By Eric Walcott (@ericwsoccer)
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.
#5 Abu Danladi to Romario Ibarra, Minnesota United, 84th minute, 0.432 expected goals
Passes in sequence: 6
It kind of seems like in all the talk about Christian Ramirez and all of Minnesota United’s forwards, the one never mentioned is Abu Danladi. That’s fair, since Danladi has missed 14 games through injury this season. That said, this goal is a great example of why Minnesota fans should be excited about Danladi, and maybe why the front office felt okay trading Ramirez. Danladi, who probably is a more natural center-forward than winger, plays a quick one-two with Miguel Ibarra before making a perfect run for Ibson to play him in towards goal, and then comes the simple, yet well executed assist.
Danladi had a fairly productive rookie season last year, producing 0.37 xG+A/96 in about 1400 minutes, notching eight goals and two assists. While injuries have limited him to just over 300 minutes so far this year, his numbers have improved (yes, yes, sample size) and are actually better than Ramirez’s. Maybe the most notable difference is that while Danladi is a similar goalscoring threat to Ramirez, he also adds a creative threat, contributing more key passes and xA than Ramirez. It remains to be seen how much playing time Danladi will get going forward, but if he can produce at the levels he has so far, or keep improving, Minnesota will miss Ramirez a lot less than they thought.
#4 Harrison Afful to Gyasi Zardes, Columbus Crew, 91st minute, 0.457 expected goals
Passes in sequence: 8
Coming off a penalty-shootout win in the U.S. Open Cup semi-final, this result must have been awfully painful for the Houston Dynamo, after coming so close to picking up a point on the road even missing a number of key players (okay, I got my awful fun out, let’s move on).
This won’t surprise anyone who has paid attention, but Harrison Afful is one of the top attacking fullbacks in MLS. He’s 5th in expected assists per 96 minutes in 2018, and 6th in xG+A/96 among fullbacks with at least 1000 minutes. He was top 10 in the league in xA per 96 in 2017, and second in 2016. Essentially, he’s the perfect fullback for Gregg Berhalter’s system, much as Gyasi Zardes (or maybe anyone who can make smart runs) is the perfect forward for the system.
This goal is kind of the best of everything Columbus does these days. Wil Trapp wins the ball back (because of course), they begin patiently building from the back, and then Artur finds Afful making a run wide before the cross in to Zardes for the game winner.
#3 Yamil Asad to Luciano Acosta, D.C. United, 64th minute, 0.561 expected goals
Passes in sequence: 1
There are probably plenty of arguments one could make about how in the long run, letting Yamil Asad go and spending $15 million on Ezequiel Barco will turn out to be a net positive for Atlanta United. That said I’m guessing if you asked an Atlanta fan who they’d rather have on their team for the rest of 2018, you might get to listen to some good debates.
I’ll be honest and say that I was among those who looked at Asad’s numbers last year and thought he may have both overperformed and benefited from a ridiculous level of talent around him. I thought his numbers would dip in moving from the most dangerous attacks in the league to one of its worst (D.C. United scored the fewest goals in MLS last year and were near the bottom in xG).
While his production has shifted in 2018, Asad’s 0.33 xG+xA per 96 minutes is nearly equal the 0.35 he put up in 2017. It’s interesting that he’s being highlighted in this column for an assist, because his assist numbers are down, while his goal scoring is up, with 9 goals already in 2018, compared with 7 in 2017. It’s quite possible that Asad’s assist numbers might improve now that DC have added Wayne Rooney into the fold, as he may be relied on less to score the goals and more to provide, as he does here. This goal also demonstrates the real value in Asad’s game, that while he’s a decent scorer and creator, his work rate and defensive play on the wing are what make him one of the best overall wingers in MLS.
#2 Marky Delgado to Victor Vazquez, TFC, 51st minute, 0.578 expected goals
Passes in sequence: 2
This is a weird sequence, in a weird game, in a weird season for Toronto FC. They keep having moments where it looks like they might be back to their regular selves, and then they fall apart again. Then Jozy got healthy and things looked good for a second, but then Jozy decided kicking opponents seemed like a good idea, and now TFC is tied for last in the East with 11 games remaining. It could happen, but with every game they don’t win, a playoff berth gets less and less likely.
It certainly doesn’t help that Toronto have thrown away 11 points from winning positions this year and only won three from a losing position.
One of my favorite things about writing this column is taking a look at the numbers behind some players I usually don’t give much thought to. Marky Delgado is definitely one of those. Without much examination, he seems like a fairly reliable, solid midfielder who doesn’t do a whole lot of attacking (0.2 xG+xA per 96 in 2018). What’s interesting is that based on our most recent xGChain data, Marky Delgado leads MLS in xBuildup/96 for players with over 900 minutes with 0.58 xB/96 minutes. So while he’s not often taking shots or directly setting up the shot, when he’s on the pitch, Delgado is involved in a high percentage of Toronto FC’s attacking possessions that lead to shots. In 2017, Delgado was 11th in MLS in xBuildup/96 among players with at least 1000 minutes.
Another thing that jumped out was how similar Delgado’s numbers are to those of teammate Michael Bradley, at least going forward. As you can see below, their expected goals, expected goalchain, and expected passing numbers all profile fairly similarly. A quick glance at WhoScored defensive data suggests their defensive actions are similar as well. I don’t have space here for it, but a deeper dive into just how similar their games are might be interesting.
#1 Daniel Royer to Bradley Wright-Phillips, NYRB, 55th minute, 0.723 expected goals
Passes in sequence: 1
Narrative would suggest that Kaku and Bradley Wright-Phillips are NYRB’s most important players in attack. Often overlooked by fans, media, and apparently opposing defenses, is Daniel Royer. Here, Royer wins the ball back and immediately finds BWP to set up a goal. One might argue Royer got a bit lucky, as it looks like he puts the ball into the middle without ever looking to see if anyone is there, but on the other hand when you know you have a forward like BWP making the runs that he does, you put the ball in dangerous places and trust that he’ll be there. Royer did, BWP was, goal.
Back to Royer’s value to the Red Bulls though, here’s something that might surprise you:
Another thing that jumps out is how much Royer’s actual production has increased lately. Check out the difference in his G-xG per 96 from March-May 31st and June 1 - present (again, thanks to Harrison)
I actually think it’s pretty interesting to also look at Royer compared to BWP, since Royer is just below BWP with 0.6 xG per 96 compared to BWP’s 0.61. While BWP is overperforming his xG by almost 4 goals, Royer is just below his total, but as Harrison’s tweet above shows, he’s been on a hot streak lately. While BWP has transitioned this year into a more complete attacker, providing goals and setting them up, Royer has proven himself a capable pure scorer that New York has needed alongside BWP. With Kaku setting things up, BWP doing a bit of both, and Royer getting the quality chances he is, it should be no surprise that New York is in the thick of the Supporters Shield Race.
Top Save: Andrew Tarbell vs Jack McBean, San Jose Earthquakes, 52nd minute, 0.986 keeper expected goals
It’s fair to say things in general aren’t going great in San Jose, and that’s especially true in goal. Not to say that David Bingham, who SJ let go in order to make Tarbell the starter, is having a great year, but 38 goals against compared to 39.41 xGA suggests he’s doing okay. Andrew Tarbell meanwhile is among the worst in the league compared to xG, with 43 goals allowed on 39.9 xGA. Not great.
All that said, and despite the fact that San Jose lost to Colorado this past weekend, this is a phenomenal save. Jack McBean makes a perfectly timed run to meet the cross, and Tarbell reacts perfectly to block it, keeping things close.
That’s all for this week’s Setting the Table. Thank you for giving me the chance to discuss these great chances with you. I hope you enjoy another great weekend of soccer and lots of great chances created!