By Harrison Crow (@Harrison_Crow)
Sortable stats can be found at the end of the article for those seeking a more interactive experience.
We embarked on a project some weeks ago to begin focusing on shot data for past and current US Men's National Team players. We came to the realization that these data are not congregated in one place for American players, especially those playing internationally. For example, the Wikipedia page for our first player, Herculez Gomez, shows that he scored 24 goals for Santos Laguna. Try as we might, we could only find 22.
Wikipedia has been known to be wrong--Matty informs me that he was listed as the creator of Pokemon for some time thanks to the work of his college roommate--but finding Liga MX and CONCACAF Champions League data from games four years ago is tough. Really tough. Poor Drew is probably going to need to go see a counselor, based on some of the emails he sent me. So we could have missed something. But with his determination and Matty's all around know how, they joined forces and dug through more than 175 games for detailed shot data, and we were able to derive some pretty cool stuff.
First of all this stuff comes with a couple of asterisks.
1) Liga MX has weird seasons. Its time frame, and how ESPN decided to provide game information, doesn't always coincide with the actual season. So we put seasons together as best we could. By the way, ESPNFC was a big help.
2) We had a few games where we couldn't find shot locations. As a result we ended up using a baseline expected goal per shot for those few. It shouldn't skew the results much either way, as it represents less than 5 percent of the data, but it's an important annotation.
3) ... actually there was only two things that really came up. It's just weird to stop at two and not count to three.
When Herc left the Kansas City (then) Wizards, it wasn't necessarily on the greatest of terms with the club or the league, as we can see from some of the banter on social media. He left MLS and played his way into the Puebla starting line-up, winning the Mexican Primera Division scoring title with 10 goals. He became the first American to win the Primera scoring title, edging out Javier Hernandez in a tie-breaker by virtue of scoring his 10 goals in fewer total minutes than "Chicharito."
Now, there are plenty of articles from which I could cherry pick to show how people felt about Gomez and his inclusion on the US World Cup roster in 2010. As with any player, it's fair to say that he scored some goals that were a little lucky. But our numbers show that there was more than a little luck to his overall performance. He produced 2.75 shots per 90 minutes and scored nearly half of them.
That's about as "clinical" a finisher as you're going to find.
I don't mean to speak for everyone here at ASA, but I think it's come out in the podcasts that we're all a bit skeptical about finishing ability and a player's ability to reproduce past success. One goal per every two shots is stuff that no striker will sustain.... That is, unless he scores a goal and then retires. I'm sure it's happened.
During his 718 minutes (not including stoppage time) with Puebla, we have him down for 5.65 xGoals compared to the 10 he actually put home. This information is not meant to undercut him, but rather to show that he was outperforming the norm. Lots of players do this from time to time--maybe for one season, occasionally for two. Then most regress, and we chalk it up to unsustainable play, perhaps aided by the residual effect of a teammate or a few too many lucky bounces.
The thing is, Gomez continued his crazy pace of outperforming his expected goals numbers. He followed up his 2010-11 season by scoring 17 goals in 2,030 minutes in all competitions spread over three different clubs. I think what stood out the most to me was his ability to do everywhere he played. Despite scoring at what seemed like an unsustainable rate by our metrics and playing with new teammates constantly, he was able to finish as well as he had the season prior.
Thinking about what Brian McBride and Clint Dempsey did over in England as strikers is, of course, admirable. Dempsey still ranks in the top 60 in total goals over the last 20 years of the English Premier League. But these two seasons compiling 27 goals, averaging 0.88 goals per 90 minutes, is a considerable accomplishment and something to savor for a few moments. Go ahead, savor it.
Gomez started etching his name in the CONCACAF Champions League that year, too, scoring six of his 17 goals in those games against MLS clubs (three against Toronto FC, 3 against Seattle Sounders FC). All told, it was perhaps an even stronger performance than the season prior. Over the course of the 2011-12 season we had him for a total of 8.54 expected goals from 71 total shots. He obviously shattered that expectation.
2012-13 was a coming-back-to-earth season of sorts for Herc. He played nearly the same number of minutes (1,691) in the Liga MX regular season as he did in the two prior seasons combined (1,794). That, in addition to Santos' dependency on him in the CCL, perhaps resulted in him taking fewer shots per 90 minutes (2.4) than in either 2010-11 (2.8) or 2011-12 (3.1). He tallied 13 goals at a conversion rate of "just" 20 percent. Recall that the MLS average, for comparison's sake, is just a shade over 10 percent.
That's about the extent of his "down year." But in truth, accounting for his shot opportunities, it was another plus year for the American. Again, he outperformed expectations, finding 13 goals versus the 8.60 we expected him to score.
This time regression hit Gomez across the board. He scored just eight goals across all competitions versus our expectation of 8.88, representing his first truly down year finishing. But one thing to point out was that his shots per 90 were up and his minutes were down. He was more productive creating shots on a per-minute basis, though this may have more to do with his usage. He was often used as a substitute for Santos, and almost exclusively as a substitute for Tijuana. Evidence suggests substitutes cover more ground and increase the chances of their teams scoring goals. It's a not a great leap, then, to conclude that it might also increase the individual's shot totals productivity.
However, the first study linked above showed that a substitute's pass completion percentage remains unchanged, indicating that perhaps the boost is restricted to gross motor skills. Despite being used as a sub often in his career, especially this particular year, Herc's overperformance in the finishing department over the past four years shouldn't be entirely chalked up to the substitution effect.
Still, he scored just four of those eight goals in regular season play over a whopping 1,691 minutes played. We had him for an expected 6.74 goals over that time. Assessing his play in Liga MX that year helps us to better understand the common narrative that he was struggling at that time.
That said, he produced an expected goal once every three full matches in Liga MX. If we were to compare that to our MLS data, that same shot production would put him in the same company as someone like Mike Magee or, on the high end, Chris Wondolowski. While neither are having seasons that would blow you out of the water, both have been consistent contributors to their squads, and I think Gomez could still be in that range now.
At this point, we have Herc down for 48 goals scored. If we were to allow thousands of typical finishers to take the same shots that Herc got, our expected goals suggest that those players would average 34 goals scored with a standard deviation of about 5. That places him 2.8 standard deviations above the mean, and into the 99.7th percentile. While it's important to note that these expectations come from MLS play, we already found that MLS teams converted opportunities similar to World Cup teams. It's probably fair to say that Liga MX is not that different from MLS, and that Herc possesses a finishing skill not common among MLS or Liga MX players.
We only collected the first half of the Liga MX season data for 2014-15, so the last game in our data set is from March 28th. To that point, Gomez had not yet scored for Tigres, and it seemed as though he'd fallen off the map. I wondered how much he could still contribute to an MLS squad if he ever made the move. However, a more in-depth look revealed that through those seven documented matches, in limited minutes, he still managed to compile 18 shots worth nearly 2.2 expected goals.
He's still finding good looks and he's still taking those shots. I have him at just more than 2.1 shots per 90 which, in combination with his 2.3 expected goals, would indicate that he's a still producing enough shots. It's far too early to worry about his finishing rate right now.
Herculez Gomez has been one of the most underrated American players to play the game over the last decade. I would actually go so far to as to say maybe the most underrated. Because he plays in the Mexican league rather than in Spain or Portugal or even the Eredivisie (where the goals are plentiful and the defense is bad), it feels like we sometimes compartmentalize what he does since it's on the wrong side of the ocean.
During the last four years in the Primeria, he has compiled 34 total goals (according to our records), and he is unofficially in the top 10 of goals scored during that period, tied with several others and most notably Raul Jimenez of Club America.
If he had accomplished this feat in England, Agentina or Brazil, there would be much more prestige awarded to him for his dues. However, sometimes we just look at Liga MX as only slightly better than MLS. It's fun to think what could have been if a better league had given him a chance.
Feel free to take a look at the data below and think about all that he's done. It's quite significant.
|Season||Shots||OnTarget||Goals||xGoals||G - xG|
|Season||Goals (Prim)||Goals (CCL)||xGoals (Prim)||xGoals (CCL)||G/xG (Prim)||G/xG (CCL)|
|Location||Shots||OnTarget||Goals||xGoals||G - xG|
|Shot Zone||Shots||OnTarget||Goals||xGoals||G - xG|
|Team||Shots||OnTarget||Goals||xGoals||G - xG|