Expectation Management: Carlos Rivas vs Mike Grella / by Harrison Crow

By Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)

Three years ago I became a proud member of the ‘Congregation of Grella.’

As a tremendously under-appreciated winger in his time with the New York Red Bulls, Mike Grella has done just about everything a person could have asked of him on a decidedly modest wage ($188,250 in 2017). His humble beginning, tremendous back story, and journeyman career have only added to the legend of a very successful stint in Harrison, New Jersey.

As the theme has gone the last few seasons, the Red Bulls are doing what they can to limit their risk with aging veterans. They have been cutting ties with those at the tail-end (or beyond) of their prime playing ability. They have been flipping those assets by turning them into opportunities for club.

Grella has been a solid piece within the Red Bulls’ core over the last three seasons, but he's now 30 and as has been the case with others such as Lloyd Sam, Dax McCarty and Sacha Kljestan (to name a few), the team cut ties with him this offseason.

Looking to the future and a possible candidate to replace the hardworking wide midfielder and cult hero, New York has traded for former Young Designated Player Carlos Rivas from Orlando City, who is still only 23 years old.

Rivas had without a doubt a disappointing spell during his time with Orlando. As a young and exciting Colombian for Deportivo Cali he scored 13 goals in 36 games and came to MLS as a 20 year old with high expectations. But through his first 13 starts with Orlando, Rivas failed to score. Through his 42 start tenure with the Purple Lions he only managed to find the net eight times. A disappointing tally for certain.

But now he hopes a fresh start and new beginning will give him a chance to break out. This will not be a one-to-one replacement; Rivas and Grella seem to be very different players. They've also had very different careers. One is a disappointing international DP and the other an American who spent most of his career on lower tier European clubs before finally finding success on a longshot trial and making good with his local club.

But therein lies a lesson in expectation management. Let’s re-evaluate our preconceived notions on these players and their styles rather than just try to parse the events that specifically stick out in our minds.

Let’s begin by comparing their topline stats:

2015-17 SeasonsMinutesShotsUnassist%xGAvg DistanceKey PassesxAssistsxA+xGDFA/Passes
Mike Grella 5136 95 27.4% 12.6 17.2 64 8.6 21.2 14.43
Carlos Rivas 4131 173 28.9% 12.8 26.7 65 9.6 22.4 14.72
Click here for a more complete explanation of these metrics

On the surface we think of Grella as a hard running, physical winger that can create shots for himself and helps create opportunities from wide. The numbers support that image. He doesn't take outlandish shots (as indicated by his average shot distance), 27% of his shots are unassisted, and his 14.43 passes per defensive action show how active he is in Jesse Marsch’s high press system.

Surprisingly, Rivas matches Grella in most of these categories despite 1,000 fewer minutes played. Not only is he a comparable attacking player, but we can see that his pass per defensive action is very similar to Grella’s. While Rivas’ level of effort might not be thought of as “intense”, he’s been nearly on par with Grella in defensive activity.

The one big disparity between Rivas and Grella is shot distance. Rivas is very aggressive and is much quicker to turn possession into shots and goal scoring opportunities. On a per-minute basis he far outperforms Grella on most offensive metrics.

When we imagine Rivas and Grella, many of us see a difference akin to that between a sports car and an SUV. But the underlying numbers show Rivas could be a serviceable replacement with some growth still possible. In the future we may not just think of him as just an overpriced winger.