First Touch: First Edition / by ASA Staff

This is ASA’s first attempt at an ensemble wrap of various things pertaining to American Soccer over the last week. This is not intended to be a deep retrospective or an overtly granular analytical take. These are quick and hard takes by our first rate crew.

Tactics Corner: Defensive Face-Off in Commerce City

By Benjamin Bellman (@benbellman)

Leading up to this weekend, the Chicago Fire and Colorado Rapids had shown themselves to be the best two defenses in MLS. Chicago has smothered opponents, yielding only 13.7 expected goals to opponents, and while Colorado left a few more opportunities open with 14.1 xGA, only 10 had found the back of the net, best in the league. However, their fortunes thus far could not be more different. Colorado entered the match at the top of Supporters’ Shield standings, and Chicago arrived in dead last. Colorado’s 2-1 victory needed a ton of luck from Marco Pappa’s second last-minute winner of the season (seriously, that shot had a 2% chance of going in!), but their overall performance showed that Colorado has the offensive competency to make a real push for the Shield.

Below is a xG map of shots taken from the game, similar to Michael Caley’s maps for Premier League and international matches. The redder the dot, the better the chance of scoring:

It certainly looks like a match between defensive juggernauts: Colorado managed five shots in the box, while Chicago only managed two. But while this might look like two defenses battling it out, but I don’t really think that’s the case. Instead, I think Chicago’s offense deserves more blame for their poor output than Colorado’s defense deserves credit, particularly since small blunders allowed those chances to occur. One came off a David Accam dribble right at starter Bobby Burling’s replacement, Eric Miller, and the other (the goal) came from a redirected Accam cross that found Joey Calistri unmarked in front of goal. In reality, the Rapids dominated possession 57-43, and while the Fire’s defense made 43 defensive actions, the Rapids only made 23, the fewest of any team on Saturday by eight. Of course, Chicago’s offense has been the worst in the league, so this is hardly a surprise. But while 0.88 xG for the Rapids doesn’t seem like very many chances too, I think it’s pretty good for a depleted Rapids offense going against a top-notch defense and ‘keeper.

Indeed, I thought something similar when a similarly-depleted Rapids offense tied the Union 1-1 before the Copa break, with another late defensive error leading to their only points dropped at home. Most impressive to me in these two games was Marlon Hairston. He struggled when he first came into the league, resulting in a temporary shift to defense, but he has proven himself these last two games as a reliable, attack-minded depth midfielder. Hairston assisted Sam Cronin’s goal against Philly, and nearly had another that Dillon Powers launched off the cross-bar. Against the Fire, Hairston had four of his team’s nine key passes (which lead directly to a shot), and nearly set up Michael Azira at the top of the six-yard box, which Azira was too slow to reach. Additionally, he easily had the best passing percentage of the three attacking midfielders (90% vs. 75% for Powers and 65% for Luis Solignac), and had the most threatening passing map of the three (check out the chalkboard to see what I mean). Shkelzen Gashi, Jermaine Jones, and Marco Pappa are hands down the three players that should be starting in these positions, but Rapids fans should delight at Hairston’s progress, as it shows that the team is truly becoming a well-rounded winning machine.

And if Pablo starts Solignac on the wing one more time, I’m going to lose my flippin’ mind.

Prospect Nation: Copa Americana Edition

By Aaron Nielsen (@enbsports)

Hirving 'Chucky' Lozano - Pachuca, Mexico
POS: Winger - DOB: 7/30/1995 - HGT: 5’9 - WGT: 139  

Hirving Lozano may of played in his last game in Liga MX helping his side Pachuca win the Clausura 2016 MX Liga Championship over Monterrey on May 29th. The 20 year old has had a banner 2015-2016 season first being top player in the 2015 CONCACAF U-20 Championship including a two goal, fpir assists performance against Cuba. He then help Mexico win the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championship and made his debut for the senior team on February in 2016. Lozano scored his first senior international goal against Canada in 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying.

Lozano made his Liga MX debut in 2014 and since playing 91 league games for Pachuca including all 40 Liga MX Apertura and Clausura games during the 2015-2016 season scoring 12 goals and adding eight assists. An active shooter Hirving took 85 shots hitting the target 44 times with most of his shots from the left side of the penalty box or just outside the 18 yard line. Lozano loves to dribble almost averaging nine per game and was also fouled 130 times in Liga MX action. The right footed winger usually plays on the left wing in a 4-2-3-1 formation using his world class speed and agility to get past most full backs who are covering him. If there is any concern it could be his selfishness on the ball averaging only one cross per 90 minutes but what is encouraging is his 0.7 successful through balls per 90 minutes showing he does look for his teammates a number that will hopefully increase as he matures.

Lozano is already rumored in joining many of the biggest clubs in the World including Manchester United with a price tag of close to 10 million dollars. The Copa America Centenario should give Hirving more exposure as Mexico looks to play top South American talent of Uruguay, Colombia and Argentina in the tournament and not only is he one of the top prospects going into the tournament but could also be one of the best players as well.

USMNT: Knuckle Sandwich

By Jared Young (@jaredeyoung)

When Jurgen Klinsmann arrived on the US Soccer scene he promised to install the proactive attacking play of the best international teams. He certainly set out to do just that but as the World Cup in Brazil approached he reverted back to the more conservative, defensive, dare I say, more American style of play. Suitable results followed. Detractors point to this switch as a failure on his part but those voices have been silenced yet again thanks to defensive wins against Paraguay and Ecuador. A more balanced style of play suits the U.S. skillset and the data bear this out. Below is a summary of results during this World Cup cycle highlighting the team’s two biggest losses against Jamaica and Guatemala as well as their two biggest wins most recently against Paraguay and Ecuador.

United States success is a function of quality over quantity. A defensive first approach with less reliance on crosses at the offensive end, and shots that maintain their near 20% level of finishing suits this team just fine. The U.S. isn't ready to bully the world’s greats. Not even close. Just enjoy it as they sit back and scrap a win against Argentina.

Bad Defenses Abound

By Alex Brodsky (@highpressblog)

It’s looking like 2016 will not be known as the Year of Defense in MLS. Despite the Rapids sitting atop the Supporters’ Shield standings due primarily to their defensive prowess this season has not been a showcase for top notch defending. We’re hardly over one third of the way through the season so many of these teams may yet tighten up but some squads are on pace for some alarming records. Of the seasons for which American Soccer Analysis has expected goal data (2011 and onward) both Real Salt Lake and Orlando City rank dead last in expected goals against per game with 2.01 and 1.97, respectively. Moreover, 2016 teams take up seven of the 13 worst tallies on that list. While this means goal scoring is up in general (2.78 this year versus 2.46 xG/game in 2011-2015) the distribution of defenses is particularly notable.

This density graph illustrates the current state of team defenses in MLS. Clearly 2016 skews further to the right than any other season. While there are still a number of competent defenses (Colorado and Kansas City rank 9th and 15th best xGA/game since 2011) but this season the bad defenses have been bad. Seven teams have greater than 1.49 xGA/game so far this season. 2015 and 2014 both saw just two. 2013 and 2012? One a piece. 2011? None.

A lot of this defensive ineptitude has flown under the radar this season. Real Salt Lake and Orlando City have both managed to outperform their expected goals against by about five a piece. If I were a fan of either side I’d be concerned going forward.

Already sitting on a mediocre 1.21 points per game, Orlando City is poised to keep disappointing. Their knack for rescuing games late - seven goals in the 87’ or later which is best in the league - won’t last forever. Once they stop scoring goals like Julio Baptista’s huge volley this weekend to salvage a 2-2 draw against San Jose they may find themselves far below that all important red line in the Eastern Conference.

Real Salt Lake comes off a 2-2 draw of their own against Portland and may begin to face problems similar to Orlando. Though they've gone through 14 games with a strong 1.71 points per game, good for second in MLS, their luck may begin to turn for the worse. They came into the weekend outperforming their expected goal differential by a whopping 10.9. To put that in perspective, that’s roughly the amount by which the New York Red Bulls under performed their expected goal differential during their initial seven game stretch. They compiled a mere .43 points per game over that time. Since then? They've put together a 6-1-1 record with a +16 goal differential, good for 2.4 points a game. Now, I’m not saying Salt Lake are going to plummet quite as much as the Red Bulls ascended but that 10.9 mark is cause for concern.

It’s difficult to discern exactly what is to blame for all these weak defenses but it’s clear a chunk of MLS teams need to self evaluate. For some squads it’s personnel issues. Others can blame their tactical systems. Teams like Real Salt Lake may not even realize how much trouble they’re in. Going forward it’ll be interesting seeing how teams address issues and see who can successfully adapt in-season and who just keep leaking goals.