CONCACAF Champions League

What it takes to win the Champions League by Jacob Beckett

There's something great about knockout tournaments, especially involving teams that are completely unfamiliar with each other. NCAA March Madness and the World Cup are perfect examples; seeing your favorite team play against a relative unknown like Murray St. or Ghana carries a little extra intrigue than your average game against a conference opponent. For MLS fans, CONCACAF Champions League embodies this opportunity.

Increasingly, CCL has been painted as an MLS vs. Liga MX referendum, one in which MLS teams steadily gain but never overtake Mexico's dominant position in the region. But lost in that narrative is that CCL includes teams from a handful of other countries, too. These MLS-Liga MX matchups will get the majority of publicity (starting with Sporting KC-Toluca in the first knockout round), but seven other MLS/Liga MX teams have to knock off Central American or Caribbean opponents before those glamour matchups are set in stone. If you think these first round matchups are just a formality, just ask an FC Dallas fan how their campaign went last year (spoiler alert: they lost to Panamanian side Tauro before they even got to face a Mexican team).

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In Defense of the San Jose Earthquakes and American Soccer by Drew Olsen

Note: This is part II of the post using a finishing rate model and the binomial distribution to analyze game outcomes. Here is part I. As if American soccer fans weren’t beaten down enough with the removal of 3 MLS clubs from the CONCACAF Champions League, Toluca coach Jose Cardozo questioned the growth of American soccer and criticized the strategy the San Jose Earthquake employed during Toluca’s penalty-kick win last Wednesday. Mark Watson’s team clearly packed it in defensively and looked to play “1,000 long balls” on the counterattack. It certainly doesn’t make for beautiful fluid soccer but was it a smart strategy? Are the Earthquakes really worthy of the criticism?

Perhaps it’s fitting that Toluca is almost 10,000 feet above sea level because at that level the strategy did look like a disaster. Toluca controlled the ball for 71.8% of the match and ripped off 36 shots to the Earthquakes' 10. It does appear that San Jose was indeed lucky to be sitting 1-1 at the end of match. The fact that Toluca only scored one lone goal in those 36 shots must have been either unlucky or great defense, right? Or could it possibly have been expected?

The prior post examined using the binomial distribution to predict goals scored, and again one of the takeaways was that the finishing rates and expected goals scored in a match decline as shots increase, as seen below. This is a function of "defensive density," I’ll call it, or basically how many players a team is committing to defense. When more players are committed to defending, the offense has the ball more and ultimately takes more shots. But due to the defensive intensity, the offense is less likely to score on each shot.

 source: AmericanSoccerAnalysis

Mapping that curve to an expected goals chart you can see that the Earthquakes expected goals are not that different from Toluca’s despite the extreme shot differential.

source data: AmericanSoccerAnalysis

Given this shot distribution, let’s apply the binomial distribution model to determine what the probability was of San Jose advancing to the semifinals of the Champions League. I’m going to use the actual shots and the expected finishing rate to model the outcomes. The actual shots taken can be controlled through Mark Watson’s strategy, but it's best to use expected finishing rates to simulate what outcomes the Earthquakes were striving for. Going into the match the Earthquake needed a 1-1 draw to force a shootout. Any better result would have seen them advancing and anything worse would have seen them eliminated.

Inputs:

Toluca Shots: 36

Toluca Expected Finishing Rate: 3.6%

San Jose Shots: 10

San Jose Expected Finishing Rate: 11.2%

Outcomes:

Toluca Win: 39.6%

Toluca 0-0 Draw: 8.3%

Toluca 1-1 Draw: 13.9% x 50% PK Toluca = 6.9%

Total Probability Toluca advances= 54.9%

 

San Jose Win: 32.3%

2-2 or higher Draw = 5.8%

San Jose 1-1 Draw: 13.9% x 50% PK San Jose = 6.9%

Total Probability San Jose Advances = 45.1%

 

The odds of San Jose advancing with that strategy are clearly not as bad as the 10,000-foot level might indicate. Counterattacking soccer certainly isn’t pretty, but it wouldn’t still exist if it weren’t considered a solid strategy.

It’s difficult, but we can also try to simulate what a “normal” possession-based strategy might have looked like in Toluca. In MLS the average possession for the home team this year is 52.5% netting 15.1 shots per game. In Liga MX play, Toluca is only averaging about 11.4 shots per game so they are not a prolific shooting team. They are finishing at an excellent 15.2%, which could be the reason San Jose attempted to pack it in defensively. The away team in MLS is averaging 10.4 shots per game. If we assume that a more possession oriented strategy would have resulted in a typical MLS game then we have the following expected goals outcomes.

source data: AmericanSoccerAnalysis

Notice the expected goal differential is actually worse for San Jose by .05 goals. Though it may not be statistically significant, at the very least we can say that San Jose's strategy was not ridiculous.

Re-running the expected outcomes with the above scenario reveals that San Jose advances 43.3% of the time. A 1.8% increase in the probability of advancing did not deserve any criticism, and definitely not such harsh criticism. It shows that the Earthquakes probably weren’t wrong in their approach to the match. And if we had factored in a higher finishing rate for Toluca, the probabilities would favor the counterattack strategy even more.

Even though the US struck out again in the CONCACAF Champions League, American's don't need to take abuse for their style of play. After all, soccer is about winning, and in the case of a tie, advancing. We shouldn't be ashamed or be criticized when we do whatever it takes to move on.

 

xGD in CONCACAF Champions League by Drew Olsen

Understanding that not everything has to mean something, we still try to provide meaning to things. Deriving meaning becomes infinitely harder when sample sizes are small: what size sample is important when considering a specific set of data? We don't always know, but I present you the CONCACAF Champions League data anyway. Below is the Expected Goals 1.0 data from the group stage of the CCL that I've compiled in the last couple of days.

Team  xGF   xGA   xGD 
Cruz Azul 8.578 4.112 4.466
Toulca 7.528 3.488 4.04
Tijuana 6.617 3.018 3.599
America 6.975 4.017 2.958
Dynamo 5.683 3.417 2.266
LA Galaxy 7.052 4.95 2.102
Sporting KC 4.785 2.699 2.086
    SJ Earthquakes 4.768 2.962 1.806
Montreal I.    3.816    8.796    -4.98

To be honest, this is my inventive way to present this information to you. I wanted to do an article about various things concerning CCL, but the problem always kind of leads back to sample size. Four games just isn't that much. The thing is, while you may not be able to draw any solid conclusions from this, it does give us a rough assessment for how Liga MX compares to MLS at this juncture, and it tells us that for the most part, MLS and Liga MX teams are better than the competition.

Mind you, teams have changed between when they qualified for CCL 2013-14 and now. This San Jose Earthquakes squad, for example, has quite a few new faces. Houston also has added a couple of pieces and underwent a some changes in the defensive rotation scheme.

xGD wasn't going to tell us too much about the semi-final matches that were played the last two nights. We knew that it was improbable that even two clubs were going to move forward. Furthermore it seems awkward to even consider that San Jose was the closest to advancing--and had it not been for a bad call, it probably would have.

What xGD did tell us is that all four Mexican clubs performed better in that short period than any of the MLS sides. Sure, a "duh" statement is in order, but this clarifies that point further than a cute 1990's radio morning drive show with catchy sound effects could. Cruz Azul seemed a superior team, for example, as they were nearly two expected goals better than any MLS side. In a short tournament that says something stronger than their actual goal tallies.

Yes, I realize the whole sample size thing, and really it's funny submitting qualifying statements, but it's even more silly to consider that we qualify them despite the fact that we don't actually know if we need to. For all we know xGD stabilizes as a metric at six games or maybe even four. We'll get Matty on that...

Mexico's teams were better, and judging from everything going down on  Twitter and how the fragile psyche of the average US Soccer fan seems almost devastated by this fact, the reality is that MLS is better than it has been. The league has grown so much, and considering the issues that still limit organizations from competing against Mexico, it's surprising how well we really do in this competition.

Now American teams aren't yet on the "elite" level yet. But they are still very good and are nearing the imaginary line of being able to compete on a greater level with Mexico. As the budgets of MLS increase, and the depth charts along with the academies grow deeper, you're only going to see MLS teams get better. Stating that an MLS team will never win the CCL is one of those hyperbole statements that is just crazy to me. I think it's an eventuality at this point that some club somewhere will knock Mexico off it's perch...sooner rather than later.

MLS Week 2: Expected Goals and Attacking Passes by Drew Olsen

Truth be told, last week was kind of a failure on my behalf. I trusted the data and information that was supplied by Golazo, and I'm not sure it really worked out as intended. A few mistakes have been pointed out to me, and while in general that could have been avoided by double checking the MLS chalkboard, I'm not sure that I really wanted to double check their work. This week I went straight to the Chalkboard for the data and then verified the total amount based off MLS soccer numbers. The result of the total numbers this week were a bit surprising.

Team shot1 shot2 shot3 shot4 shot5 shot6 Total xGF
San Jose 0 15 1 8 2 1 27 3.231
Colorado 1 8 4 3 1 1 18 2.228
Portland 2 5 6 3 4 1 21 2.219
New York 1 7 1 0 2 0 11 1.667
Sporting KC 1 4 4 4 3 2 18 1.654
Philadelphia 2 2 4 3 2 0 13 1.465
Chicago 2 2 2 4 2 2 14 1.446
Chivas 2 1 2 6 4 0 15 1.351
Seattle 1 4 1 0 6 1 13 1.263
Houston 1 2 4 3 4 0 14 1.2
Montreal 1 2 2 3 8 0 16 1.15
RSL 0 3 3 2 4 0 12 0.942
Toronto 0 2 2 1 3 1 9 0.653
New England 1 1 1 1 1 0 5 0.635
Vancouver 0 2 1 1 3 1 8 0.582
FC Dallas 0 2 1 2 2 0 7 0.577
Total               22.26

*Expected Goals 1.0 used for this table.

It's weird the last couple of games (talking the CCL match against Toluca midweek); San Jose has done an incredible job at generating shots against talented opposition. First, against a very talented Deportivo Toluca that currently sits second in the Clausura 2014 table, the Quakes managed to put together 20 shots. Liga MX isn't what they once were to MLS, but this is a very efficient showing. With that they barely squeaked by with a draw. This weekend was a much different story as they put the pedal to the floor and crashed through Real Salt Lake to draw a game they really had no business even being in to that point.

Portland is another team that stood out, but for less good things than bad. As Chris already alluded to this morning (he stole my thunder!), they've had an incredible amount of shots that have been blocked even before they get to the keeper. They're obviously getting into advantageous locations and taking shots, but their opponents are getting out in front and deterring those attempts. Which, if you were going to deploy a method for the stopping the Timbers' offense, that would seem to be it. Stay in front of them and prevent as many shots from occurring as possible. Portland has shown itself to be a terribly direct team.

Team    xGF     Goals  
San Jose 3 3
Colorado 2 1
Portland 2 1
New York 2 1
Sporting KC 2 1
Philadelphia 1 1
Chicago 1 1
Chivas 1 1
Seattle 1 1
Houston 1 1
Montreal 1 0
RSL 1 3
Toronto 1 2
New England 1 0
Vancouver 1 1
FC Dallas 1 1
Total 22 19

As you saw last week, our metric predicted under the total amount of goals scored and this week we were actually over. Again this speaks to the strength of long-term averages, and you're frequency going to be bouncing around the total amount. But the important thing is that we're close, and that we understand where we came up short and where we went over. New England, Vancouver and FC Dallas are all clubs that were lucky to even make the "50%" cut off because they just barely projected for a goal. But that was because we round up to the nearest whole number.

New England was surprisingly the highest of the three clubs. I say surprising because they tallied the least amount of shots. Despite that they managed a couple of better shot locations.

    Team   Comp. Passes   Inc. Passes   Total     Pass%     KeyP
Philadelphia 76 35 111 68.47% 5
New England 44 22 66 66.67% 1
New York 53 38 91 58.24% 6
Colorado 26 20 46 56.52% 5
Seattle 59 54 113 52.21% 6
Toronto 15 19 34 51.72% 2
Sporting KC 38 29 67 56.72% 5
Dallas FC 26 11 37 70.27% 4
Houston 40 26 66 60.61% 8
Montreal 49 25 74 66.22% 8
San Jose 54 36 90 60.00% 10
RSL 50 15 65 76.92% 3
Portland 46 41 87 52.87% 5
Chicago 31 30 61 50.82% 7
Chivas 48 33 81 59.26% 8
Vancouver 31 22 53 58.49% 2

Lastly we have attacking third passing data. As you see, there were only two clubs over the "100" mark this week. Seattle and Philly both collected a large percentage of the total possession, which as we have talked about previously isn't necessarily what's important. It's about WHERE you possess the ball. Well, for Philadelphia it worked out well as they pretty much dominated New England. Pushing the ball into the attacking third, the Zolos limited the total touches of New England in dangerous locations and created plenty of opportunities for themselves.

However, Seattle is a different story. As shown in PWP, they dominated a lot of the raw numbers and even managed to finally produce a goal despite shot frustrations. But Toronto preyed on the counter attack and mental mistakes by Marco Pappa. They didn't need many chances, but in the future we'll have to see if they can continue to finish as efficiently as they did on Saturday. They sported the least amount of attacking touches in all of MLS with only 34 and while that obviously doesn't correlate 100% to goals scored, the more opportunities you have the more likely you're going to find the back of the net.

Season Preview: Portland Timbers by Drew Olsen

Like a hot new boy band busting onto the music scene, the Portland Timbers came out of nowhere last season to  improve more than any other MLS team, jumping from an eighth-place Western Conference finish and 34 points in 2012 to first place and 57 points in 2013. Expectations are high for 2013 Coach-of-the-Year Caleb Porter, and we will soon see which member of the band the Timbers are; a legitimate talent with true staying power like RSL, the Galaxy and JT, or the goofy one that is just along for the ride, like 2007 ChivasUSA, 2010 FC Dallas, and Chris Kirkpatrick. Do the Timbers have a model that will let them hang with the big boys, or will they regress to the mean with a vengeance? ASA readers see them as Nick Carter material, with a majority of voters picking the Timbers to win the Western Conference for a second season in a row. PTFC2013squad

 Players In    Players Out  
Name Pos   Name Pos
Jorge Villafana D Trade from Chivas USA David Horst D Traded to Houston
Norberto Paparatto D Transfer from Tigre Ryan Miller D Option declined
Bryan Gallego D Homegrown player Dylan Tucker-Gangnes D Waived
Taylor Peay D SuperDraft Andrew Jean-Baptiste D Traded to Chivas USA
Steve Zakuani M Re-Entry Stage 1 Mikael Silvestre D Contract terminated
Schillo Tschuma M/F SuperDraft Sal Zizzo M Traded to Sporting KC
George Fochive M SuperDraft Brent Richards F Waived
Aaron Long M SuperDraft Sebastian Rincon F Loan expired
 Andrew Weber GK  Free Transfer Jose Valencia F Loaned to Club Olimpo
Milos Kocic GK Retired

Roster Churn: Portland returns 82.31% of their minutes played in 2013, 6th most in MLS.

 

2014 Preview

Median age: 25 *Designated player

Coming off their first place Western Conference finish in 2013, the Timbers’ theme for the 2014 offseason has been “more of the same”. Led by new coach Caleb Porter and MLS Newcomer-Of-The-Year Diego Valeri, the Timbers were a surprise contender in 2013. Porter's 4-5-1/4-3-3 hybrid system was a 180% turn from their philosophy under former coach John Spencer, and it brought the team immediate success. By controlling possession and maintaining the defensive pressure even in the opposition end, the Timbers brought a unique style that was both entertaining and effective. This attack based system saw them finish with the third most goals in the league last year, despite being only 9th in attempts. Not only were their attacks fruitful, they were dangerously efficient. Unlike last season’s roster overhaul, Portland made few big changes in the offseason for 2014, instead solidifying their depth and bringing in two Argentine veterans to shore up the back-line and attacking corps. Clearly, the Timbers are willing to ride Goalkeeper-of-the-Year Donovan Ricketts and playmakers Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe in the upcoming season.

The Attack

As in 2013, Valeri and Nagbe will be relied on to be the catalysts for the Portland offense. Led by their 12 and 10 goals respectively, the Timbers finished with the fourth best finishing rate (goals divided by attempts) in MLS last season. Being two of the most fouled players in MLS last season, and due to Valeri’s somewhat slow recovery from off-season hernia surgery, their health could determine if Portland can continue to finish with similar efficacy this season. Still, the additions of Gaston Fernandez and Steve Zakuani will alleviate some of the dependence on Portland’s playmakers. If injury isn’t an issue, the Timbers can expect to score lots of goals in 2014.

PORINFO

The biggest (and perhaps the only) major offseason subtraction was the loss of Jamaican international and Oregon State alum Ryan Johnson’s nine goals (third on the team last year), as he pursues a career in China. The departure of Johnson will certainly be felt, but late-season acquisition Maxi Urruti had taken over the starting striker position before an injury last year, and he looks to fit perfectly into Porter’s high-pressure defensive scheme. Also significant has been the addition of “La Gata” Fernandez. Besides having the best tribute video on the internet, Fernandez will fill some of the holes left by both Johnson and Rodney Wallace, who tore his ACL in the playoffs and isn’t expected to return until late summer. Fernandez is versatile as an attacking midfielder/forward, and seems likely to assume a utility role on the Left side of Midfield to start the season. Zakuani is an unknown quantity after excelling for the Sounders before enduring two years of injury and disappointment. Few things would be more welcome to Timbers fans than seeing a former Seattle player return to form in Portland, so any significant contribution from Zakuani will be considered a bonus. Couple those additions with first-round SuperDraft pick Schillo Tshuma, who has impressed in preseason, and the Timbers will expect to continue with their high-scoring output last year.

Still, requisite warnings about reading too much into the preseason aside, a lack of scoring (only 6 goals in 7 preseason games) in the lead-up to this MLS season is cause for some concern. For the Timbers system to work they'll need to score goals in bunches.

The Real Bash Brothers

2012 Timbers Army’s player of the year Diego Chara and captain Will Johnson, who saw his career revitalized by a move to Portland last season, will again anchor a high-energy midfield that is likely to be among the league leading duos in minutes and fouls (Chara has finished in the top three in fouls committed in all three of his MLS seasons). While not as flashy as their attacking counterparts, Chara and Johnson are just as important to the Timbers’ success. Their hard-tackling, box-to-box styles are exemplary of Porter’s possession philosophy. The Timbers will expect to win the midfield battle in nearly every game they play this season, with Chara and Johnson expected to neutralize the opposition’s playmakers as a way to free up and start Portland’s multi-faced attack.

Defensive Questions

Despite a conference best 33 goals against last season, center back was a position in flux last year with six different players all getting starts there (Futty Danso, Pa-Moudu Kah, Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Mikel Silvestre, Rauwshan Mckenzie, and David Horst). Jean-Baptiste started the most games next to Kah, but lost his starting spot to Danso in the last couple months of the season. Still, Danso’s limitations were exposed in the playoffs last season, and priority number one for the offseason was to find a consistent starter to pair with Kah. Portland ultimately ended up bringing in contender for best-named signing of the MLS offseason, Argentine Norberto Paparatto. While little besides some YouTube highlight videos (especially dubious when judging a CB) is known about Paparatto, judging by his solid if mostly unremarkable preseason the starting spot next to Kah appears his to lose. The outside backs are likely to stay the same as they were for nearly every game in 2013, with Jack Jewsbury and Michael Harrington (fresh off a USMNT summer call-up) being active both as wing-defenders and initiators of the attack.

Ricketts silenced his doubters and skeptics last year by earning his second Goalkeeper of the Year award at age 36. While not getting any younger, the Jamaican did a lot to cover up for the mistakes of Portland's defenders last year, having allowed only 83.2% of the goals a replacement MLS keeper would have, according to our goalkeeper ratings. Along with Nick Rimando, Ricketts was a head above the rest of MLS keepers, having prevented 6.27 goals  more than the average MLS goalkeeper last season. Still, the Timbers appear to be grooming young New Zealander Jake Gleeson (who they have sent on loan to Sacramento Republic FC) to fill Rickett's shoes, so there will be a smooth transition when Ricketts ultimately retires.

2014 Predictions

The 2014 MLS All-Star game will be in Portland, but the Timbers’ organization and fans expect MLS Cup to be held there, too. Under the guidance and leadership of Caleb Porter and Diego Valeri, year two is primed for success. With the Timbers figuring to compete in all three major competitions – MLS, the US Open Cup, and CONCACAF Champions League – this is a team that expects success. Outside of the Cascadia Cup, the Timbers have never brought any silverware back to the Rose City, but this could be the year things change.

Our data suggest the Timbers drastically over performed compared their expected goals for and against last season. Did they just get lucky a season ago, or has the organization finally built a model for success? They return their three best players from 2013 in Ricketts, Valeri, and Nagbe, and hope the added experience and chemistry between these players continues to flourish. A lot is expected of the Timbers this season, and only time will tell if 2013 was a sign of things to come, or in the words of N’SYNC, it will be “Bye, Bye, Bye” for their championship hopes in 2014.

Crowdsourcing Results

1st place in the Western Conference; 204 of 404 (50.4%) readers projected the Timbers to win the Western Conference, and 386 (95.5%) projected them to make the playoffs in some capacity.

Champions League: How Much is it Worth to an MLS Club? by Drew Olsen

The major talking point concerning the CONCACAF Champions League, and gaining entry into the tournament, is the payroll increase that MLS affords a club that qualifies. Now, this isn't the sizable increase for a club that we see for a team in Europe, but it has the potential to be a game-changer in MLS, depending on the team and its ownership. Most figures concerning team salary/payroll are generally guarded for obvious reasons. However, rather than using official numbers, I went through the data generously provided by the Players Union and calculated the accrued difference in pay between when the team won entry and the following year after the increase.

Now, as it happens, the Union only has data posted as far back as 2007, that's okay. Since the tournament underwent changes, adapting to it's current format back in 2008.

ChampionsLeagueIncrease

Obviously, this is still a small sample size, but it gives you a rough figure on how this could help DC United and the other Champion-League-bound clubs this season.  A big caveat to using the Unions' data is that its just a snap shot at a given point in the season. Not necessarily what they paid out in dues for the entire campaign.

An obvious tip-off to that is Seattle dropping payroll from 2009 to 2010. They didn't cut funds, but because late in the season they traded away Freddie Ljungberg to Chicago, his cost was associated with their club despite Seattle playing the majority of his contract for the season.

This is just one example among 20 unique situations. No season is the same. The LA Galaxy and their 16% cut in 2011 largely came from David Beckham's greatly reduced fee. 2013 comes and that fee is entirely off the book with his trip to PSG and the Galaxy not replacing his huge contract with another high paid designated player. Instead they signed Omar Gonzalez.

Still a team gaining access to the Champions League enjoys a nice 9% raise in their annual spending, and as is the case in other leagues, dollars spent correlate to points and position in the table to some degree.