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.
VAR giveth and VAR taketh away. Despite having a brand new soccer specific stadium to show off, the emergence of a free kick challenger to Giovinco’s throne, and David Villa’s 400th (and 401st) career goal, surprise surprise, everybody is going to be talking about video review again this week. There’s no sense putting this off any longer than necessary. Let’s just get right into it with a comment I received a number of times following last week’s entry:
No, Ian, VAR is actually terrible
Narrative Strength: Evergreen
Narrative Accuracy: B-
Last week, I covered the narrative that “VAR is ruining the league” and came to the conclusion that while not perfect, it’s not ruining the league any more than just the regular garden variety poor officiating was. I still stand by that, but I’ll add a caveat to it: even though it’s not actually doing a bad job of being a backstop for officials, it sure does feel a lot worse than regular old bad officiating. I suspect this has to do with the idea that many had that VAR was going to be the thing that protected us from the bad feelings that come when we’re aggrieved with a referee’s decision.
I guess it would be like someone telling you they stashed some money away in a drawer for you just in case you really need it one day. It’s your safety net. “If things get really bad” you think, “well, I can always just get the money out of the drawer.” Then one day things do get bad enough. You go to the drawer and the money’s not there and you realize it never was to begin with. That’s how the implementation of video review feels. Nothing was ever going to protect us from what we perceive to be injustices.
Anyway, VAR could and should be better. The concept is great, but if all it’s doing is make fans feel worse about the way games are officiated, there’s something fundamentally flawed. Whether this can be solved by more communication in the moment for officials, or its on fans to educate themselves better on the processes is for people far smarter than me to say. I still maintain that isn't accurate to say that VAR is ruining the league, but I will say that the implementation has been pretty bad.
Maybe next week we can not talk about Video Review.
Carl Robinson is a bad coach and the Vancouver Whitecaps have no ambition.
Narrative Strength: Pretty strong. Their supporters made up a whole new list of chants to basically proclaim this.
Narrative Accuracy: B+
Vancouver currently sits in third place in the Western Conference, but as Bob Dylan famously sang “the circumstances they are a-extenuating.” Vancouver has a couple more matches played than some of the perennial contenders, and their xG total of 8.2 only outpaces Montreal and DC United.
Things came to a bit of a head last week when a visit to Kansas City broke bad to the tune of a 6-0 drubbing. Obviously getting two red cards in the first half is going to be detrimental to any offensive effort, but fans didn’t forget that three of those goals came when it was still 11v11.
This is a two part narrative and so I’ll try to break each part down as best as I can.
1. Carl Robinson is a bad coach
I’m choosing to do something I don’t really feel comfortable doing, which is commenting on coaching performances, because I think that a lot goes on that most of us aren't privy to. We don’t know if Carl Robinson is a tactical genius whose players are completely unable or unwilling to follow his instructions (though I would find this news to be extremely surprising). We don’t know if Robinson is knocking down the owner’s door every week with a list of good sensible transfer targets. We don’t know lots of things. What we do know is that Robinson is responsible for instructing the team how to go out and play soccer and that’s where we can start to see issues if we tug at some strings.
Let’s start with the throughline here. Vancouver crosses the ball. They do it a lot. Vancouver does not do a great job getting the ball into their opponents third (in fact only Montreal does it less often). When they do get it in the final third they attempt fewer passes than any other team. 25% of the time that pass in the final third is a cross. That might not SEEM like a lot, but keep in mind the average MLS team is only attempting a cross 15% of the time. Furthermore, it’s not a strategy that’s going to be paying dividends regularly. The average MLS side is accurate with about 25% of their crosses. Vancouver? 15%. We checked last year’s numbers as well and while they’re slightly less glaring (24% of final third passes as crosses, 22% accurate) this still tells you something. Last year Vancouver had Fredy Montero as a target man. He’s 5’9 inches tall. In 2017 he was involved in 80 aerial duels. He won 19. This year they went out and signed the best player you could ask for to be on the receiving end of crosses in Kei Kamara and be seems to be doing much better, having already won 33 of his 52 duels thus far.
What’s your point, Ian? Insofar as I can make one based purely on numbers, Vancouver’s main offensive strategy seems to be crossing the ball. Which isn't always a bad proposition, but Vancouver’s issue is that they do it when they've got Kei Kamara starting. They do it when they’ve got Erik Hurtado up top. They did it when it was Montero. They do it when it’s Anthony Blondell. If all of this seems a bit one dimensional it’s because it is. Defending against crosses isn't difficult and that Vancouver has had so much success the last couple of years is kind of bewildering to me. My podcast co-host Harrison tweeted something about Vancouver that really struck me as accurate so I’ll just post it here for you to look at.
So, after all of that, is Carl Robinson a bad coach? I don’t think i can answer that, but I do feel comfortable saying that he’s not particularly inventive or flexible. Leading a team involves more than setting a lineup and teaching your players a system. There’s obviously something about Robinson that Vancouver’s ownership likes. I couldn't tell you what it is, but hey, he doesn't have to justify his job to me. He does however have to justify it to ownership and ownership has to justify it to the fans. The way things look right now, the supporters aren't buying it.
Let’s do part 2.
2. Vancouver’s ownership isn’t ambitious.
We discussed last week how all fancy language aside, for practical purposes your ambition in this league is best measured by the checks you sign. Vancouver is pretty middle of the road payroll wise (using 2017 numbers because 2018 numbers haven’t been made available yet). They’re dropping about eight million a year in salary which was the 10th highest last season. Not cheap, not extravagant, an average level of ambition it would seem.
What I do find somewhat baffling though is that I don’t think Vancouver are very good at player recruitment or acquisition. Looking at a list of their incoming transaction over the last few years shows a lot of short term stays, more than one miss, and very little coherent strategy. It’s like somebody in the organization decides it’s time to get new players so they turn on a giant vacuum, wait like two days, then shut it off. They look through the bag to see what came through. Hey look at that. It’s Brek Shea. let’s play him as a forward. Giles Barnes huh? Well, he’s a DP so he must be good. Aly Ghazal… yeah I don’t know. Sign him up.
Tim Parker was let go when word on the street was that he was looking for a pay raise to bring him more in line with his defensive partner Kendall Waston. It could be argued that trading a very good young center back instead of paying the man is a bit lacking in ambition, but Felipe is a very useful pickup and the 500k in future allocation money isn't bad either. Furthermore, if Parker was looking for DP money, I don’t think you can blame the Caps for not wanting to fill two of those slots with centerbacks.
The Whitecaps aren’t ever going to be a team that signs a Zlatan Ibrahimovic. They aren’t going to shell out 15 million dollars for a youngster on spec like Ezequiel Barco. They’re not the most ambitious club in the league, the conference, or even the region. At Vancouver’s current level of ambition they can probably expect to compete right about where they are. Fans can and should always expect more, but boy could they ever have it a lot worse.
The Western Conference is lagging way, way, way behind the East
Narrative Strength: Real strong. Like Eastern Conference strong.
I feel like I should preface all of this by pointing out that we're still very early in the season and as such sample sizes are not what you'd call "ideal". Nontheless, let's continue. LAFC vs Seattle should have been a showcase match for the league and the Western Conference in particular. The league’s brand new shiny vs perennial Western Conference favorites should have been a wonderful advertisement for the domestic game. It ended 1-0 on a goalkeeper howler on the last kick of the match. I thought the game was fairly even and entertaining, but when you’ve got Atlanta setting off fireworks every week, Toronto advancing to the CCL finals, and NYCFC waltzing through almost every match it’s hard to get excited a lot going on out West.
Narrative Accuracy: A
(shakes magic 8 ball) Signs point to yes. Almost all of the big money in MLS is now in the east. Here’s a theory I’ve been working on: To succeed as a soccer team you need good players. The more money you spend on players the better players you tend to get. IPSO FACTO yeah you see where we’re going with this.
Let’s do some basic math here.
East PPG: 1.46
West PPG: 1.19
East xGD: +10.1
West xGD: +0.8
So, yeah... the East is pretty dominant right now, and that’s not even taking into consideration that Toronto is has been hitting the snooze button on league play. It’s not just the usual suspects this time around either. Obviously NYCFC, Atlanta, and Toronto are going to be strong, but now the East has a reinvigorated Orlando, a business as usual Columbus, and you know who else has been pretty good at getting results this season? New England. Yep. New England.
Thus far the West really only has LAFC as a standout and we saw what happened when they visited the Southeast. Still, they’re just now getting into their own stadium and with a nice stretch of home games to come, they’ll likely be able to assert themselves even more. Sporting Kansas City looked like the strongest side in the West back in those halcyon days of Felipe Gutierrez, but with him on the shelf for a few months they may struggle to reproduce their very early season form. Seattle are pulling a real Seattle and languishing early, but they’ll likely right the ship at some point this season. Houston is an interesting side that just isn't getting the results, but they have the conference’s strongest xGD with +7.2. FC Dallas look more like pre-2017 collapse FC Dallas again and that’s a good sign for the West. Portland has a new coach and did manage to get a great result off of NYCFC, so maybe there’s some hope there.
I think it’s pretty safe to say that the top end of the table come October is going to be very “Easty” but the West is hardly standing still. And hey, the West has Zlatan. Come for The Zlatan, stay for the Rapids. What could go wrong? And lest you say I went pretty easy on the East, let’s not forget that the bottom part of that table is probably worse than the bottom of the West’s.
That’s all for this week. Looking ahead, we've got some rumblings of discontent in Seattle with three potentially perilous fixtures in the next couple of weeks. Lee Nguyen will presumably be attending a Major League Soccer match wearing a uniform finally. The Zlatan train rolls into Texas, and maybe JUST maybe I won’t have to write about video review.
Enjoy your banter my MLS watching friends. I’ll be back next week to talk about what we’re talking about.