Expected Narratives: Sleepless in Seattle / by Ian L.

By Ian L. (@ahandleforian)

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.

Last week we talked a good bit about Gregg Berhalter’s ability to “whisper” to forwards, and the second publish was hit, I remember distinctly thinking to myself, “Gyasi Zardes is going to score a hat trick this week and it will make my less than enthusiastic endorsement of that narrative look stupid very quickly.” Well, he only scored two goals, but nonetheless it vaulted him to the top of the Golden Boot standings and gosh darn if I didn’t feel a little foolish. Such is the risk in writing things like this and it’s always important to remember that each match brings new information with it and at this point in the season, one match is enough to  swerve a narrative.

Example? Sure. Kendall Waston had a most unusual night for a center back against Houston. In addition to his normal defensive duties, Waston managed to take five shots (all of which were form inside the 18 yard box), with a goal and an assist. These kinds of matches are what we in the world of analytics refer to as “outliers” or “crazy”. Anyhow, after this game we can see some funny statistical oddities and use those to drive a narrative if we want to. Waston does tend to get forward and get his head on set pieces so his xG numbers are actually pretty solid (certainly the best for a CB, unless you count Bastian Schweinsteiger which would be a bit disingenuous since he clearly plays midfield more often). His xG+xAp96 is 0.23. We can use that to disparage DC United by pointing out that it’s better than Yamil Asad (0.20) and Paul Arriola (0.16) although… DC United doesn’t need any help being disparaged and besides they got yelled at on national television by Taylor Twellman so they don’t need me to pile on. All of this is to say that especially at this point in the season, one match can make a huge difference in our perception of individuals and teams. So when you play two of them in one week, well… ok look, I’ve been putting this one off for a couple of weeks expecting it to start to go away but that doesn’t seem to be happening so let’s just get into it:

Narrative: Seattle is no longer an elite MLS franchise
Narrative Strength: And behold, there was before me a pale horse, and its rider’s name was Death
Narrative Accuracy: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I mean look, Seattle isn't setting the world ablaze at the moment. This is undeniable. They frequently start the season slow, but never have Seattle looked so much like the bird flying into the window. There’s been exactly one bright spot so far this season and that was taking all three points in Toronto midweek. While beating last year’s champions at the site where your previous campaign ended in disappointment is certainly cause for high fives and raised glasses, it can’t be ignored that Toronto are another team that’s been completely ravaged by injuries at this stage of the season and are nervously watching their own season slip away.

To discuss Seattle’s 2018 campaign is to discuss injuries. At this point Seattle might be wise to invest in a DP (designated physiotherapist) because to look at their injury list is to gaze upon a work of art (assuming your preferred medium is watching soccer players not playing soccer).

- Nicolas Lodeiro
- Jordan Morris
- Ozzie Alonso
- Will Bruin
- Victor Rodriguez
- Roman Torres

Thats five or six starters depending on where you play them and that was just going into Sunday’s match against Portland. During that match they also lost Kim Kee-Hee and Nouhou Tolo due to injury or illness.

Pointing at injuries is all fine and good if you are able to make a credible case that the injuries are only a temporary problem but I’m not sure Seattle can do that confidently. Alonso in particular has been so frequently absent from the lineup in the last year or so that nobody can be blamed for wondering if the days of a fit Ozzie are behind him. Even more mysterious is the situation with Victor Rodriguez who made an appearance in a matchday 18 against Minnesota only to have arthroscopic knee surgery a few days later. However, it’s Lodeiro’s broken toe that should have Sounders fans the most concerned. Since his signing in 2016, Lodeiro has been ever present in the Sounders lineup. This year, he’s suffered a couple of foot injuries, and very likely was playing hurt until recently. To understand Lodeiro’s importance to Seattle, we need only look at his xGC p96 last season of 0.88. This was the best in the league for players with more than 3000 minutes. This year, he’s down to 0.75 in a lot less minutes. Though, looking at this now, this probably seems more drastic than it actually is and may have more to do with the fact that Seattle, as a team, have been less than enthusiastic about creating high leverage shots.

Here’s a fun fact for you. Do you know which team had the highest xG in 2017? Was it Toronto FC, the greatest team in MLS history? How about Atlanta, the most exciting and fearsome attack to ever set foot on fieldturf? Nope. Seattle (1.62 xG per game). This year? Not so much (1.35 xG per game).  If that doesn’t seem like a big drop, consider that 2017’s 1.62 was the best in the league, and this year’s 1.35 is only good enough for 14th.

Asking around, people would generally tell you that Seattle’s main strength is having an excellent defensive unit, and yeah that was certainly true last season (1.16 xGA per game, which was third best in the league), but this season things have been a lot rockier (1.54 xGA per game, 13th in the league). A lot of this can be chalked up to losing Torres and to a lesser degree Kelvin Leerdam’s lack of a preseason and then suspension. Joevin Jones is sorely missed on both sides of the ball.

Ok. If all of this seems bad, it’s because it actually is bad. Is there anything positive happening?

Not a lot, no. BUT

Seattle fans should be very happy with Will Bruin (although, he’s hurt so… maybe I shouldn’t have brought this up). Bruin’s open play xG+xA p 96 of 0.77 sits just below Josef Martinez’s 0.79 and above media darlings like Diego Rossi (0.73), David Villa (0.71), and Carlos Vela (0.71). So that’s something.

Handwalla Bwana is an interesting player that I’d like to see more of. These numbers don’t necessarily point to a star in the making or anything, but he’s only 18 years old and he’s definitely done enough to raise an eyebrow or two in his limited minutes. Looking at these numbers the main takeaway is that he’s a solid dribbler that can get around defenders. This skill only takes you so far, but it’s definitely one that Seattle don’t have a lot of. His attacking pass per defensive action is also pretty low for an attacking player. You can see in the chart below that it’s more in line with players that also platoon as wingbacks. It’s not for me to say whether this is a directive from Brian Schmetzer or just a young player that’s a little nervous about getting forward. His passing and decision making is shaky to be sure, and that’s likely what is keeping him from getting significant minutes. He’s a project that’s rough around the edges, but with as many first choice players as Seattle has on the injury list, now is as good of a time as any to see what he can do.

Career Mins xG+xA RoP/96 xB/96 xP ATK score DRB/96 Dribble% DFA/(ATT)P
Alphonso Davies 893 .28 .08 -1.3 7.3 72.% 2.44
Alberth Elis 798 1.16 .13 1.1 6.9 56.% 20.67
Ezequiel Barco 444 .45 .56 5.6 3.6 70.% 12.9
Jefferson Savarino 948 .38 .08 2.6 5. 58.% 7.71
Raheem Edwards 385 .46 .33 -.4 4.7 42.% 3.24
Latif Blessing 717 .69 .12 5.4 4.1 42.% 7.92
Josué Colmán 191 .25 .53 1.5 7. 36.% 22.
Handwalla Bwana 381 .25 .2 -1.7 6.1 60.% 5.21
xG+xA ROP: expected goals+assists from run of play, xB: expected buildup, xP ATK score: Expected passing final third score, DRB: dribbles, dribble%: the percentage of a successful dribble, DFA/(ATT)P: defensive action per final third pass attempt

Finally, let’s take a look at an aging Clint Dempsey. He’s obviously nearing the end of his career and as such, it’s not at all unexpected to see some of his numbers take a decline. The good news for Sounders fans is that they actually haven’t declined as sharply as I had feared. Dempsey might not be able to give you 90 solid minutes at this point, but he’s as fierce of a competitor as any in Major League Soccer. Conventional wisdom tells us that this might be Dempsey’s last season with the Sounders but I wouldn’t recommend telling him that.

Player Team Season Min Pos Shots SoT Dist Solo Goals xG xPlace G-xG KeyP Assts xA A-xA xG+xA
Clint Dempsey SEA 2015 1,819 F 61 27 17.4 32.8% 10 10.2 .4 -.2 29 9 5.1 3.9 15.3
Clint Dempsey SEA 2016 1,488 A 65 20 18.4 30.8% 8 8.5 -.6 -.5 22 1 1.9 -.9 10.4
Clint Dempsey SEA 2017 2,395 A 116 39 20.3 25.9% 12 15. -1.7 -3. 42 4 4.4 -.4 19.4
Clint Dempsey SEA 2018 362 A 16 5 20.1 31.3% 0 1.7 -.7 -1.7 5 1 .9 .1 2.6

Ok, let’s go ahead and wrap this one up.

Is it possible Seattle misses the playoffs this season?

Absolutely. They aren’t completely buried yet, but the air is getting stale and the light at the end of the tunnel is shrinking. Lagerwey has promised that the club plans on investing big in a new attacking player, and that’s all well and good if Seattle can manage to string some points together and keep themselves around the line until the window opens. The problem is that they don’t seem to be getting healthier for at least another three weeks to a month and then the World Cup kind of throws a wrench into reacclimating those returning players. Make no mistake, Seattle are a very good team and MAYBE still even the best in the West when everybody is healthy and happy, but there’s a pretty decent chance we won’t see that this season.

Now for the big question.

Is Seattle’s time as an elite MLS franchise over?

Probably not.

The circumstances of this season are beyond extenuating due to injuries, red cards, and dropped free kicks etc… That being said, they are coming to a crossroads as a franchise soon. They’ll spend this summer to bring in some badly needed help offensively and possibly look at finding more depth around the backline and somebody to challenge for the LB spot. At least that’s what I would do right away. Going forward, there are a ton of decisions that need to be made, and if Lagerwey and Schmetzer don’t get them right, it could be a problem going forward.

If Seattle hasn’t already (and I very much doubt that they haven’t) they need to start looking for Ozzie’s replacement. Roldan and Svennson are very good in their own right, but neither’s strength is what Ozzie brings to the table on the rare occasion that he’s healthy and Seattle tend to look pretty toothless without it. Dempsey is another player that will likely need to be replaced. Chad Marshall, is doing a wonderful job for his age but Seattle can’t rely on him to play 3000 minutes a season. Lodeiro hasn’t exactly been quiet about wanting a move back to Boca someday, and if that’s what his heart is set on, the Sounders need to strike gold again with a playmaker if they’re going to stay on top of even the West.

The next two windows are probably the most important in the franchise’s history and everybody’s going to watching to see what direction the Sounders go next. It’s hard to argue with the success they’ve had in their first 9 years as a franchise, and they’ve always found a way to turn things around when things look to be hitting rock bottom. Can they pull another Lazarus act this season? I’m going to take the cowardly way out and stick with:  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  

Narrative: Signing a player like Wayne Rooney isn’t good for DC United or the perception of MLS as a retirement league
Narrative Strength: As loud as Twellman’s voice so… pretty loud?
Narrative Accuracy: Not very accurate

A lot of the hand wringing about this transaction seems to be tied up in the cost of the deal which, fair enough, playing armchair GM with other people’s money is a lot of fun, but outside of that what are we looking at here? Right now there aren’t many players that wouldn’t improve DC United. Remember earlier when we discovered that Kendall Waston might actually improve their attack?

Ok. here are your concerns and my responses.

Wayne Rooney is too old.

Wayne Rooney is 32. There are like 50 MLS players older than him (I went back and checked and it is 46 players). Rooney is younger than Benny Feilhaber, Bradley Wright-Phillips, and Kei Kamara. He’s younger than Matteo Mancosu and Jordan Harvey.

He’s got way more minutes and miles on his legs than those guys.

Ok fine that’s fair. Out of curiosity, I looked up his injury record on transfrmarket and out of the nearly 5840 days his professional career has lasted, he’s been injured for about 435. Now, is that a lot? I don’t really know. But since I took the time to do the math, I figured why not present it here?

He wasn’t very good for Everton.

He started off very well, but then came big Sam Allardyce and yeah he got pushed down the depth chart and out of position. I suspect he’ll be deployed more as a second striker or a #10 by Benny which should see more production out of him.

This does nothing to curtail the perception from people that MLS is a retirement league.

Meh. Nothing will. They’re always going to say that. We need to stop worrying about this. Eurosnobs are gonna Eurosnob and there isn’t a thing MLS is capable of doing at this time to combat that. Every team spending 16 million dollars on a Barco isn’t gonna stop dudes from Peoria that get up early on Saturdays to chant in a bar about how ‘arry Kane is one of their own from turning their nose up at MLS teams, nor is it going to make the foreign press who only cover MLS when they sign an aging Eurostar any less inclined to report on MLS as a league of aging Eurostars.

Ok then Ian, why does it work?

I was going to do this whole thing where I compared Eurostars last year in Europe to their first year in MLS to see if could maybe come up with a back of the napkin projection, but whilst Googling such things I discovered that the very capable Tutal Rahmen has already done just that. I probably could have recreated his work but I decided not to because a) I don’t have to and b) I didn’t feel like it.

As with any DP signing, this is definitely a gamble. However, it’s a gamble I’d encourage a team like DC United to make. A lot of people don’t think that Wayne Rooney has the same draw as a guy like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but I think they’re closer than most soccer hipsters think. Wayne Rooney is a very famous name in the sport and was a star for arguably the world’s most famous team for basically his entire career. He’s England and Manchester United’s all time leading goalscorer. DC United aren’t in a position to wave off a guy that will sell tickets, and Wayne Rooney will definitely do just that.

Additionally, we’ve seen some Eurostars that haven’t cut it over here (Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo, etc.) but usually these are players that are still asked to perform defensively and in more mobile roles within the team. I don’t think Rooney will be asked to do that (though I definitely wouldn’t say he isn’t going to try anyway). Generally the forwards that have come over in their early to mid thirties (Robbie Keane, David Villa, Thierry Henry, Didier Drogba, Clint Dempsey) have done very well. If Wayne Rooney can be sold on the project at DC United, he’s going to be a very big piece of it going forward.

Narrative: Evan Bush is the most underappreciated man in Major League Soccer
Narrative Strength: I’m just now making this narrative up.
Narrative Accuracy: I wouldn’t lie to you would I?

Quick hit here. I was looking at GK stats trying to determine where to cast my all star vote (Matt Turner btw, I know right?), when I saw just what Evan Bush has been dealing with so far in 2018. The man has been in front of a firing squad. He’s facing 7.71 shots per 96 minutes so far (the next highest with at least 900 minutes is Nick Rimando with 5.59). He’s been forced to make 5.44 saves per 96 (next highest is David Bingham with 3.71), and he’s already amassed a xGA of 30.46. You know how high that is? That’s high enough that a third of the way through 2018 Evan Bush has the 18th highest total of xGA if you include every GK from 2017’s entire season. He’s let in a lot of goals to be sure, but he’s actually at a very respectable -5.56 G-xG. I don’t really have an overarching point here except to say that if you see Evan Bush out in the world buy him a beer. He deserves it.

That’s all for this week. The league marches on into the warmer climes of summer with a lot of questions still unanswered. In just a few short weeks, the silly season speculation will have hit fever pitch, and you will ultimately be disappointed to learn that the player you had your heart set on was only using you as leverage for a better deal with his current team.

Enjoy the banter friends. I’ll be back next week to talk about what we’re talking about.