A Less Hot Take Approach To Evaluating MLS Centerbacks / by Harrison Crow

By Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)

It’s fun every once in a while to throw something out that you don’t really check before you press “tweet.” I did that a couple of days ago with a quick "hot take" on #Top10MLSCenterbacks.

This was something I did haphazardly after eyeballing a trio of stats (defensive actions, percentage of aerial battles (%AB) won and fouls committed). It wasn't thoroughly thought trough and I didn't consider many other important factors. That said, I believe there was something positive gained through the experience.

Obviously this list doesn’t encompass or order the players that we've come to think about when we talk MLS's best centerbacks. Its commonly accepted that Kendal Waston and Laurent Ciman are two of the very best centerbacks in the league with Matt Hedges and (recently departed) Omar Gonzalez close behind.

However, we saw Matt Miazga selected as third runner-up to the MLS defender of the year and I feel like while this list probably misses key components (I know Portland Timbers fans are asking where Liam Ridgewell and Nat Borchers are) there might just be something here worth exploring.

Yes, as much as the list tweeted out is flawed. I really don’t buy into any idea that Saad Abdul-Salaam is the 10th best CB in the league. That said, before last night I hadn't considered him being even average.

I believe there is merit to what we are seeing and I think it’s worth considering that guys like SAS and Steve Birnbaum are underrated because of the surrounding situations. Rather than completely abandoning this idea because it was haphazardly administered I put some thought into the next iteration of it.

Using a very simple weighted mean based on rank of Positional Adjusted Defensive Actions, Aerial Duels per90, Duels% Won, Fouls Committed p90 and Long Passes per90, I came up with the following list:

I think it's probably a mistake to weigh each of these things equally. They're obviously not, but because we're not utilizing Pass ExpG Projections (PEP) or some type of amalgamation of individual pScore (whenever Jared gets around to creating that next) we can't truly determine to what degree which stat holds the most importance to each player.

Dinging Waston for his fouls this harshly is tough and it shows as it weighs down his overall placement on the list. Hedges also comes in low on the rankings because he doesn't win many headers or duels consistently and he doesn't administer many long diagonal passes, though considering the counter-attacking abilities of Michael Barrios and Fabian Castillo, he probably should be attempting to deliver more long outlet passes.

The biggest omission on this list is that of Ciman, who gets pushed back for many of the same reasons as Hedges but the disparity between his numbers is much more drastically. I suspect that PEP would rate him highly due to his positionally adjusted defensive actions. Rather than just tossing it aside and saying it's not fair or noteworthy because it doesn't properly assess his strengths, it's worth something to highlight his TERRIBLE and inconsistent approach to winning duels or the fact that as a six foot defender he doesn't win enough aerial battles.

I suggest looking at the score received on the far right in more of tiered approach rather than "1-38" static ranking. I suggest viewing these players in groups of their scores because moving into a tiered approach we can start looking at these guys on a more leveled ground.

Instead of trying to say I put Birnbaum over Hedges, look at there being 2.2 ranking points separating them and realize they're probably really close in terms of talent. Putting one over the other doesn't accomplish anything or add value to the discussion.

What it does accomplish is put guys like Jeff Larentowicz, Clarence Goodson and Aurélien Collin back into consideration of being good individual performs if not solid valuable defenders who happen to be on bad or average teams.

Defense is an especially tough thing to attempt to value. Tougher yet is disconnecting the associated stigma of those types of teams with those individuals involved.

Is it fair to say or associate that because Chicago Fire gave up the most goals in MLS that Larentowicz is bad? There are three other elements a long that back line not to mention that Sean Johnson didn't have a good season.

This was just a fun exercise and I can't say how much to really read into this but considering what our eyes tell us and what this list associates, I think it's fair to state there are a few defenders that we don't give enough credit to and there some that we give too much.

The narrative says there is a clear cut "best" defender. That might be true. I believe the story is more vague and convoluted than that. A talent gap between Kendall Waston and Liam Ridgewell (if one exists) is probably more tactical-based in how they are deployed, how they partner, and how their skill set is utilized than really one being clearly better than the other.