The good, the bad, and the unlucky: What Expected Points tell us about the 2018 MLS season by Eliot McKinley

Expected goals (xG) has finally made it, the Times of London are including an alternate table for the English Premier League based upon per game xG for this season. While using only which team had the highest xG in a game for determining a winner is problematic, it is still a step in the right analytical direction.

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Little Things from Week 24: Lodeiro's control, Machado about creating space, and Villa's intelligence by Harrison Hamm

Nicolas Lodeiro doing Nicolas Lodeiro things

Nico Lodeiro is a Touch Percentage Superstar. His 14.4 percent leads MLS players with a significant sample size this season, and he was similarly among the league leaders in 2016 and 2017. Most of his competitors are deeper-lying midfielders who are more likely to get on the ball in safer positions, whereas Lodeiro’s touches are situated primarily in a more congested attacking third.

Lodeiro is everything for this Sounders team, the fulcrum through which they pass and create. As John Strong and Brian Dunseth relayed on the FS1 broadcast on Sunday, Garth Lagerwey and the higher-ups consider Seattle Lodeiro’s team. Only a player with the on-ball proficiency and volume of Lodeiro could deserve that lofty mantle.

Few players in MLS’ recent history have possessed Lodeiro’s willingness to control a game’s shape, and almost no one has been able to do so from the advanced positions that he has. The Uruguayan is everywhere, by design. He’s constantly moving and trying to make himself available for passes. That, his never-ending movement and incisive mobility, is what stood out in 2016 when he arrived midseason and dominated everyone.

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Why is Atlanta's Attack so Dangerous? Ruthless Consistency. by Andrew Smith

As part of the US Soccer hackathon in Chicago last month, our team of Benjamin Harrison, Kevin Minkus, Eliot McKinley, Andrew Crago, and I developed a player decision model to evaluate final third decision making (Editor's note: Andrew is being humble and left out one important point: THEY WON THE HACKATHON. Here's a link to the project). The model uses Gaussian process classification to estimate the decision a player would make—either to pass, shoot, or attempt to take on a defender—at a specific point in the final third. Combining the players on the same team, we can extend this model to estimate the decisions the team as a whole makes in the attacking third. Then, to further understand team decision making in different game situations, the data is stratified into three categories to look at the adjustments in play when behind, tied, or ahead.

There’s not a whole lot that jumps out in an initial glance at the plots—there are no clear similarities between teams at the top or bottom of the league. There is, however, one specific team that stands out. Atlanta is extremely consistent—their attacking strategy is virtually identical regardless of the score. In the often volatile arena of professional sports consistency usually correlates with success, and Atlanta’s 2018 campaign is no exception. But ultimately it’s hard to say whether this consistency is a source or byproduct of their successes this year. Winning tends to alleviate a lot of the pressure on a team, which presumably would lead to more consistent performances, or it’s entirely possible that Atlanta is simply executing well.

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Five Things We Learned From Bill Hamid's Return to MLS by Bill Reno

Bill Hamid is returning to MLS and the reception has been largely positive, which is… odd. Sure, it’s nice that he’ll be getting consistent field time again, but there are some hard truths that are being glossed over in favor of a positive story. While the level of zeal towards an American’s return to MLS is nice (“Well maybe he learned a lot while sitting on the bench for a year and is now actually better!”) we would do well to admit the negatives that have come along with the situation. Grab a comforting hand because we’re going to take off those rose colored glasses and see what lessons there are to learn from all of this.

1. Hamid’s time in Europe has been an unmitigated failure - There’s this perception that a player going to Europe will automatically be handed a bottle of Michael Jordan’s Secret Stuff. Unfortunately Hamid’s experience was far from what people hoped and the last year was anything but a positive step in his career. In the last twelve months, Hamid played as many times for the United States as he did for FC Midtjylland. (FC Midtjylland is typically known for playing many more games than the United States in a calendar year.) In his time with Midtjylland, he played three times with the first team, conceding seven goals in the games. The whole point of going to Europe was to elevate his game and yet he’s sat the bench time-and-time again. Hamid even struggled to get games with the reserve team, where nineteen year old Oliver Ottesen received twice as many games as him.

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This weekend's most watchable MLS games by Harrison Crow

If you haven’t read The Watchability ranking overview... please go do that now and then come back here and read this. Okay? Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you.

(taps foot)

(ugh-huh)

Okay you done? Don’t lie to me, did you read it? Okay, good.

Now, this might seem obvious but the scores of each team are combined and then divided by two, giving us the total game score. The higher the score the higher probability the match will be enjoyable to watch. Likewise the lower the score the high probability it’ll be... well, probably less fun to watch.

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Presenting: The Watchability Rankings! by Harrison Crow

I’ve been saying I’m going to do these for a few weeks and I keep seeing others post their respective scores and it’s finally enough to make me get off my butt and post mine. For those that didn’t realize I’ve been working on these scores off and on since 2015.

This is just a break down of how the scores are calculated, how and why each category was included, and a rough look at how the teams stack up at this point in the season. I’ll have a follow up post on this weekend's game coming up.

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Lowered Expectations: Week 23 by Harrison Crow

Welcome to Lowered Expectations, week 23 edition! Each week, we go about posting chalkboards and GIFs of the weekend’s best open-play shot attempts which did not quite live up to expectations (and rarely do we update this paragraph). We look at each one and not only evaluate the results, but also the process leading to them.

I know it’s been a few weeks but we have five missed opportunities and one very surprising success! Let’s get to it.

#5 - Raul Ruidiaz, Seattle Sounders, 3rd minute, 0.375 expected goals
Assisted by: Nicolas Lodeiro
Keeper:  Bobby Shuttleworth
Passes in sequence:  1

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Little Things from Week 22: A Healthy TFC, the Galaxy defense, and Adi's Farewell by Harrison Hamm

By Harrison Hamm (@harrisonhamm21)

Gregory Van Der Wiel and Toronto FC

Toronto FC started their 3-0 win over the Chicago Fire playing a 3-5-2, finally with their best players (Jozy Altidore, Justin Morrow, Victor Vazquez, Chris Mavinga) back. They played fairly well in the first 45 minutes, for the most part stopping Chicago’s attack and avoiding sloppy mistakes at the back. But it was still 0-0 at halftime.

All three goals came after Greg Vanney pulled wingback Ashtone Morgan for center midfielder Marky Delgado, switching the formation to a 4-4-2 diamond. With this change, they were able to get Jonathan Osorio on the ball in the attacking third (he scored the second goal) without sacrificing distribution deeper in the formation. Delgado could shuttle, Michael Bradley could stay home, and the fullbacks could hug the touchline.

Gregory Van Der Wiel, who was the right-sided center back in the first half and the right back in the second, had tried to fill the Delgado role from his center back position. It was an interesting tactical gamble from Vanney, who likely hoped that Van Der Wiel could step into midfield and let Osorio stay forward, keeping the various benefits that the 3-5-2 allows.

Van Der Wiel is an efficient passer — he completes seven percent more passes than expected, and his score is 56.2 — but he doesn’t break lines or distribute the way that Delgado does. Pushing defenders into roles like this is consistent with the Guardiola inverted full-backs trend, and it was a worthy experiment from Vanney. Credit for adjusting in the second half.

The Dutchman’s pass maps from each half (first half is on the left) reflect the change in tactical positioning:

 Van Der Wiel 1st half

Van Der Wiel 1st half

 Van Der Wiel 2nd half

Van Der Wiel 2nd half

TFC looked really good in the second half, as good as they’ve looked since the CCL final. Hard to say whether they can sustain it, but with their next two games at Atlanta and at home against NYCFC, they’ll have to.

The LA Galaxys defending

Excluding own goals, the LA Galaxy have given up 32 goals on 32.2 xGA, a below-average figure, if not at the futility level of MLS’s worst defending teams. They give up 14.4 shots per game, the worst of any current MLS playoff team.

There’s no doubt that the Galaxy’s defense is a prevalent weakness. No game passes without “what were they thinking” moments out of Michael Ciani and Jorgen Skjelvik.

They’ve settled on a 3-5-2 as their preferred formation, trading defensive solidity (they weren’t going to have much anyway, a known fact that probably went into the thought process) for attacking firepower. All four of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Giovani dos Santos, Ola Kamara and Romain Alessandrini can plausibly play together in this set-up, the only alignment that comes close to getting them all together.

They risked that alignment against LAFC and survived long enough to storm back in the last 10 minutes for a wacky 2-2 draw. They risked it again — albeit with Chris Pontius (a natural winger, of course) in for the suspended Alessandrini — on Sunday against Orlando, and they produced a 4-3 win that lacked any viable defending.

The game against Orlando revealed a lot of the Galaxy’s defensive weaknesses. They were often disorganized and struggled to put pressure on Orlando’s attackers around the box. Defending from the front was always going to be a problem for this LA team, and that major weakness only compounds weaknesses deeper in the formation. They looked a lot better after Servando Carrasco came on as a sub.

42 percent of Orlando’s attacks came down their left side, attacking right-sided center back Dave Romney. Central defenders in a three-at-the-back have to defend in space, meaning they have to possess some measure of athleticism. Romney doesn’t fit the bill. Mohamed El-Munir (usually a left back!) roasted Romney on numerous occasions:

Amidst all the defensive incompetence in Carson, they still managed to give up just 0.91 xG, per Ben Baer, though our model showed them giving up 1.54 xG. They also only gave up 1.61 xG to LAFC. They’re bad, even if recent numbers favor them, but the attack is sparing them a surplus of attacks to blunder.

Adi’s final Timbers goal and the value of emergency defense

As you’ve heard plenty about by now, Fanendo Adi scored in his final appearance as a Portland Timber. His goal proved the difference in a 2-1 Timbers win over the Dynamo, and it exposed more Dynamo defensive weakness:

Houston inexplicably played a five-at-the-back formation against the counter-attacking Timbers. (Wilmer Cabrera’s conservative nature is losing the Dynamo points.) Sebastian Blanco brilliantly dragged Adolfo Machado out of his center back position on this play, forcing wingback Andrew Wenger to step to Blanco and unlock a cheeky give-and-go between Blanco and Zarek Valentin.

Blanco’s first touch in the box was a bit sloppy and forced him to scramble, giving further advantage to the numbers-heavy Dynamo. They shouldn’t have let the Argentine through to begin with, but they had everyone marked by this point. No goal should have been scored from this position.

However, Machado went sliding in on Blanco and missed badly, allowing him time on the ball at the edge of the six-yard box. Blanco’s slip pass to Andy Polo pinged around until Adi managed to have the ball bounce off him into the net. An ugly goal if there ever was one. But emergency defense is a skill, and Houston have decidedly lack that skill.

Earl Edwards Jr. is a weekly starter

This save was lost in the Zlatan show, but Orlando’s Edwards Jr. made the best save of the week on Ola Kamara:

Getting the top-hand to that shot is difficult, and probably the only way he could have saved it. He’s taken Joe Bendik’s job and run with it.

That’s it for this week, check back again after the post-All-Star Game weekend

Expected Narratives: Jos' Valuable Platayer by Ian L.

Of course Zlatan doesn’t want to go to the All Star game. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, beyond all of the memey “you are all lucky to be in the presence of Zlatan” schtick that pervades most of the think pieces penned about him, Zlatan knows his body better than anybody. He promised a rapid recovery from an injury that would have ended most careers and he delivered. “Lions don’t recover like humans” he remarked, and I suppose he’s got a point, but weird analogies aside, he’s played a lot more minutes than I think most of us would have expected, and if he thinks it’s a stupid use of whatever he’s got left in his tank to run around for the cameras during a midweek friendly, then I’m inclined to take the lion’s word for it.

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MLS Television Blackouts: When Emotion and Data Collide by Jared Young

Major League Soccer placed a calculated bet a few years back. They wagered they had core fans for life while they went searching for more marginal fans. The first part of this bet became public when MLS announced that ESPN had exercised their right to stream out-of-market games, and they would fold their digital streaming service MLS LIVE. All out-of-market content would move to a new ESPN+ app. It was sold as a great deal for existing fans. MLS Live was running at $70+ per season and the ESPN+ app was under $60 per year, and there was more content available. Sounds like a win, right?

But MLS LIVE wasn’t just an out-of-market service, because thirteen teams in 2017 did not exercise a blackout policy for their local games. Blackouts happen when a game is not televised for a specific group of people. They are very frustrating for fans who have paid for a service yet aren’t able to watch the game on a channel they thought they had paid for. The benefit of MLS LIVE was that fans of those thirteen teams that had severed ties with cable (aka "cut the cord") could watch their local team with the app. As a cord cutting Philadelphia Union fan, one of the teams that did not enforce blackouts, I was very happy with MLS LIVE.

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