2015 ASA Preview: Seattle Sounders / by Harrison Crow

*xG = expected goals, xA = expected assists, xGD = expected goal differential. For more information see our xGoals by Team page.

By Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)

I am a Sounders fan. Let me allow you in on a little secret... there are plenty of people that dislike Sounders fans, and that's warranted—most of the time. There is no one more ready to tear apart a Sounders fan than... well, another Sounders fan. You think you're clever with your little “ACES” slogan or whatever but by the time this is over I'll have more angry comments and hate mail from Sounders fans than I do non-Sounders fans.

There are still supporters wondering why Sigi Schmid has a job. Mind you, the Sounders just won two out of the three trophies they were afforded the opportunity to win last season. Pay all that no mind. We'll argue and talk down and be disparaging to each other for whether or not Brad Evans is good or if Obafemi Martins works hard enough or if he really is 30 years old or not. We're self loathing, scum of the earth and no one hates us as much as we do. And if you haven't figured it out by now, we invented hating the Seattle Sounders.

Last year they didn't win MLS Cup and that's a huge indictment on the organization, front office, coaching staff and players because supporters put such a premium on each season and every single match. Supporters have the highest, and probably a bit unrealistic, expectations every year. Some may choose to look at that as being entitled and I can certainly see the fine line that is walked carefully by many supporters in their realm.

Scoring goals, winning games, hosting cups. These things are expectations of wearing the Sounders badge. The goal every year is to lift the MLS Cup regardless of the probabilities or likelihood of such scenarios from the start. It's setting the bar high and never wavering from that, and that, you have to admit, is ballsy and kind of cool.

Looking back at the 2014 season there are a few things that will stand out, but the one thing above all else is NOT that on the last day the Sounders defeated the LA Galaxy at home to take the trophy. No, more interesting to me is the fact that Seattle kept pace with a club that according to many of our measurements was the best team in MLS, perhaps of all-time. You can argue about Chicago, New England or Columbus in the early, mid and late-00's. DC United in the late 90's or periodically through the years. You could talk about the 2012 version of the Galaxy. I don't care who is actually “the best”. Seattle kept pace with a team that is flat out HISTORIC and that's incredibly impressive.

Seattle didn't have one stretch of more than two games where they didn't have a win. Their biggest slump was taking only seven of 21 points from July 5th to August 20th which they in turn rebounded with four straight wins.

The Coach

Sigi Schmid is maybe the most under-appreciated coach in US soccer history. He's always considered a second fiddle to Bruce Arena. Despite being one of the winningest coaches in MLS history he's always having something he does questioned, and regardless of how he wins it's never good enough or classy enough or “soccer” enough.

Schmid to me is a coach that is constantly evolving. Looking at the fact the Sounders scored the second most goals (30) in MLS in the final 30 minutes of a match and conceded the least (10) during that same time period speaks to me. I felt his substitutions in the second half where the best by any coach in MLS last season and I just wish he was a bit more respected by both home and opposing fans. When all they have is weight jokes... maybe, it's not such a bad thing.

The Goalkeeper

I've played the back-and-forth game a lot with Stefen Frei. Our numbers last year didn't favor him as Frei accounted for four additional goals by himself. Again, there is a sample size to consider and it's not to say he didn't perform exceptionally well in the playoffs. I personally think, though there are numbers that can be crunched to verify, that he performed better down the stretch of the season once the rust of not playing the past two seasons was shaken free.

That said, the Sounders needed a back-up keeper and made the move to bring in Troy Perkins this off-season. Perkins has been a starter at his last four clubs, but his time in Montreal wasn't great (we account for him adding a full five goals above the average keeper) and while his defense didn't help him (saw nearly six shots on goal a game, top-five during his tenure) neither did being the highest paid keeper in MLS. I'm interested to see if having Perkins will push Frei to be better than last season or create personnel decision and complications for the coaching staff.

The Defenders

Obviously no more DeAndre Yedlin, he's gone. Gone, gone, gone. Yedlin wasn't just fast, he got to a lot of loose, 50/50 balls. He won 53% of his tackles and was in the t-17th in interceptions with 78 and 4th among full backs. It's not that those specific stats yield much difference in expected goals against but he did a great job of helping Seattle retain possession and create shots as quickly as possible. He's going to be missed for more than singular physical attribute—and the cool hair cuts.

Yedlin's absence has given way to the club signing Tyrone Mears, former Bolton Wanderer. So... yeah. He runs like a soccer player, so I've been told. Any other data can remain on the sideline to this point because it's all from England and we don't like data from them because it's all in the metric system.

Also, filed under news I'm sure you already knew, Zach Scott is old! Love the guy and I really love that he's somehow gotten better every year after the age of 30. But the time has come that Seattle has to gameplan that he can't be the fall back guy. The heir apparent for that role seems to be the ever versatile Brad Evans,  a guy who most know from his time at right back with the USMNT. He's great with the ball at his feet, was 18th in total aerial duels--winning 60% of them--and had an great foul/win ratio of 1:1. How that translates to being a defender, I guess we'll see.

Lastly, there is Leo Gonzalez whom I can't believe is no longer getting Costa Rica call-ups. His defense is among the best at full back in MLS. The key is health and keeping healthy. Dave Tenney, Ravi Ramineni and the rest of the impressive Seattle Sounders sports science team have to find a way to keep Gonzalez on the pitch for those last five or six games in the playoffs. Basically, I just want a chance to reference Dave and Ravi because I think they're pretty neat fellas.

The Midfielders

Lamar Neagle is perhaps one of my favorite things about the Seattle Sounders. Yes, I know Oba and Clint play there too. I'll get to all of that. Over 2500 minutes Neagle projects to create about 10 goals a season. That's not a crazy amount but the fun thing is that whenever he's given the minutes he does all that AND a bag of chips.... not even Lays, no grease!

I wonder if Neagle might be a top-five wide midfielder/winger in MLS. And not only are you, the RSL or Portland fan that is, for some reason or another, reading this article and wanting to barf, but so are most Sounders fans who right now have at least three fingers counting other players in the league they'd rather have.

Look, I'll give you Brad Davis and Graham Zusi for sure, but Lloyd Sam, Darlington Nagbe? I like both a lot and on pure talent you have an argument, but I'm not sure either are better than Neagle or that there is substantial data that proves either theory. Maybe, Ethan Finlay. Maybe. This is seriously an interesting conversation with you start to think about it on a production level.

Real quick, Ozzie Alonso was on a bit of a downward trend with minutes the last four years. From 2011 to 2013 each of his seasons saw decreased minutes and more injuries, which was frighting for any supporter to see happen to a vital member of the team.

Alonso finally breached the 2800 minute mark again (for only the second time in his six season career) in 2014 but is now looking at missing more time after having surgery on his groin. The question I have not just is whether or not the Sounders are going to be able to recover from a losing out on Alonso for any amount of games but if we're going to see that once great ball winner return to be actually great.

The Forwards

I'm not sure two players in Major League soccer have as much fun as Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey do while they are on the pitch together. 

Still, when you look at our expected goals and see that we tally Oba with scoring three more goals than the expected goals model predicted last season, that isn't just luck. His Shot leverage (.162), which is the average location and expected likelihood that a shot would score, is the 10th highest in our four year data set. Meaning that Oba doesn't take lucky shots. He's made some lucky shots, but the ones he makes aren't all luck. He obviously has an immense amount of skill in repeatedly getting to his goal scoring locations. While the model hints at some regression, it should be an interesting case study to see if he can continually beat the model and what we can take from how he does it.

Clint Dempsey is awesome too, and expected goals loves what he does more than Martins. That's because of two things: volume and quality. He creates an incredible amount of shots from all sorts of great locations, and while his shot leverage is four points lower than Oba, he makes it up in nearly two and half additional shots created a game.

Summary

Seattle has all the pieces to continue being really good and they didn't have a lot of roster churn which I think is vital in MLS. It makes a lot of sense to consider them the team to beat out of the Western Conference and possibly the MLS Cup favorite to this point. 

The thing that really distinguished them as a club for me last year was their expected goals against was about in line with what it was last year and the amount of goals they gave up regressed back to the mean. I'm sure a lot of that had to do with using Chad Marshall, but don't underestimate the amount of heartache that defense went through between using the Djimi Traore, Scott tandem and Dylan Remick at full back, too. Finishing 6th in MLS isn't anything to sneeze at and you shouldn't sneeze at things anyway, as it's rather gross.

The team's expected goals in even game states fell back a tiny bit. That is to say the likelihood that the team scores before their opponent. I don't think it's anything to worry about. The take away from an expected goals point of view last year is that they're not as good an attacking team as they seemed, but they're also a better defense team than they seemed, too.

While a first place finish and competing for the Supporters Shield is very possible, I think a 2nd or 3rd place finish is probably more likely for Seattle in 2015.