia franchise. But as a guy who doesn't even regularly start, I just can’t justify him as MVP.

Okay, here we go. My top-10:

10. Brown, Deshorn Brown—I’m sorry were you expecting someone else?

Look up any article that’s related to the MVP race, any article—they all look a lot like mine only with less numbers—and you’re probably not going to see this Browns name. Heck, most people probably don't even consider him the best player on his own team. That begs the question how is this guy the Most Valuable Player in the entire league?

He’s on this list because of pure, unadulterated, chances… and a lot of them. The second most in all of MLS. Analysis will point to Nguyen or Plata for this spot but Brown has a larger percentage of creating his teams expected goals and adding to those chances he also has a higher shot leverage meaning he finds better looks at the goal.

Adding to all of this is the fact that he creates almost 20% of these shots on his own--which is above average for his position. Add this to his technical ability and physical tools, leads to the thought that two years ago the Rapids scored a real gem in the draft.

9. Diego Valeri is whelming, or is whelmed... err whatever. Regardless of how you put it Valeri is who we thought he is, an excellent play maker.

Valeri is a weird case of not being over hyped but not being under hyped either. He's perfectly thought of as he should be. He's an MVP candidate but not really a high end one. He's probably one of the three or four best Central Attacking midfielders playing in the states and that isn't to undercut him. The problem is there are just better people.

I remember back in Junior High School I was on a baseball team that had four guys go on to pitch in college and two of those got drafted. I wanted to be a pitcher and I was actually pretty decent. But in that context pretty decent wasn't going to get me innings or even a shot. It didn't mean I was bad, there were just better options. The coach always went out of his way to make sure I got the accolades that I deserved I just didn't get any quality time on the mound.

I feel like this is me making mention of Valeri so that someone doesn't yell at me later. Much like a parent would at my coach if their kid didn't get to pitch (and no, it wasn't either of my parents).

8. Erick Torres is the real deal, savor it.

Torres is in a weird situation where MLS can buy his contract at the end of the season from Chivas Guadalajara--except his current team Chivas USA won't exist. So where does he go from here? Rumor has both Seattle and LA extending opportunities to the young striker so it's going to be interesting to see where he falls. 

Torres is the one redeeming quality about the Goats the past two seasons. I wish there was more but there just isn't. And despite the distractions he’s been very good. Not very many 20 year olds can do what he’s doing through all the adversity to excel. He has a bigger portion of his team's expected goals than any other player in MLS this season.

7. Dom Dwyer... surprise, he's successful.

The Englishman has grown into an elite striker. A top-5 striker in MLS by my own subjective criteria; his development into a force of nature berating and hounding defenses both with and without the ball has been well documented and his loan with Orlando City, last season, has become the poster child example for the partnership between USL and MLS.

Beyond the hype, he’s been the perfect edge of the Sporting Kansas City speared attack, pushing DP Bieler to a mostly substitute role. His athletic ability and fitness make him the perfect candidate for Peter Vermes's starting XI, where team based play is paramount. Outside of those team based efforts he stands out individually with +4 goals above his expected goal tally. His 77% assisted shots shows that he’s able to create and work with others while being the preferred apex of the Sporting Kansas City attack, having been involved in 40% of Sporting's expected goals.

I think it’s a reasonable expectation to think him higher on the list due to how many goals he’s scored and the fact that if Bradley Wright-Phillips wasn't having an inhuman type year he’d be in the midst of a golden boot race. His biggest knock against is the lack of ability to create for others. He maintains the lowest key pass rate on the top-10 which, in turn, keeps him from getting higher on this list.

6. Pedro Morales: next man headed to Higuian purgatory?

There is only one other person that is as under appreciated for what he does and we'll cover him in fuller detail later. For now let's talk about the fact that if it wasn't for Pedro Morales his club would likely not be sniffing around the 5th and last playoff spot. I would even say they would be very near San Jose's position in the table if it weren't for him.

Morales has done everything without having a consistent striker. Not only has he not had a lack of assistance up top in the formation, but there is also the small detail of him having little help to create for him too. He’s had his hand in 152 total shots, second in all of MLS, and despite that has the lowest assisted shot creation of anyone in this list (or even those in the honorable mentions) at 56%.

He’s a difference maker and one that many seemingly gloss over in lieu of his regional counter parts Dempsey and Valeri. But make no mistake, he’s going to be a central piece for them in the next couple of years and I suspect he has room to get better. This should frighten both the Cascadian rivals and Western Conference foes. 

5. Landon Donovan: A farewell tour that's fair and deserved

I can't think of many guys that have retired in American sports and done so at the top of their game. Michael Jordan of course comes to mind but then he came back. Barry Sanders did it, but that's not a very good example in relation to age and career progression. If you wanted to go way back Sandy Koufax is one that may be an interesting comparison. Really, I don't know if there is another apt comparison for Donovan. A guy who is still thriving despite being in what should be the decline of his career.

LD has a combined total of 16 xCG which is fourth best in MLS. He's also leading MLS in key passes and adding to it with an incredible .138 shot leverage. It's not even that he's doing things well for a guy his age. It's that he's still a dominant figure in the league and still a superstar for MLS. Not to get all sappy on you but I, for one, am going to miss him. The tough thing about being on such a great team is that despite the fantastic performance, It's not even the best on his team.

4. Federico Higuain, the most underrated player in Major League Soccer.

I don’t recall which podcast it was but in the last month or two I declared Higuain as the best player in MLS, which I got scoffed at by my associates Matthias and Drew. Now, admittedly the thought came out a bit half-baked initially but expanding upon it I called him the most perpetually underrated and under-appreciated player in MLS. I stand by that.

There has been much ink spilled writing about the Espindola’s, Feilhaber’s and Nguyen’s of the world, but Higuain seems to be consistently overlooked. I see people pounce on the fact that he missed a couple penalty shots. Yep, none of the three aforementioned individuals would do that, simply because their “too clutch”.

Okay, put aside my condescension and mocking tone.

Higuain has the third highest xCG and the third highest percentage of his team’s xCG in all MLS. Completing the theme of three’s he’s also got the third highest shot leverage on this list. He’s viably been the sole reason that the Crew are in the position for the playoffs. As crazy as this sounds, they could even push the Revolution or Sporting back into the fourth spot should they keep up their crazy pace.

Not convinced? Think of any player you could take away from a club that would instantly not make them a playoff team. Take Higuain away from Columbus and their basically a worse version of Montreal, which is all kinds of terrifying.

3. Clint Dempsey is really good. No, like, for reals. He’s really good.

Okay, the thing about putting Dempsey up this high is trying to justify without coming across as a biased Seattle fan. I mean, most Sounders supporters I don’t think would even put him in front of Oba Martins. Soooo…. What am I doing here?

You can look at this two ways, either the World Cup hurt Dempsey in a season that is probably one of his best or it helped garner him attention that he otherwise wouldn't have gotten. Omitting his 2011-12 Fulham season, which might be considered the best season for an American ever, he’s never scored as many goals or assists in a single season. That is even more impressive when you note that he's only played 60% of available minutes for the Sounders this season, and there are still 4 games left.

Digging deeper into the stats, he has the third highest xCG p90 (.72) in MLS and in the matches that he plays has his hand in roughly 48% of all goals that are scored by the Sounders. That’s higher than any other player in MLS but one, the MVP himself.

One year ago Dempsey came into MLSand was instantly considered one of the best players in MLS (and got paid like it). This season, albeit with some sample size questions, he’s shown it. There are a lot of good players in MLS now. More now than what there was just one year ago and certainly more than there was just a few years ago. Still, Deuce stands out as a member of the 1% and top-3 players in this league.

2. Robbie Keane might be a robot.

At the age of 34 most soccer players are either in retirement or making plans for it. Robbie Keane is one of those rare and obscure cases that could easily be explained away by him being a robot. I mean who joins the 15/15 club (goals/assists, done by only two other players in MLS history) years beyond their peak? That’s rare. It’s an outlier… unless, again, he’s a robot. It would just makes sense on so many levels.

Outside of the traditional numbers; Keane is the leader in xCG (with near 19) and second in total shots created (153). He just makes everyone around him that much better. He’s Theirry Henry, only Irish and more angry.

1. Bradley Wright-Phillips is the simply the best player in the league and you can all get over it.

This seems kind of cliché. Give the guy that scores the most goals the MVP award, right? Okay, you caught me. I have a soft spot for guys that break records. But it’s not as if he hasn't done something amazing. He still had the top xG in MLS by multiple goals, the highest shot leverage of any one in MLS and edges Robbie Keane on xCG if you convert it to a per 90 minute metric.

Call it the "Theirry Henry effect" if you want. I don’t care. This guy has done legit things to legit opponents (ahem, my Seattle Sounders) and has an opportunity to break a record in his first full season in the league. That’s special. Sometimes we, as fans of a newer league in the world, become callous about these events because they've happened more recently. That doesn't make them less special. In fact, if anything, it speaks to the quality of the league and the quality of the talent the league is attracting and creating.

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So there you have it. This was my top-10... what is yours? Leave your comments and feed back in the comment section, or tweet us @analysisevolved.