With just four weeks of play in the books, it's unlikely that the bottom feeders by the end of this year are those at the bottom right now. But this analysis should be an indicator on who needs to get better in attacking (and in defending) when it comes to Possession, Passing Accuracy, Penetration, Creation of Goal Scoring Opportunities and converting those opportunities into goals. As a reminder here is the initial PWP article offering up an introduction and explanation to the PWP Strategic Index, if this is a new approach for you to consider.
For the future - please get used to the abbreviation and hashtag #PWP-TPI. I will refer to my cumulative analyses on MLS team performance this way.
And in case you missed it here is a link to the Week 4 PWP Analysis.
Here's how they stand after Week 4:
Observations: (click to enlarge)
For me it's no surprise that Columbus remain atop considering they have 9 points after three games and have done pretty well in all phases of PWP. They rank 3rd in Possession percentage at ~57%, 1st in Passing Accuracy at ~81%, nearly half of all their shots taken have been on goal (41.48%), and they've converted 62.86% of those targeted shots into goals. Only FC Dallas has a better rate in converting targeted shots on goal to goals scored (71.25%)... Conversely, DC United have only converted 7.41% of their shots on goal into goals scored.
What is somewhat surprising is how far down Toronto have dropped after their 3-nil loss to Real Salt Lake. As noted in my Week 4 Analysis Toronto did well in getting results their first two games, but when going up against a traditional powerhouse in MLS their tactics and strategies were simply dominated.
Again, to drive home some points about PWP - Passing Accuracy and Possession Percentage will influence the bottom line, and in the first three games Toronto have simply been very poor in passing accuracy (67%, 59%, and 54%), and their highest amount of possession percentage came against RSL at 46%, while they had 38% against DC United and 32% against Seattle.
We already know that DC United has not started with a bang--and given Seattle's loss to Columbus--it isn't quite so surprising after all. (Perhaps?) the league table position for Toronto is more a reflection of luck and good fortune than a comprehensive approach to attacking and defending with purpose?
I'm not alone in ranking Toronto a bit further down the scale... Whoscored.com currently ranks Toronto as 11th. I also checked Squawka.com, but their data currently only go out to week 2 for team comparisons.
So enough about Toronto. Dallas, Salt Lake, Houston and Vancouver round out the top 5. In considering those other four, the new kid on the block for me here is Vancouver. Why?
Well last year they had issues in defending while clearly having a very strong attack. Early indications are that the defending side of the equation has been fixed... does that hold true as the grind begins in April and the heat of summer sets in?
As for Dallas, Salt Lake and Houston - Pareja is no stranger to fielding a top team in MLS when it comes to Possession with Purpose (Colorado was in the top ten last year), and Houston has done what it needed to do (at least so far) to get tighter in defense and offer up better balls for Barnes and Bruin to score.
The boring team in the top 5 goes to Real Salt Lake. Simply said, they just keep doing what they need to do - polish their Diamond 4-4-2 and let it shine, regardless of who plays up top - be it Garcia, Plata or Saborio. Then there's the ever present and dominating defensive central midfielder, Kyle Beckerman, who controls the back.
Speaking of the Diamond 4-4-2 - as the year continues, I'll be able to offer up additional analysis on what teams run what basic formations with the intent to really peel them back to see if specific team performance indicators increase or decrease based upon that simple filter.
In considering the bottom feeders outside of Toronto so far...
DC United - Aye - great weekend in that game against Chicago, and there remains no question DC United like a possession-based attack. The difference this week was a highly engaged Johnson and Espindola in attack that also included a steady stream of pretty good crossing and wing penetration.
How well that holds up is hard to tell. Head coach Frank Yallop has been known to cede possession, given his days in San Jose, but the direct attack for the Fire is more ground-based this year given the types of strikers. Has everybody by now realized that Yallop was sacked because he wanted to change the attacking approach in San Jose, and Watson--along with the front office--didn't?
To be sure - look no further than what team sits just above DC United - it's San Jose. For now, that's not an indicator that the Earthquakes are a bad team... no... I'd offer that it's more of an indicator that their approach in attack needs refinement as does their back four being a bit unlucky with that own goal against New England.
Not last and not least are Portland and Montreal... For me, seeing Montreal on the low end is not surprising - head coach Frank Klopas ran a pretty weak defensive team in Chicago last year, and it seems to have translated over to Montreal. It's true that Di Vaio was missing in games 1 and 2, so this will be a team to watch as well.
As for Portland, here's a possession-based team that simply hasn't clicked yet. And in all that there remain holes in the defending side. One might say that there are distinct instances of distinction where they have instinctively distinguished themselves as lacking instinct in where to defend. Or - in other words - the back four have been better at ball watching than defending the ball...
Mid-table: Sporting, Colorado, LA, New York, Philadelphia and New England
It's early days and given some top activities in defending and attacking for Sporting it is likely their run of games inside and outside of the MLS Regular season will now give them a breather to prepare for Month 2; the same can probably be said for LA as well as the Earthquakes (who a lower at this time).
As for New York - I'll touch more on them in another article but for now I'm still not sure Petke has found the right mix. Philadelphia, from what I have seen, has some dangerous players in the Midfield (Edu and Maindana come to mind first) - so how they fare in April will be interesting to see in contrast with New England.
With all those observations I'll simply offer up these two diagrams to give you an idea on where each team stands in the PWP Strategic Attacking Index and Strategic Defending Index.
As a reminder here are the individual players who have been highlighted as the PWP Attacking Players for March - they might be reasonable targets for your MLS Fantasy team if funds are available...
1. Federico Higuain 2. Jaoa Plata 3. Bernardo Anor 4. Graham Zusi
On to the Strategic Defending PWP and the PWP Defenders of March.
Top Defenders for the Month of March:
1. Michael Parkhurst 2. Corey Ashe 3. Ike Opara 4. Kyle Beckerman
Remember that the season is still young - but in about 4 weeks time it won't be as young, and in 16 weeks time this Index should begin to settle in and hopefully, like last year, paint an early picture on who's up for the Playoffs and who might be making some summer transfers to bolster chances for a late season push.
Teams to watch in this Cumulative Index are numerous.
In the bottom end let's see about Toronto, Portland, San Jose, and DC United - will the rest of MLs figure out the way to beat the Toronto approach of counter attacking? Will the return of Donovan Ricketts after the Seattle match spell a recovery in the back four for Portland? Can DC United really make better use of the accuracy and possession based approach? And finally, can Watson continue to make use of his aerial attack in getting penetration through the air as other teams seem to build greater strength in the midfield?
On the top side can Columbus continue their early run and does the sleeping giant residing in Houston awaken even more to clinch dominance across the East? Can FC Dallas hold it together this year under the new guidance of Pareja?
How about the other money bag teams like New York, Seattle and LA Galaxy - have other teams in the mix figured a way to bypass the top-flight DP approach used by those guys or are they real challengers for the Cup and the Shield?
Last but not least - the Champions from last year - Sporting continues to show well in defending, and Zusi has lifted his game on both sides of the pitch. Will the World Cup really be his time to shine? For the sake of the USMNT I hope so.
As always my thanks to OPTA and the MLS for continuing to provide free information in order to conduct this analysis.
If interested here's a link to my latest article on New Sports Hub about the Red Bulls of New York, including their PWP Attacking and Defending Players of the Week 4.
You can follow me on twitter here: Each week I look to offer up twitter comments for the MLS nationally-televised games as well as those for the Timbers.
All the best, Chris