Setting the Table: Week 12 / by Eric Walcott

By Eric Walcott (@ericwsoccer)

Welcome to Setting the Table, this week featuring a whole lot of Houston vs Chicago. Each week we take some time to focus on the best chance creators in MLS from the last weekend. If you want to see the best chances that were wasted check out Lowered Expectations. Here we focus on chances that ended with the ball in the back of the net.

#5 Nemanja Nikolic to Diego Campos, Chicago Fire, 16th minute, 0.369 expected goals
Passes in sequence: 2

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We start this week’s top five chances converted with a nice little pass from Nemanja Nikolic to Diego Campos, a goal which gave Chicago a 2-1 lead in the 16th minute after going down 1-0 in just the 4th minute. This goal says more to me about Houston’s defensive organization than anything. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a sneaky little pass from Nikolic to put Campos in, but look at Houston’s defensive shape after DaMarcus Beasley’s attempted clearance. There’s really nobody in the space just outside the 18, which leads both Houston defenders nearby to step to Nikolic (as they should, you don’t leave a guy who scored 24 goals last season open at the top of the 18). It looks like Houston’s center mids have gotten sucked to the wing, leaving that space wide open, and not only do they get pulled wide, they fail to get back to the middle when the cross goes in.

For Chicago, it’s a rare assist from Nikolic who now has one assist on 0.9 xA in 2018. He had three assists on 2.7 xA in 2017, so it’s fair to say any chances Nikolic sets up directly are just an added bonus for the Fire.

Speaking of the Fire, Chicago, who finished 3rd in the East in 2017, currently sit 8th in the East. They’re sitting on 1.3 xG per game and 1.55 xG against per game, both of which are worse than last season, but not significantly worse. The big difference so far this year is that while in 2017 the Fire scored 59 goals on 47.7 xG, their attack this year is more on pace with their xG, scoring 15 goals on 14.3 xG. Remember in the offseason how everyone wondered if Atlanta could keep outperforming expected goals? Maybe we should’ve been asking the same about Chicago.

#4 Borek Dockal to Ilsinho, Philadelphia Union, 74th minute, 0.408 expected goals
Passes in sequence: 3

There’s not a ton to say here. Dockal makes a nice run and does a good job pulling defenders to him, leaving Ilsinho in some space, and Ilsinho does a good job just poking it home. Also good job to Alejandro Bedoya for making sure NOT to touch that ball from an offside position. RSL by this point just seemed beat down. Only a few minutes before they’d been lucky not to go down 3-1 after a Union goal (on a howler from Nick Rimando) was called back for offside, and RSL just look tentative in defense. Nobody, Rimando included, really commits to stopping Dockal’s run and there’s just way too much time and space.

Quick note on the Union, I was tweeting earlier about MLS forwards and “efficiency,” looking at the top forwards according to expected goals per shot. Basically, the quality of the shots their taking. Here’s the top 10 forwards by that metric:

CJ Sapong in the top 10 got me a lot of replies from Union fans about his poor finishing. When comparing his goals to expected goals, it does not look good. That said, when you look at his G-xG for his career, he’s pretty close to them matching up throughout his MLS career. Here are his numbers since 2011.

Player Team Season Shots SoT Dist Solo Goals xG xPlace G-xG KeyP Assts xA A-xA xG+xA
C.J. Sapong PHI 2018 26 9 11.9 19.2% 2 5.3 -1.40 -3.3 9 1 1.1 -0.1 6.40
C.J. Sapong PHI 2017 67 33 13.4 22.4% 16 14.8 1.30 1.2 30 4 3.2 0.8 18.10
C.J. Sapong PHI 2016 60 22 14.7 6.7% 7 11.6 -3.10 -4.6 24 2 1.6 0.4 13.30
C.J. Sapong PHI 2015 44 21 15.4 6.8% 9 7.7 1.80 1.3 28 3 2.4 0.6 10.00
C.J. Sapong SKC 2014 14 5 10.4 14.3% 2 2.9 -0.50 -0.9 4 0 0.2 -0.2 3.10
C.J. Sapong SKC 2013 33 13 14.6 15.2% 4 3.6 -1.10 0.4 15 2 1.1 0.9 4.70
C.J. Sapong SKC 2012 61 24 16 11.5% 9 7.2 0.00 1.8 28 1 2.2 -1.2 9.40
C.J. Sapong SKC 2011 53 25 17.7 15.1% 5 5.6 1.60 -0.6 34 4 3.2 0.8 8.70

I’m not saying he’s going to start banging in goals for fun, but with Dockal starting to find a bit of a groove, Sapong is going to get more quality chances, and his career numbers would suggest he’ll start to finish those at a rate closer to what is expected than he has so far this year.

#3 Luciano Acosta to Zoltan Stieber, DC United, 15th minute, 0.468 expected goals
Passes in sequence: 10

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I love this assist because the first nine passes in the sequence are everything that’s wrong with DC United this season, namely that when they’ve had the ball they’ve lacked ideas of what to do with it. There are nine passes here of the ball seemingly going nowhere, no real purpose to the possession, and then Luciano Acosta looks up, sees the Zoltan Stieber run, and hits a perfect ball while falling over. That pass is everything that could be right about DC. On paper they look like they should be a fun attacking team, but it hasn’t happened on the field, as they’ve scored just 13 goals. Shockingly (or not if you watch DC at all) that’s actually over-performing their 10.4 expected goals for the season. That said, playing San Jose seemed to be part of the cure for what ails DC, as they put up their second highest xG of the season with 1.76 xG on Saturday.

Speaking of the Earthquakes. I know xNarrative is supposed to be Ian’s thing, but I want to briefly talk about a narrative that was being pushed in the build-up to this game, and this past offseason. Specifically, that narrative is that San Jose is, or was on the verge of being, good at soccer.

First, the Earthquakes won 3-1 in Minnesota. Then they drew in Vancouver in a game where they lost the xG battle 2.44-1.06, but scrapped a point because that’s why we play the games. Leading into Saturday, there was some buzz that the Quakes were building momentum, that things were changing in the Bay Area.

It seems like someone forgot to remind the narrative generator that beating Minnesota isn’t especially impressive, and getting a 2-2 draw against Vancouver should surprise nobody, because the Whitecaps are on a run of three consecutive 2-2 draws.

So how about this: until the Earthquakes actually accomplish something, even something as relatively minor as making the playoffs (yes, when 50% of the conference gets in, that’s a minor accomplishment), can we stop with the narrative that the Quakes are good?

#2 Tomas Martinez to Romell Quioto, Houston Dynamo, 4th minute, 0.489 expected goals
Passes in sequence: 4

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Long balls don’t usually make highlight reels as assists, because it seems simple, just kick the ball hard for a fast guy to run on to. It’s why you won’t see Acosta or Tomas Martinez on SportsCenter for these assists, but here’s another creative midfielder spotting a run and playing a winger into space. Turns out, when a guy gets into a lot of space and gets to go 1v1 with the keeper, that’s a high xG chance that he should probably score.

#1 Aleksandar Katai to Nemanja Nikolic, Chicago Fire, 14th minute, 0.518 expected goals
Passes in sequence: 13

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The second appearance of this duo wins the award for most passes leading to a goal in this week’s edition of Setting the Table. It’s also one of the more unselfish assists you’ll see.

But wait, Eric, aren’t all assists unselfish, since it involves passing the ball to somebody else?

Sure, but watch that goal again and tell me how many soccer players make the pass Katai does instead of passing to Nikolic.

The other thing I appreciate about this goal is Katai starts it all off by winning the ball in the defensive half, and then is the one to make the final pass for the assist. Well done.

Nick Rimando vs Borek Dockal, RSL 57th minute, Keeper xG 0.867

It was a rough week for Nick Rimando, but he still had this moment to remind everyone why he’s been so great for so long with this fantastic reaction save, which was the best save according to keeper xG this week.

That’s all from this edition of Setting the Table. Thanks for taking the time to explore last weekend’s top assists and give some praise to the weekend’s best chance creators. See you next week.