Setting the Table: Week 15 - The World Cup Edition / by Eric Walcott

Welcome to Setting the Table. 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.

This week I’m going to do something a bit different. Don’t worry, you’ll still get to see the top assists of the week (based on the quality of chance they create, rather than the awesomeness of the actual pass, a fact that seems extra evident this week), and you’ll still get gifs of fun goals. That said, with it being the beginning of the World Cup, I’m also going to take a look at some of the players MLS is sending to Russia and what stands out about them.

#3 Diego Fagundez to Teal Bunbury, NE Revolution, 82nd minute, 0.512 expected goals
Passes in sequence: 1


If you just looked at the chalkboard here you might think this was a fairly normal goal. Diego Fagundez gets into a dangerous position and finds Teal Bunbury making a run down the middle and he makes the simple pass for the easy finish.

Except, ummmmm, WHAT? The Fire had a chance to steal all three points and thanks to Richard Sanchez playing hot potato, could only manage a draw (though based on the quality of chances, you could argue they stole one point as they lost the xG battle 0.73-1.55).

There are a number of things Sanchez could’ve done with the ball as his momentum carried him out of bounds. He could’ve thrown it towards the sideline, he could’ve even held on to the ball and conceded a corner kick. Instead he does probably the world possible thing and drops it basically onto the foot of Fagundez. One simple pass and Bunbury’s shot, which you’d expect him to score with a goalkeeper in net, is against an empty net and he easily finishes it.

Sanchez has been okay for the Fire this season, conceding about as many goals as expected based on expected goals data. His xG against is 22.91, while actual goals conceded is 22. That said, he was benched earlier this month and only returned to the lineup due to injury. Moments like this are not going to make a strong case for staying in the lineup once Patrick McClain is healthy.

#2 Alphonso Davies to Yordy Reyna, Vancouver Whitecaps, 87th minute, 0.774 expected goals
Passes in sequence: 2

Player Season Min Shots SoT xG KeyP xA xG+xA
Alphonso Davies 2018 1301 0.9 0.44 0.15 1.40 0.31 0.45
Alphonso Davies 2017 1147 1.3 0.17 0.12 1.09 0.10 0.22
Stats per 96 minutes

Alphonso Davies take a bow. Against Orlando over the weekend, the 17-year old scored a goal and provided three assists in a breathtaking performance. Davies has had his moments in recent weeks, but it all came together on Saturday. Looking at Davies’ numbers per 96 minutes you can see a clear increase in production from 2017 to 2018. Interestingly, he’s actually taking fewer shots, but putting more of them on target and taking those shots from more dangerous positions. The area where he’s seen the most growth is the chances he’s creating for others, up to 0.31 xG per 96 minutes in 2018 after only 0.1 xG per 96 in 2017.

Davies won’t be going to the 2018 World Cup, but if he keeps this up he just might be the star of the 2026 World Cup, which Canada will be joint hosting. I’m not saying Davies’ speech before the vote sealed the deal for the United bid, but it would’ve won my vote!

#1 Walker Zimmerman to Adama Diomande, LAFC, 90th minute, 0.832 expected goals
Passes in sequence: 3


Let’s call this week "the week of the maybe lucky assist played to the wide open person in front of goal." Walker Zimmerman is stretched so far to win the ball in from Steven Beitashour that it’s amazing he’s able to direct it in front of goal. He couldn’t have done it better had be been standing perfectly positioned to receive the ball. He does get a foot on it, and he finds Adama Diomande right in front of goal for the tap in and the equalizer.

Diomande, who has played only 155 minutes since joining LAFC, is going to be key over the next few weeks if they want to keep up their hot start. While there’s a bit of a break for the beginning of the World Cup, LAFC are going to be missing Marco Urena and Carlos Vela for a few games at minimum. Between the two of them, they’re producing 1.69 xG+xA per 96 for LAFC. That’s a lot of attacking production missing. Luckily, Diomande is off to a good start, generating 1.53 xG+xA per 96 on his own. While he’s unlikely to keep that up, it’s a good sign for LAFC.

Now, on to Russia. There will be 19 players from MLS representing their countries in Russia, 0 of them from the United States. They are:

Player Team Country
Francisco Calvo Minnesota Costa Rica
David Guzman* Portland Costa Rica
Ronald Matarrita NYCFC Costa Rica
Marco Urena* LAFC Costa Rica
Rodney Wallace NYCFC Costa Rica
Kendall Waston* Vancouver Costa Rica
Harold Cummings* San Jose Panama
Fidel Escobar* New York Panama
Anibal Godoy* San Jose Panama
Adolfo Machado* Houston Panama
Michael Murillo New York Panama
Roman Torres* Seattle Panama
Giovani dos Santos LA Galaxy Mexico
Jonathan dos Santos LA Galaxy Mexico
Carlos Vela* LAFC Mexico
Omar Gaber LAFC Egypt
Andy Polo Portland Peru
Yoshi Yotun* Orlando Peru
Gustav Svensson Seattle Sweden
*Based on my research, I think they have a good chance of starting their WC opener.

First let’s take a look at the attacking numbers put up by the MLS midfielders and forwards who are headed to the World Cup.

Per 96 attacking stats for MLS forwards and midfielders selected to World Cup Squads
Player Season Min Shots xG KeyP xA xG+xA
Marco Urena 2018 644 2.68 0.64 3.28 0.29 0.93
Carlos Vela 2018 1169 3.86 0.47 2.63 0.29 0.76
Giovani dos Santos 2018 343 2.52 0.42 1.68 0.25 0.67
Jonathan dos Santos 2018 652 0.74 0.08 0.74 0.05 0.13
Rodney Wallace 2018 453 1.91 0.21 0.85 0.07 0.29
Yoshimar Yotun 2018 959 1.40 0.25 2.10 0.26 0.51
David Guzman 2018 204 1.88 0.10 2.82 0.18 0.34
Andy Polo 2018 547 1.23 0.08 1.05 0.16 0.25
Anibal Godoy 2018 1153 0.50 0.02 0.42 0.03 0.05

Now some of the players aren't likely to start, but a few of them are key to their team’s chances. This is especially true for Marco Urena and Yoshi Yotun. Urena put up an impressive 0.93 xG+xA per 96 for LAFC this season before he got injured. While his zero goals and four assists won’t blow anyone away, the quality of chances he’s involved in point to a similar role for club and country. While not thought of as the most dangerous forward, Urena is a fantastic hold-up forward, which is exactly what makes him perfect for both LAFC and Costa Rica. The Ticos will look to sit deep and hit fast on the counter, and Urena’s hold-up play is vital to getting that counter going. His ability to win a ball and play it off to an attacking teammate is underrated. For LAFC, that’s Vela, Diego Rossi, and Latif Blessing, for Costa Rica is will likely be Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell. If Costa Rica hope to repeat their success from the 2014 in Brazil, Urena will need to be a big part of that.

The other player I need to mention is Orlando City’s Yoshi Yotun. But first, let’s take a look at passing and expected goal chain stats for those expected starters, since those accentuate what makes Yotun so valuable.

Expected Goal Chain for Expected World Cup Starers
Player Min xGC xG xA xG+xA xB xGC/96 xB/96 Buildup %
Yoshimar Yotun 959 10.16 2.5 2.62 5.10 5.06 1.02 0.51 50%
David Guzman 204 1.12 0.2 0.38 0.60 0.52 0.53 0.25 47%
Adolfo Machado 946 4.05 0.1 0.77 0.87 3.18 0.41 0.32 79%
Marco Urena 644 8.33 4.3 1.97 6.27 2.06 1.24 0.31 25%
Carlos Vela 1169 12.75 5.7 3.59 9.27 3.48 1.05 0.29 27%
Fidel Escobar 174 0.59 0.2 0.00 0.17 0.42 0.32 0.23 72%
Anibal Godoy 1153 3.88 0.3 0.36 0.61 3.26 0.32 0.27 84%
Roman Torres 413 1.1 0.6 0.00 0.60 0.51 0.26 0.12 46%
Kendall Waston 1187 4.37 2.2 0.72 2.96 1.41 0.35 0.11 32%

Looking at xG+xA, Yotun is one of the most productive midfielders in MLS. As you can see by his xPassing numbers below, he’s also an above average passer. In fact, his actual pass completion percentage is better in every part of the field than his xPassing percentage is. His touch percentage? Higher than all but three players in MLS (minimum 700 minutes). That’s reflected in his relatively high xGC numbers and his expected buildup. About half of Yotun’s xGC numbers come from possessions where he either makes the final pass (xA) or take the shot (xG), but the other half come from possessions were he’s involved at some point, but is not taking the shot or making the pass before the shot (xB). Orlando City as a whole team creates 1.48 xG per game, and Yotun’s xGC of 1.01 means he’s involved in almost every productive attack Orlando puts together.

Per 96 passing stats for expected starters at World Cup
Player Team Min Pos Passes PassPct xPassPct Touch %
Adolfo Machado HOU 946 D 44.96 0.76 0.75 0.09
Marco Urena LAFC 644 F 25.79 0.74 0.82 0.06
Carlos Vela LAFC 1169 A 46.48 0.76 0.74 0.10
Fidel Escobar NYRB 174 D 45.24 0.63 0.68 0.10
Yoshimar Yotun ORL 959 M 67.87 0.81 0.78 0.13
David Guzman POR 204 M 73.88 0.78 0.76 0.14
Anibal Godoy SJE 1153 M 54.87 0.90 0.86 0.11
Roman Torres SEA 413 D 47.42 0.74 0.75 0.08
Kendall Waston VAN 1187 D 38.42 0.77 0.75 0.09
Harold Cummings SJE 938 D 43.70 0.84 0.82 0.09

For Peru, whose prospects are greatly improved with forward Paolo Guerrero now eligible, Yotun will likely look to be similarly involved. Yoshi lead Peru with four assists in World Cup Qualifying, and will need to have a similar impact if Peru are going to make any sort of run.

WIth six players each, Costa Rica and Panama make up the majority of MLS players in Russia for the World Cup. At least half the Costa Rican MLS players are there as depth options, whereas most of the Panamanian contingent will likely start or play significant minutes. It’s not a stretch to say no team has benefited more from the growth of MLS than Panama, who also have former MLS players Jaime Penedo, Armando Cooper, Alberto Quintero, Gabriel Torres, and Blas Perez (Yes, Blas Perez is still alive, still kicking soccer balls, still practicing the CONCACAF dark arts, and is in Russia).

The current MLS players on the Panama squad lean heavily towards the defensive side of the ball. And no, “heavily” is not a joke about Roman Torres’ weight. Cummings, Escobar, Machado, Murrillo, and Torres are all defenders, while Godoy is a pretty active defender in the midfield.

Here’s each of their defensive actions per 90 minutes in MLS. Given that Panama is expected to very much sit back and bunker, it would not be a surprise if every one of these players exceeded their usual amount of defensive actions while in Russia. That said, Panama’s one hope at the World Cup is that teams get frustrated and resort to launching crosses into the box, something this squad is well equipped to deal with.

Defensive Actions per 90 - Panama
Player Tackles Interceptions Clearances Blocks (shots) Defensive Actions
Adolfo Machado 2.2 1.7 4.5 0.5 8.9
Fidel Escobar 2.7 2.7 4.8 0.5 10.7
Roman Torres 1.2 1.2 2.5 0.2 5.1
Anibal Godoy 2.8 2.6 0.8 0.2 6.4
Harold Cummings 2.7 2.6 3.9 0.8 10.0
Michael Murillo 2.1 1.3 2.0 0.1 5.5

That’s it for setting the table for this week. Thank you for taking the time to give some praise to last week’s best chance creators. Now, sit back and enjoy some World Cup!