By Drew Olsen (@drewjolsen)
During a recent American Soccer Analysis shareholders meeting in the penthouse suite of the swanky hotel we built in Minecraft (it’s our Slack channel), we discussed our favorite ASA articles of the past year. Because it is the season of listicles and we relish every chance to talk about ourselves, we decided to put them all together in one official post. Also, our site traffic is essentially zero at this time of year, so it seemed like an easy way for us to remember where we put them.
It was a great year for MLS (though perhaps not American soccer overall) and the most successful in our five year life as a website. We added interactive tables, introduced xPG, rebooted the podcast (new episode coming out soon! …probably), and added a lot of great new writers to our existing ranks of stale old writers. They’re not all represented in the list below, but special shout out to our weekly contributors who put together content every week; Little Things (@harrisonhamm21), Lowered Expectations (@harrison_crow), Expected Narratives (@ahandleforian), and Setting the Table (@ericwsoccer) showed us the individual plays each week that made up the whole of the MLS season. We’d also like to extend a special thank you to Neil Greenberg of the Washington Post, for including us as a part of the WaPo’s incredible World Cup coverage.
Besides creating more content than ever, we can safely say that productivity at our day jobs has never been so low. Thanks for coming along for the ride. In no particular order, as assembled by ASA contributors, here are our favorite articles of 2018:
An Expected Passing Model Update by Matthias Kullowatz (@mattyanselmo)
In terms of the nuts and bolts of ASA, the biggest change of 2018 was our migration to our interactive tables. When he wasn’t orchestrating that move and building in new features to the interactive app, Matthias was improving our models. The first improvements came to our expected passing model. Whereas most analytics websites intentionally obfuscate how their models work (blame capitalism), Matty makes his as clear as possible. In the process of reading about our new passing model, you not only learn about modeling, but in this case wind up learning a lot about both soccer data and even passing itself.
If you want to go full nerd, read about his updates to our Expected Goal Chain model, too.
Game of Throw Ins by Eliot McKinley (@etmckinley)
Free kicks, penalties, and corner kicks are sexy, but they’re still a minority of all set pieces. Throw Ins may not get the love those others do, but they happen more often and get less than half as much attention as they deserve. Eliot’s deep dive into where and how throw ins are successful has many tactical implications. Once Dom Kinnear is hired by Orlando City next summer, I, for one, will welcome his new offensive strategy of intentionally kicking the ball out of bounds in the opponent’s final third.*
And just when you thought he’d reached the apex of Game of Thrones puns, Eliot introduced Thrownars (TM) in his follow up article, A Feast for Throws.
Peter Vermes’ System and his Favorite Son by Joseph Lowery (@joeincleats)
Before ASA started the campaign for Graham Zusi as defensive player of the year, Joe wrote about how Vermes’ tactics always put Zusi at the center of his team’s attack, even after moving him to defense. While using fullbacks as crucial pieces of the attack is nothing new, I don’t think anyone could have predicted before the season that Zusi would finish the year with the 2nd most passes of any player in the league and a bigger contribution to his team’s offense than most teams’ midfielders. Joe saw this trend early (he wrote this way back in May!), and Zusi’s numbers only continued to improve as the season progressed.
Expected Possession Goals Gameflow: Taking a Ride into the Danger Zone By Jamon Moore (@jmoorequakes)
Just when you thought your mind was blown by xPG, xPG Gameflow, and the news that Dominic Kinnear may not be an MLS head coach to start the 2019 season, Jamon is here to take it to the next level. This article further elucidated how to use and understand xPG gameflow, and how Kenny Loggins inspires everything we do at ASA.
Building A System for Assessing Player Value by Dave Laidig (@davelaidig)
We’ve often toyed with ideas on how to properly and definitively rank players. The beauty of coming up with ranking systems is that they’re never perfect, but Dave’s articles on the system he built for assessing player value (here’s part two) are one of the more expansive and detailed ever publicly released. In terms of their CREATE Index scores, we give these articles a 10 out of 10.
Pressing, Defensive Lines, and what Defensive Actions Correlate with Goals by Cheuk Hei Ho (@tacticsplatform)
Despite the editor’s inexplicable decision to give it a headline that made it sound as interesting as watching a Dominic Kinnear led team’s offense, this article was instantly one of those we knew would get attention. It has incredible insights into the intensive pressing system that Jesse Marsch deployed during his time with RBNY, and how different it was from what the rest of MLS was doing.
After Marsch left for Leipzig, Chris Armas stepped in and carried along a lot of what Marsch had been doing, but with some important changes. Cheuk Hei’s follow up article, Chris Armas’ Transformation of the New York Red Bulls, dissected those changes, and made all of us smarter in the process.
Marcos Ureña, the Unsung Hero of LAFC by Kristan Heneage (@KHeneage)
When LAFC shocked many by starting the season near the top of the Western Conference, many were wondering how another expansion team could be so successful. Built off of spare parts from other teams and a couple big names, many were grasping at straws when trying to explain how Bob Bradley’s side did it. Not so for Kristan, who succinctly pointed out the unique parts of Urena’s game that make him an unsung creator and an unconventional striker that is more content giving his higher paid teammates the glory.
The Case for Pulling the Goalie in Soccer and the Method Behind Ben Olsen’s Madness by Jared Young (@jaredeyoung)
After Ben Olsen went all in for the win against Orlando (#BennyBall is dead, long live #DomBall) by sending his ‘keeper forward in stoppage time of a tied game, we got possibly the most memorable moment of the 2018 season. Jared took a look at why this method isn’t used more often, and the situations where it makes the most sense. His unsurprising conclusion: it should happen much more often.
Expected Narratives: Atlanta Doth PRO-test Too Much by Ian Lamberson (@ahandleforian)
Looking back, it feels like the first half the MLS season was occupied by discussion of VAR and the officials. While usually mild-mannered and rational interpreters of the rulebook, in May many Atlanta fans were loudly declaring themselves the victims of unfair judicial decisions at the hands of MLS officials. So in true ASA fashion, Ian did what the city of Atlanta could not: he looked at every single VAR call that had occurred in the United Football Club’s games. While it turns out the calls weren’t unfair, Ian was unable to rule out a league-wide (worldwide?) conspiracy to deny Atlanta the victories they had rightfully earned. Given how Atlanta ended the season with barely a whimper, and had to fold the team this offseason, we can only assume that Don Garber’s mission to submarine their club was ultimately a grand success. Oh, and anytime we get Ian talking about Atlanta fans and Zlatan in the same article, you know it’s been a fun week.
Reshaping the Game: How Fran Taylor is Using New Tools to Build a Better Team by Mark Asher Goodman (@soccer_rabbi)
It may shock some to hear, but at ASA we don’t usually have access to “players,” “coaches,” “managers,” or “anyone actually involved in Major League Soccer.” That is, we didn’t until the downright respectable Mark Asher Goodwin asked if we’d be interested in publishing his profile of Rapids’ Assistant General Manager Fran Taylor. If memory serves, our response was “duhhhhhhhhhhhh.” The compelling story of Taylor’s unconventional rise, as told by Mark’s silky smooth prose, made for one of best front-office profiles written by any MLS writer in 2018.
Presenting: The Watchability Rankings! By Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)
Last, but certainly not least, it’s an ASA oldie but goody. Harrison’s world-famous watchabilty rankings underwent some improvements in 2018, and they may be the most useful metric for fans we’ve ever actually produced. Harrison smartly broke down what defines an entertaining soccer game and (arguably more importantly) what doesn’t. #DomBall is dead, long live #DomBall!
So that’s it. These are just the articles we liked the most - there were plenty more phenomenal pieces that I didn’t have room for here. Thanks to all our amazing writers, and thanks to you for visiting. We have plenty of more great things planned for next year (the draft is only a couple weeks away!), so see you on the other side. And Dom, if you’re still reading this, thanks for always being you.
*Just kidding. He would never employ a tactical change based on analytics. As if.