Expected Narratives - BWP: The Best and Barco: Bust or Busta? / by Ian L.

By Ian Lamberson (@ahandleforian)

MLS went full MLS this past week. Unsurprisingly, Josef Martinez broke the hat trick record after escaping disciplinary action despite rather clear and damning footage of him headbutting Chad Marshall in the face. LAFC played too many internationals in their US Open Cup match and were nearly forced to forfeit despite beating Portland 3-2. If there is a hilarious irony to any of this, it’s that Portland would have gone through despite having far more internationals involved. Portland graciously withdrew their protest after learning that LAFC checked with US Soccer first and they said it was cool to play those players. The US Open Cup is an interesting tournament, and the American soccer landscape would be far poorer without it, but if the federation doesn’t actually know how all of the rules work there’s a reasonable argument that maybe teams that don’t take it that seriously are justified in their apathy.

Speaking of LAFC, the oft lauded expansion side ran into an unusually peppy Minnesota side and were defeated 5-1. LAFC chose to rest a number or starters and Minnesota clearly didn't care for the lack of respect whether or not it was intended. Last week I briefly touched on Minnesota’s log jam of attackers, and how that might potentially leave Christian Ramirez peering in from outside the shop, BUT a two goal, one assist performance against a leading conference side is just the sort of new coat of paint a lovingly pre-owned striker needs before getting put back on the market.  Ok let’s see… narratives…

Narrative: Atlanta, Josef Martinez, Atlanta, Josef Martinez, Hat tricks
Narrative Accuracy: Yep

Josef Martinez is scoring a lot of goals!

Narrative: The officiating is getting bad
Narrative Accuracy: Yep

Calls are being missed!

Narrative: Bradley Wright-Phillips deserves a place amongst the greatest players in MLS history
Narrative Accuracy: I’m a man who does not care for confrontation and will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid it. That being said. I will meet you and yours anywhere and fight you if you disagree.

Five years ago the Red Bulls decided to sign a trialist named Bradley Wright-Phillips. At the time, such a signing was welcome banter fodder for rival fanbases who had watched the New Jersey club sign much less famous brothers of famous soccer players. John Rooney (Wayne Rooney), Digao (Kaka), and now the little brother of England international Sean Wright-Phillips. Even the most optimistic Red Bulls fan could have forgiven the speculation that perhaps this signing was more of an attempt to eventually lure his older brother to Harrison. Flash forward five years and now we’re all talking about where he ranks in the GOAT list of Major League Soccer players.

Using our underlying numbers, we can see that since ASA started tracking data in 2011, Wright-Phillips is one of three players to cross 100 xG+xA threshold (Diego Valeri will undoubtedly join that club this season, and Will Bruin has an outside chance as well).

                 
PlayerTeamShotsSoTDistSoloGoalsxGxPlaceG-xGKeyPAsstsxAA-xAxG+xA
Chris WondolowskiSJE68929615.722.40%115112.542.52263124.76.3137.2
Bradley Wright-PhillipsNYRB46721815.515.40%998814.8111451716.70.3104.7
Kei KamaraSKC, CLB, NER, VAN64823617.119.90%8179.3-3.41.72112724.32.7103.6
Robbie KeaneLAG39918718.217.50%8368.3914.72053631.54.599.8
Diego ValeriPOR49418523.430.80%6552.24.412.84344546.8-1.899
Will BruinHOU, SEA49120116.515.90%6671.4-2.1-5.41942422.21.893.5
Federico HiguainCLB39413723.939.30%5248-3.444984245.2-3.293.2
David VillaNYC49020520.624.90%7160.92.210.11851821.8-3.882.6
Sebastien Le TouxPHI, VAN, NYRB, COL, DCU27811719.633.10%4443.22.50.83173437.5-3.580.7

If we go back and split these by seasons, we get a nice list of what will undoubtedly be recognized as the most dominant offensive campaigns in the data era of Major League Soccer.

                         
PlayerTeamSeasonShotsSoTDistSoloGoalsxGxPlaceG-xGKeyPAsstsxAA-xAxG+xA
Sebastian GiovincoTOR20151817124.439.80%22180.9462139.33.727.3
Robbie KeaneLAG20141225419.315.60%1917.711.35298.60.426.2
Chris WondolowskiSJE20121275515.723.60%2721.91.35.13854.30.726.2
Bradley Wright-PhillipsNYRB20151134915.718.60%1721.81.4-4.83763.92.125.8
Bradley Wright-PhillipsNYRB20141095714.816.50%27233.141912.1-1.125.1
Nemanja NikolicCHI20171185616.219.50%2422.30.21.72532.70.325
David VillaNYC20151386321.823.90%1818.40.7-0.45156-124.4
David VillaNYC20161666619.621.10%2319.8-0.33.24744.6-0.624.4
Kei KamaraCLB2015135571512.60%2219.7-0.72.33664223.7
David VillaNYC20171365521.229.40%22161.966456.9-1.922.9
Sebastian GiovincoTOR20161765725.136.40%1716.1-0.10.951146.97.122.9
Robbie KeaneLAG2012944317.220.20%1615.50.80.55787.30.722.8
Mike MageeLAG, CHI20131145019.728.90%2116.24.64.86536.3-3.322.4

Of course Sebastian Giovinco’s historic 2015 season leads the way in xG+xA, but Bradley Wright-Phillips notches 4th and 5th, including a 2014 campaign where he tied and still holds (for now) the single season goal scoring record of 27.

Since joining the league in 2013, BWP has scored 25 more goals than the nearest player (Chris Wondolowski - 72). He’s won two Supporters’ Shields, two golden boots, been named to the MLS best XI twice, and been named an All Star twice. That last one is actually something I hadn't realized. This upcoming All Star appearance will be only the second in his MLS career. I cannot stress enough how stupid the All Star game is.

Goalscorers come and go. Occasionally a 10-12 goal year guy will have an outstanding season and hit 20. If there’s anything about BWP that makes him stand out amongst the vast majority of his peers, it’s that he’s been so consistently excellent. His lowest goal scoring year since becoming a full time starter was 18 in all competitions in 2015, which is by all conventional metrics a pretty successful year as a goalscorer.

This year he’s already up to 13 goals scored and has added some playmaking to his game, notching a career high xA per 96 (0.26). At 33 years old, you’d expect him to be slowing down. Indeed Father Time is undefeated, and will no doubt catch up to BWP sometime, but for this year at least, it looks like he’s still got a pretty good lead.

Narrative: Barco did bad soccer (and other bad things)
Narrative Accuracy: He did a bad thing

I’m going to try my best to make this all about the soccer and not about the story that broke yesterday regarding Ezequiel Barco's “act of indiscipline.” The league hailed Atlanta’s newest signing as a “watershed moment,” a deal that will change the league for the better.

Atlanta captain Michael Parkhurst suggested at the time:

We’re pushing the envelope for the entire league and it’s a great thing. We pushed it last year and we did it again this offseason. We’re not going to be a team that’s just satisfied with what we’ve done in the past or who we have on the roster right now. It’s a statement to the league that any player out there can come to MLS

Big words, and certainly a lot for a teenager (no matter how talented) to live up to. For Barco to be the catalyst that was advertised, he’d need to be amongst the very best players in the league. Thus far, it’s probably fair to suggest that hasn’t quite happened. While I think it’s absurd to suggest that Barco has been bad by any stretch of the imagination, one can hardly blame Atlanta fans for their lack of fidelity given what they were promised. Is Barco the victim of his own shortcomings, or was he betrayed by a hype machine driven out of control by a lust for legitimacy. Has Barco cheated us? Or were our expectations unreasonably high?

It’s an interesting thing to consider as the league continues to grow. In the past American soccer (as some sort of nebulous entity I suppose) has been accused of overhyping promising stars to such a degree that it has inhibited their development. I’d like to think that we’re past all of that. I’d like to think that Major League Soccer is comfortably in a place now where they don’t have to trot out a 14 year old midfielder in order to get people to pay attention, but while we await Barco’s return to the lineup following his punishment for committing an “act of indiscipline”, let’s consider how the young man has done so far.

Atlanta were cruising by the time Barco had finally recovered from a quad injury that forced him to miss the first five matches of the season. Prior to his second half introduction against NYCFC they’d won four in a row outscoring their opponents 13-3. Where do you wedge a new signing into a lineup that’s working that well? While you can certainly see preferring Barco to another bench option like Brendan Vasquez, could you really see him beating out a revelatory Julian Gressel, or one of Atlanta’s biggest stars like Tito Villalba?

The answer came shortly thereafter, with Villalba being moved to the bench in favor of the young Argentine. Things continued to go well for Atlanta, as things tend to do for Atlanta, and here we are 17 matches later with the five stripes still maintaining a solid grip on the Supporters Shield. So how has Barco actually done?

       
MinutesGoals p 96Assists p 96Pass ScoreKey Pass p96Shots p 96xG p96xA p96DribblesDispossessions
Ezequiel Barco12370.30.0811.82.931.350.190.32.31.7
Tito Villalba9860.290.29-18.61.173.120.320.312.21
Miguel Almiron20720.370.42-3.32.224.590.540.355.41.1
Julian Gressel20190.10.29-26.21.571.810.150.291.11.1

The short answer is “pretty good”. The longer answer says that he does well to provide key passes for teammates but not always in high percentage places. He’s a decent dribbler of the ball, but does get dispossessed more than any of the other guys on this chart. I think, if anything, the comparison to Villalba is probably the most damning but on a long enough timeline I think you could make a case that probably evens out. The injury to Darlington Nagbe, while being detrimental to Atlanta’s goals overall, has made that choice a bit less of an issue, but inserting new signing Eric Remedi somewhere in the middle of the park could make this a tough decision for Tata Martino in the coming weeks. I suppose all of this depends on whether or not young Barco has worked his way out of Martino’s doghouse.

I’ll go ahead and make a ruling on this narrative and say that calling Barco a bust is incredibly premature, but that he still has a lot of work to do to justify the investment. You don’t buy prospects for the value they offer you right away, and I think that there is plenty cause for being optimistic about his future. When you invest in a signing like this, the player and the club are making a commitment to each other. Atlanta seem to be holding up their end of the deal. It remains to be seen if a commitment is something Barco can respect as well. 

That’s all the narratives I’ve got this week. I’ll probably be spending the majority of this week wondering about the future of Justin Meram. I’ll be devising lineup changes for teams that include incoming transfers I’ve completely fabricated in my own head and then get sad when teams don’t live up to the expectations I’ve secretly made for them. I hope you find your way back here next week when as always, we’ll be talking about what we’re talking about.