Who in MLS Plays the Most Vertically / by Kevin Minkus

By Kevin Minkus (@kevinminkus)

Two excellent articles were written in the past few days that both featured a facet of the game that’s becoming increasingly integral to how MLS plays: verticality. Matthew Doyle looked at verticality as it applies to teams, and Will Parchman touched on about verticality in the context of a specific player, Alphonso Davies. It’s a topic I approached tangentially here, but I don’t think verticality and pace, or directness and pace, are perfect substitutes.

There are a number of metrics already in the public sphere to measure this verticality, and I think looking at them can better inform the current conversation. One of the most intuitive, especially for individual players, is yards run forward while on the ball. Michael Caley was, I think, the first person I’d seen use it widely, and he occasionally looks at these numbers for the Big 5 leagues. I’m doing a bit of interpolation to calculate it here, by inferring forward distance based on the end location of a pass to the recipient, and the starting location of his next pass.

Here are the top ten players so far this season, in yards progressed forward while on the ball, per 90 (data is prior to the New England - San Jose game, and I’ve filtered it down to only those players who have played more than 180 minutes):

If we lower our minutes played filter down to just 90 total minutes, the list gets pretty interesting- the top three are Paxton Pomykal, Tommy Mac, and Adam Jahn. Most of the players here, though, are high usage center mids. Fabian Herbers, as a winger at the top of the list, really stands out - he has only the tenth most touches on Philadelphia. For the most part, though, this list describes those players who get on the ball a lot, and look to move it upfield.

To remove some of the effects of just having a lot of the ball, we can instead control for touches, by looking at yards progressed per every 10 touches. I should note I’m using touches in the sense of actions on the ball, rather than times actually physically touching the ball, and am once again filtering only to players with more than 180 minutes.

Fabian Herbers is number three here- that he shows up on both lists is pretty impressive for a 23 year-old in just his second season in the league. This chart passes the eye-test mostly. These are players on teams who tend to attack directly in the final third. Davies is 48th on this list, right behind Romain Alessandrini.

So the two charts above give us a sense of who likes to drive the game forward with the ball at his feet, both for mids who see a lot of the ball and attackers who are asked to play directly. We can look at the same metric, though, for passes.

This is the top ten MLS players in yards progressed forward via pass, given per 90 (and once again filtered down to those players who have played more than 180 minutes).

This list is mostly populated by ball-playing center backs and deep-lying playmakers. It’s interesting that half of the list are players new to the league. It suggests that a center back who can pick his passes is becoming increasingly more valuable to MLS systems, and that it isn’t necessarily a skill which can be easily found within the league.

If we cut it down to only passes made in the attacking half, the list looks a bit different:

Here we get generally more attacking minded central midfielders, who play for managers that emphasize direct play.

This article, hopefully, has done a bit of work to quantify the verticality that is being noted across the league. At the very least, it’s interesting to see the results on each metric, and I’d be interested in hearing what people think of those results.