The 22 Stats that Explain the MLS Season so far / by Kevin Minkus

By Kevin Minkus (@kevinminkus)

We’re a bit more than a month into the 2017 season. While that’s way too early to say anything definitive, it’s probably enough time to get a feel for where teams stand. Here are 22 stats (one per team), that explain something of each team’s season so far. Typical sample size warnings apply - most teams have only played five games.

Eastern Conference

Columbus: $642,500 - combined guaranteed compensation due Ola Kamara and Justin Meram (as of September 2016’s salary release) 

For the money (equal to roughly one Nocerino), Kamara and Meram are the best attacking partnership in the league. Meram has looked good both out wide and in the middle, which bodes well for the Crew as Federico Higuain hits the wrong side of the age curve. And Ola Kamara has picked up exactly where he left off last year, with 3 goals in his first six games. 

Orlando City: 11.1% of Cyle Larin’s shots are unassisted

Larin’s unassisted shot rate is two times higher than last year’s. This season, with Kaka out injured, Larin’s having to create more chances on his own. Thus far, he’s succeeding at it, to the tune of .52 xG per 96 minutes, his highest rate since entering the league.

Atlanta: 5.3 shots per 96 minutes for Josef Martinez

That number tops the league among players with more than 200 minutes played, and historically puts him in the Sebastian Giovinco, David Villa category of high volume shooters. It’s worth watching to see if any one player out of Atlanta’s attacking talent picks up that slack in his absence.

Chicago: 6.8 key passes per game (third worst in the league). 

GM Nelson Rodriguez has touted Bastian Schweinsteiger as the Fire’s answer to their chance creation problems, but that’s a responsibility that’s never quite been foisted on his shoulders. Without an elite defense, Chicago will need to up this key pass number a bit if they want an offense that can compete for a playoff spot.

New England: 375 minutes with Kei Kamara and Juan Agudelo on the field together

In 2016 the Revs struggled with the question of how to fit the non-complementary skillsets of Kamara and Agudelo together into an effective system. Going by recent results, a diamond 4-4-2 with Lee Nguyen at the tip seems to be the right answer.

New York City: 0.65 xG + xA per game for David Villa

You wouldn’t notice from his real stat line (3 g and 3 a in 5 games), but at 35 years old Villa’s expected performance is currently below his 2015 and 2016 levels (0.86 and 0.79 xG + xA per 96 minutes, respectively). Fortunately for NYCFC fans, wingers Rodney Wallace and Jack Harrison have picked up some of that slack to give the team a greater diversity of options than they’ve ever had before.

New York: 7.4 passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA)

That stat is a good measure of a team’s press- the more frequent the defensive actions (thus the lower the number), the more effective the press. Last year the Red Bulls led the league with 7.6 ppda, so while RBNY isn’t quite getting results, their defensive is once again there, the finishing just isn’t yet.

D.C. United: 83% - percentage of all possible midfield minutes played by players under 24 or over 30

The mids D.C. United relies on have either seen too many winters, or too few. Patrick Nyarko and Lloyd Sam on the wings likely have their best years behind them, while Chris Durkin, Julian Buescher, Ian Harkes, and Luciano Acosta are all still coming into form. The lack of peak players now has meant a rocky start for the midfield, but if D.C. can hold onto their prospects, they’ll be well-rewarded in a few years’ time.

Toronto: 15% - Michael Bradley’s pass usage

Pass usage measures the percentage of a team’s passes attempted by a specific player. Bradley has attempted 15% of all of Toronto FC’s passes, most of any TFC player. Giovinco might be the team’s most important piece, but Bradley has always been its metronome, and this season is no exception.

Montreal: 0.06 xG/shot

That’s the average shot quality of a Montreal chance. The average quality of an Ignacio Piatti-created chance last season was 0.11 xG, almost twice as good. Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla has been impressive for an 18 year old, but the Impact need Nacho back as soon as possible.

Philadelphia: 0 - number of times C.J. Sapong has scored double digit goals in a season.

In his six MLS seasons Sapong has never scored more than nine goals. Despite of this, Earnie Stewart brought in only League Two striker Jay Simpson to supplement the team’s attacking core. The Union are without both a real chance creator and a real starting striker, and are paying for it with two points in five games.

Western Conference

Portland: 10 substitutions

Much has been made of Caleb Porter’s aversion to substitutions. He’s made 10 in six games in 2017, a rate that’s about one full substitute less per game than his 2016 rate. I believe it was Mark Twain who said, “Better to not sub and be thought a fool than to make a sub and remove all doubt.”

Dallas: 44.9% possession

In 2016 the Hoops had a 49.5% share of possession. With an injured Mauro Diaz, though, FC Dallas has eschewed that style in favor of a counter attacking one. So far it’s worked, as the team leads the Western Conference on 2.5 points per game.

Houston: 3.33 goals above expected for Erick Torres

Torres currently leads the league with 6 goals, on 2.66 expected goals. He’s been phenomenal, and I don’t doubt that Wilmer Cabrera is the Cubo-whisperer, but Dynamo fans shouldn’t expect this hot streak to continue indefinitely.

Kansas City: 8.2 shots allowed per game.

Sporting Kansas City’s high defensive line is absolutely stifling opposing offenses so far. Now if they could just find a winger to take the scoring load off Dom Dwyer...

San Jose: 0.7 xG allowed per game

The Quakes have the league’s best defense so far, and a lot of that is on the contributions of newcomer Florian Jungwirth and rookie Nick Lima. How well and how quickly San Jose’s defense jelled is one of the pleasant surprises of the young season.

Los Angeles: 3rd - team xG rank of Daniel Steres

Steres is third on the team right now in xG, behind Romain Alessandrini and Giovani Dos Santos. Given that he’s a central defender with four total shots, that’s not good. For years people have talked about the quality of LA’s attacking prospects. Obviously it will take some time, but now that those prospects have the reins to the first team’s offense, they need to start producing.

Seattle: 114 passes by Joevin Jones attempted in Seattle’s attacking third

Surprisingly, that’s the second highest on the team, behind only Nico Lodeiro. Jones’s width on the overlap is essential to the Sounders’ shape, particularly when Lodeiro or Harry Shipp drift inside from the wings and narrow Seattle’s attack.

Salt Lake: 24 crosses per game (highest in the league)

With Albert Rusnak meant to be pulling the strings from the midfield, and 6’0” Yura Movsisyan as the tallest man on the front line, Real Salt Lake is not a team designed to create chances by bombing the ball in from out wide. That they are right now suggests a lack of cohesion in the final third, surely hampered by youth, Rusnak settling into the league, and an early injury to Joao Plata.

Colorado: -0.17 xGD/game

The Rapids’ underlying performance so far isn’t all that worse than least season’s (-.13 xGD/game in 2016), and the defense is actually a bit stingier this season in terms of shots allowed (10.5/game versus 12.3), so it’s not time to be nervous yet. But that offense (7.5 shots/game) is anemic.

Vancouver: 43.8% possession (lowest in the league)

For the last few seasons, the Whitecaps have ranked at or near the bottom of the league in possession. They’ve preferred to play the ball out to their pacey wingers to hit teams on the counter. The recent Kekuta Manneh for Tony Tchani trade, though, might spell the beginning of the end of that style. Against RSL last Sunday, the Caps had 48% of the ball, the most they’ve had all year.

Minnesota: Three players with more than 1.0 xG

While a lot has rightly been written on the Loons’ defensive struggles, MNUFC are also one of just five teams with three players currently at more than one expected goal. Christian Ramirez (3.0 xG), Kevin Molino (2.5 xG), and Johan Venegas (1.2 xG) form the core of an exciting attacking group that is at or near their peak ages.