Expected Narratives: Atlanta Doth PRO-test Too Much / 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.

Officiating controversy? Naturally. Following Atlanta’s 3-1 loss to the New York Red Bulls, Atlanta players and coaches had nothing but pointed criticisms at Mark Geiger’s officiating. Geiger, who oversaw their 2-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City, was the video review official for Atlanta’s latest “bad feelings” match on Sunday. Were there incidents? Oh indeed there were incidents. To wit: Josef Martinez had a goal disallowed against Sporting Kansas City due to being waived offside (he was offside according to the letter of the law, which is a confusing law, but that’s a different subject entirely) and then had a goal disallowed after video review again on Sunday after he was judged to have fouled Tim Parker in the buildup (it sure looked like he did, but again there’s no way to be sure unless we let the official do something crazy like look at a video of the incident). I digress, but here we are again and although I don’t want this column to turn in to me becoming Simon Borg (THAT’S AN EASY RED CARD FOR ME FOLKS!) I’ve seen more than a few dozen (WHY ARE THE REFS AGAINST ATLANTA?) takes so let’s address the dumbest narrative we’ve done yet.

Narrative: Officials haven’t been fair to Atlanta
Narrative Strength: Atlanta fans are loud
Narrative Accuracy: LOL (maybe just “O”, because Atlanta needs to hold on to those two Ls).

Though Silicon Valley on HBO has gotten a little stale narratively with its unending will they-won’t they flirtation with success, I still tune in and I’m reminded of a storyline last season in which Haley Joel Osment plays a guy who through sheer positivity, dumb luck, or outright fraud always manages to get exactly what it is he wants. During one of the episodes Keenan Feldspar (that’s his character’s name on the show, did I mention that earlier? Guess not. Whatever let’s move on.) decides to acquire the company that the protagonists of the show run. When he is rebuffed, the usually unflappable Feldspar, with a look of sheer betrayal towards the universe for making him feel a bad thing, just says with surprise “this feeling sucks.” It’s a silly moment to be sure, and it’s hard to feel even an ounce of pity towards this man who has had so much success that he finds having even a single negative emotion surprising and unacceptable. The point of this digression isn’t to advertise Silicon Valley or my new Silicon Valley tumblr page (just google Silicon Valley + MLS narrative + crossover + fan fiction and you’ll find it), it’s to illustrate what 90% (this is a conservative, and to be fair, completely made up estimate) of us feel when we see Atlanta coaches, players, and fans complain about the refs. But hey, you all started it, so let’s get into it. Here are some facts:

(I got a lot of help on this section by the criminally underfollowed @MLSRefStats who really does keep track of this stuff and has never rebuffed me when I’ve asked for numbers. Give them a follow and thanks again my friend!)

1. Atlanta is in first place.
2. Atlanta has had three goals disallowed after video review.
3. Atlanta has been awarded an astounding eight penalties this season.
4. Atlanta has had two red cards overturned by video review.
5. Atlanta has still suffered three red cards.
6. Atlanta opponents have been given two red cards.
7. Atlanta has been involved in eight decisions involving video review this season.
8. Four of those have gone in Atlanta’s favor:

a) Atlanta vs Vancouver: after consulting video Atlanta was awarded a penalty and Kendall Waston was sent off. This sending off was later overturned by the disciplinary committee.
b) Atlanta vs LAFC: After consulting video Chris McCann’s red card was rescinded and he was instead cautioned.
c) Atlanta vs LAFC: After consulting video, Walker Zimmerman was determined to have fouled Almiron and a penalty was awarded to Atlanta.
d) Atlanta vs RBNY: After consulting video, Jeff Larentowicz’s red card was rescinded and he was instead cautioned.

9. Three of these went against Atlanta:

a) Atlanta vs NYCFC: After consulting video, Martinez was deemed to have been in an offside position and obstructing Sean Johnson’s vision, therefore overturning Nagbe’s goal.
b) Atlanta vs SKC: After consulting video, Martinez was determined to have been in an offside position when the ball was played off the defender. The defender was deemed to have intentionally made an attempt to play the ball, therefore overturning Martinez’s goal.
c) Atlanta vs RBNY: After consulting video, Martinez was judged to have fouled Tim Parker in the buildup, therefore overturning Martinez’s goal.

10. I’m not sure how to classify the last one as it was both kind of positive and negative for Atlanta, but

a) Atlanta vs DC United: After an incident involving Greg Garza, video review was consulted to determine whether or not Garza was guilty of a red card infraction due to serious foul play. After consulting video, Garza was issued a yellow card.

Looking back at the incident, I’m inclined to think this one favored Atlanta but Garza didn’t have a yellow card prior to the incident but then received one, so that’s bad for Atlanta, but also before video review he likely would have been sent off… sooo….. neutral?

Now to be clear, none of this is to suggest that there’s a bias going the other way either. I also think that’s a very silly viewpoint. I point all of this out to show that video review has sometimes gone against Atlanta to be sure, losing three goals is never fun, but it’s also aided them more often than not. I also considered that maybe it was weird Atlanta had been involved in so many VAR incidents, but a quick check of those numbers show that while eight is the most in the league, NYCFC and Sporting Kansas City each have six so… I guess not really.

A sense of aggrievement isn’t hard to obtain by any sports fan, but certainly those of the Atlanta United Football Club supporting persuasion are amongst the ones that are least entitled to it. In addition to generally being aided by VAR, they’ve also been awarded eight penalties which is more than double the number of any other team this season and more than every team but four (Toronto, Portland, RBNY, and Houston) were awarded in the entirety of 2017. This isn’t to say that Atlanta weren’t entitled to those penalties, but it’s unusual in Major League Soccer to get ref decisions in your favor as often as they have this season.

So let’s wrap up this exercise that required way more work than it should have. Can Atlanta claim to have been unfairly treated by officials? Not in the slightest. It’s my opinion that all three of the disallowed goals were rightly disallowed, but I can understand some arguments to the contrary on the latest one. If PRO and MLS are running a conspiracy against Atlanta they should probably let the refs know because things have been pretty rosy for Atlanta in that department so far this season. These things tend to even themselves out over time, and maybe Atlanta is starting to feel some of that in the last couple of weeks. I’d never begrudge a fan their ref outrage, but I do take umbrage with claims or insinuations of match fixing or games being “rigged”. Also, if you want the biggest piece of evidence that MLS and PRO aren’t working against Atlanta, please go back to my very first fact. Atlanta are winning the league. I don’t doubt that any conspiracy involving PRO and MLS would go off without a hitch, but even they couldn’t be doing as badly as they would have to be to have this result. Look, Atlanta is the best team in MLS this year, and it shows in the standings. They haven’t done this “in spite of” PRO. They’ve done it by setting the standard in league play and while penalties and other officiating decisions have helped, I would be insane to say that they were any more than some interesting and unusual statistical noise surrounding a consistently excellent team.

So, Atlanta fans, don’t hate me. Also, recognize that you’re going to lose matches, calls are going to bewilder you, your favorite players will get injured or just up and leave one day, and your heart will be broken more often than you win trophies. To go back to the whole Silicon Valley thing, you aren’t wrong, this feeling sucks. Do remember though that the team you support seems to be run by people that hate feeling like that as much or more than you do and will not balk at any price or concession to make sure you have that feeling as little as possible. That’s not something a lot of MLS fans can say, so stop whining about the refs.

Narrative: Maybe LA is better without Zlatan
Narrative Strength: A quiet hum
Narrative Accuracy: Zlatan benches you

I’m sorry for doing that reverse Zlatan meme thing just then. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge practitioner of social media hackery but if we’re going to continue to unironically deify “the lion”, he should at least have the courtesy to justify a quarter of the praise and attention he’s getting. Zlatan’s debut against LAFC was gangbusters without a doubt, and I’ll admit that my mind drifted to Zlatan waltzing through MLS defenses with all the graciousness of a purse snatcher. The reality since then has been more meme than anything else and the Los Angeles Galaxy have been more or less terrible since acquiring the Swede, dropping five matches whilst scraping 1-0 wins over two of the league’s, how shall we say, less...good teams in Chicago and Montreal. In the ASA almighty xG+xA per 96 minute metric Zlatan’s 0.49 is certainly somewhat respectable, but come on, even if LA somehow did manage to get him for TAM we can’t be happy with a “somewhat respectable” Zlatan. He promised to conquer America but thus far that 0.49 puts him between Joao Plata and Corey Baird.

Let’s see how he’s stacking up against teammate Ola Kamara and just because I’m feeling particularly spiteful today, Gyasi Zardes (stats are per 96 minutes).

Player Minutes Shots SoT Goals xG xPlace G-xG Key Passes Assists xA A-xA xG+xA
Zlatan Ibrahimovic 563 3.24 1 0.51 0.37 -5.0% 14.0% 1.0 0.17 0.1 .06 49.0%
Ola Kamara 953 2.62 1 0.5 0.69 -16.0% -18.0% 1.5 0 0.2 -.15 84.0%
Gyasi Zardes 1202 3.11 1 0.56 0.64 -19.0% -8.0% 1.0 0 0.2 -.16 80.0%

Ola’s obviously doing fine, but even though the sample sizes on these are criminally, laughably tiny I went ahead and tallied his xG+xA p 96 pre Zlatan (1.23) and post Zlatan (0.74). You COULD make a case that it would be wiser for LA to play Ola in his preferred role (now occupied by Zlatan), but again the sample size on this is so small that I couldn’t recommend it in good conscious. Even in a more wide role, Ola’s still doing well. I’m sure he wasn’t expecting to be doing this when he came over from Columbus but you’ve got to applaud him for being adaptable.

The Galaxy haven’t been particularly terrible at any one thing this season, even defensively their 16.7 xGA is pretty middle of the road (14th of 22), so is their xG (9th), their passing percentage (16th), their shots allowed per game (16th), and shots taken per game (18th). The only metric that LA scores reasonably high in is winning aerial duels (4th) (and Ola is leading the way for LA on this one). Right now, the LA Galaxy are just sort of bad in a general sort of way. I don’t think we’ve given the Zlatan train enough track yet to claim it’s gone off the rails. I’d be curious to see what happens with the team, and Ola Kamara in particular, without Zlatan for a few matches and lo and behold, Zlatan just went ahead and benched himself for a few games after clocking Michael Petrasso so we’re likely going to get to see just that.

I’m not sure that Zlatan is enjoying his time as a Galaxy player at the moment, nor would I expect any of their players to be. I’m also not sure that Zlatan has ever really had to play for a bad team before. It was noted that the Galaxy’s recent four match loss streak was the first that Zlatan had ever experienced. I say you don’t bench Zlatan (at least not yet.) We’re still early enough in the season and this whole experiment that it’s worth giving it more time. Will Zlatan be the all-conquering hero that he advertised himself as, or merely a decent MLS striker who can play late into this thirties due to his unique physical attributes and technical abilities?

If there’s any real loser in this situation it’s Ola Kamara, who on nearly any other team would be a more than adequate first choice striker. The good news is, with Zlatan on such a surprisingly low salary, if it doesn’t wind up working out it isn’t a huge financial loss for LA and they’ve got Ola right there ready to go. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Zlatan finishes the season as an option off the bench, but he doesn’t seem to be the kind of player that would be happy and productive in that role. I have no issue with either stance on this narrative, and am eager to see how Sigi Schmid and the Galaxy staff handle it.

That’s all the narratives we’ve got time for this week. Toronto needs to grab another win this week or people are going to start talking about them pulling a Portland and missing the playoffs after winning MLS Cup the year before. Sporting Kansas City seems to have reached the summit of the West, but where do they stack against all of those Eastern Conference sides? Well, they beat Atlanta in Atlanta but split their fortunes with the New York sides. Hosting Columbus will be another interesting test this week. Also, how could we forget the California Clasico this weekend? It might have something to do with how forgettable both teams have been so far this year. It will not be long till everybody leaves for the World Cup and we get to say things like “without the US involved, I’m not even sure how much of the World Cup I’m going to watch” while knowing deep down that we’re going to watch every second of it.

Enjoy your banter MLS friends, I’ll be back next week to talk about what we’re talking about