By Ian L. (@the16thdoc)
xN is our weekly look at what you can expect to read, write, and discuss about Major League Soccer this week. We take a look at each prospective narrative and rate it based on its strength and whether or not it has any actual merit.
Anybody that was hoping for a quiet weekend of MLS action last week will surely have been disappointed. If I’m being honest, it’s likely that I’m the only person that kind of was, as outside commitments prevented me from indulging in my usual 20 something hours of soccer. If you like goals (and oh I do so like goals), this last weekend was an absolute treat. Heck. The three Canadian teams alone conceded 16 amongst themselves. Many MLS fans are feeling pretty high on the hog at the moment, but let’s spare a thought for those who suffered the ignominy of nearly losing by a football (American) score.
Now then. What are people going to be talking about this week:
1. Seattle lacks pace anywhere on the pitch and that’s a problem.
Narrative Strength: Very strong
I don’t think I’ve seen a single Sounders match this season where one of the commentators didn’t point this out. Though Jordan Morris’ windmill tilting runs frequently ended in disappointment last season, it cannot be denied that his speed was potent enough that it at least brought opposing defenders the occasional bout of unease. His injury, coupled with Seattle’s annual early season setbacks, have made for a can’t miss take that you can feel comfortable making and oh so many people have. Indeed, even this week an article of major league soccer soccer dot com, which explores theoretical trades postulated that Seattle could go out and maybe pry Ema Boateng away from the Los Angeles Galaxy.
I’m not sure that’s the answer to what ails Seattle. Boateng’s paltry 0.31 xG + xA p96 this season is outpaced by even Morris’ less than stellar tally of 0.46 in 2017. Boateng does present pace, but if Seattle is looking for a guy that can just run well, they've got S2 and academy kids who could answer that call. You can expect this narrative to feature prominently this week and persist until either Morris returns from injury or Seattle signs a suitably fast player.
Narrative Accuracy: B+
I’m not sure I’m completely sold on the idea that possessing speed is a necessity to succeed, but the pundits are not wrong when they point out that Seattle certainly don’t have it. Seattle’s occasionally brilliant and occasionally frustrating left back Nouhou Tolo can certainly get up and down the pitch, and youngsters Henry Wingo and Handwalla Bwana are hardly slow. The problem is that other issues will likely prevent these three from seeing too many minutes and it seems that Seattle’s best XI probably doesn't feature any of them. So, yeah, feel free to drop this hot take wherever. It’s safe. Slow on Columbia. Slow on.
2. The Whole Atlanta Thing
Narrative Strength: Very strong
Oh look, this is ambition rankings week so let’s prepare for a ton of discussion about ways we can power rank sports teams’ desire. After the release of MLS salary numbers and that weird anonymous poll of MLS players that ESPN does every season, nothing does more to get pitchforks sharpened or a rash of soap boxing amongst MLS fans more than Sports Illustrated’s yearly list.
Unsurprisingly, Atlanta top the list due to their unrivaled ambition (ambition defined in this case thusly: /amˈbiSH(ə)n/; noun: a willingness to spend money). Sorry TFC but what have you done for us lately?
Narrative Accuracy: A
Say what you will about the seemingly unending cavalcade of Atlanta hype, but they’re backing up every bit of it this season. The attendance numbers are still eye popping and since the final whistle blew on their opening day disaster against Houston, the five stripes have hardly put a foot wrong. Atlanta’s 2.29 ppg is the best on offer in the league and with Toronto still distracted by their pursuit of continental glory and NYCFC laying a huge egg in Portland. You can expect this week to once again be all about Atlanta. In the offseason there was just cause to temper expectations for Atlanta in 2018 as they outperformed their GD-xGD model in 2017 by a staggering +27.6 goals. A regression in the direction of the mean was understandably predicted, and wouldn't you know it, Atlanta are definitely closer to their xGD at a modest +3.3. It’s still early in the season, but you can’t point at luck and circumstance to explain Atlanta’s success thus far.
Additionally, Atlanta’s talisman Miguel Almiron has backed up last season’s hype with the numbers in 2018. Almiron was responsible for a respectable but unspectacular 0.55 xG+xA p96 last season. This was good enough to crack the top 20 in MLS players with 2000 minutes or more, but the best was still to come. This year, Almiron has more than doubled that number thus far sitting at 1.14 xG+xA p 96. Only Alberth Elis is ahead of him in the charts and Almiron has 145 more minutes of playing time. Finally, Almiron leads MLS in Expected Goal Chain, meaning more offense has run through him than any other player in the league. Get used to hearing Atlanta whispered in hushed, reverent tones, friends. This narrative isn't going anywhere for awhile.
3. Johnny Russell is the Scottish Messi
Narrative Strength: Gaining traction
Plucking a player out of the England championship isn’t always a recipe for success in MLS, but early returns on this Scottish guy from Derby are very strong indeed. Expect especially loud chatter about Russell this week coming off of his 48 minute hat trick in Sporting Kansas City’s emphatic 6-0 win over Vancouver. So obviously “Scottish Messi” was a bit tongue in cheek, but he’s passing the eye test with flying colors every week and it’s nice to hear people be hyped about a player not named Zlatan.
Narrative Accuracy: B
Now certainly Messi would be the best player in MLS. I don’t have any numbers that can prove this beyond a shadow of a doubt, but you really don’t need me to do you? I know some Atlanta fans out there are wondering if Messi is like some kind of Argentinian Almiron but let’s just accept that Messi would be the best player in the league. Johnny Russell however, is most certainly not. So no, I can safely say that Russell is not in anyway equivalent to Messi, however, he’s a pretty good MLS player. His xG + xA p96 of 0.51 compares favorable to that of players like Sebastian Blanco (0.49), Jesus Medina (0.38) and sits just behind last season’s MVP Diego Valeri (0.53). Russell averages three dribbles per match, good enough for 10th in the league, and that’s about all that really stands out from his stat line. Nonetheless, he does share one important quality with Lionel Messi and that’s that he’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch. Enjoy it.
4. VAR is ruining MLS
Narrative Strength: Ongoing
The Vancouver Whitecaps turned lemons into an ear infection when video review of what seemed to be a pretty standard dustup between players caused two of their players to be sent off simultaneously after going down 3-0. I’m not going to try and parse the subtleties of officiating decisions that maybe shouldn't have been reviewed and the ones that were not that should have been. The “clear and obvious” terminology is flawed and essentially just a whole new level of subjective judgment in a process that was meant to eliminate said subjectivity.
Narrative Accuracy: D+
While I think there have been a number of, let’s say, curious uses of video review, on the whole it’s done more right than wrong. Yes it feels like we’re seeing more players get sent off for things that would ordinarily have gone unnoticed or penalized, but that’s on the players more than the officiating team. The fact is that we've seen 20 red cards this season, many of which coming after video review. Last season saw 17 red cards in the same timeframe. In 2016? 24 red cards. I’m not saying that there aren't issues with video review that need solving, but it’s not ruining MLS in any way that regular old bad officiating wasn't. I think there’s room for improvement, namely in the way what is being reviewed is communicated, but if MLS survived Chivas USA and running shootouts it can survive this awkward phase of VAR’s adolescence.
5. You know who is a great Goalkeeper? Matt Turner.
Narrative Strength: I just made it up
Narrative Accuracy: B+
Seriously, at this early stage of the season Matt Turner is doing a pretty lights out job for New England. His GA-xGA is the league’s best at -3.15. He’s tied for the least amount of goals allowed (amongst full time starting GKs) with 7. His save percentage of 78.8% is good enough for third in the league (behind Jimmy Maurer and Tim Howard, who have faced 10 shots fewer), and the man has never not saved a penalty kick (ok he’s only faced one, but still…) Now none of these stats by themselves paint a great picture and analyzing goalkeepers statistically is hard. However, you start to see a guy’s name near the top of a lot of these metrics and chances are you've got a decent player between the sticks.
That’s all for this week. Next week we’ve got some matchups that promise to deliver on the narrative front. Atlanta host Montreal and the prospect of Atlanta’s firepower up front combined with Montreal’s less than ideal defensive efforts could see another one of those blowouts. Buy stock in Almiron and Martinez this week if you can. LAFC have their first home match, and will look to dunk Seattle right back under the water after they just finally caught their breath. Elsewhere, Toronto will finally be done with their champions league exploits and will host Chicago in either the most jubilant of moods or you know, the other thing.
Enjoy your soccer banter my fellow MLS enthusiasts. I’ll be back here next week to talk about what we’re talking about.