By Ian Lamberson (@ahandleforian)
Ah, Rivalry Week sponsored by Heineken. Who doesn’t want to ride for this twice annual celebration of American soccer’s most storied rivalries and also some ones that MLS just went and made up? Frankly speaking, rivalry week can kiss m-(Editor’s note: I redacted like a whole paragraph here, you’re welcome. Also, Heineken is gross.) - because Atlanta and Orlando are not a real rivalry just because some marketing executive bought a billboar-(Editor’s note: yeah some more here as well) ight- and even if these ARE the most exciting rivalries in the league why not spread those out so you can have a compelling match every couple of weeks? I don’t know folks. I hate rivalry week. It makes the fans extra ultzy, it sort of cheapens the real rivalries, and all these kids will simply not get off of my lawn. Is it mainly because I never spell Heineken right? Mainly. Yes. Whatever.
NARRATIVE: DC are going to make the playoffs.
I remember seeing a video on the MLS website where Matt Doyle was calling this one. At the time I kind of chuckled. To me it seemed like a bit of a fun thing to say on camera. Nobody is going to be too mad about it if you get it wrong, and if you get it right you look like a genius.I glanced at the standings and begrudgingly acknowledged to my cat that it wasn’t impossible and largely forgot about it. Now here we are many weeks later and not only is it not implausible I really think that it could happen.
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DC currently sit 7th in points per game, and that points per game is trending upwards. We discussed how Wayne Rooney was a risky move (well you did, I said he’d be great - ha!), but thus far it looks like it’s paying off. Whether down to Wazza, the new stadium, or some other intangible change in attitude or circumstance (or most likely a combination of all of the above), DC have finally crested their hill and they have a LOT of room to coast. DC have a couple of matches in hand and 12 left to play. NINE of those remaining matches are at their brand new home. I don’t need to get into what a big deal home field advantage is in Major League Soccer and DC United have certainly done well there so far (five wins and one loss).
Still not a believer? Let’s dig deeper.
First of all. Wayne Rooney has been good.
That tidy 0.53 xG is the fifth highest in the league since he joined. Those ahead of them include MLS Luminaries like Diego Valeri, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Ola Kamara, and Daniel Royer. Not bad company Wayne. Though he’s done less creating, his xG+xA still compares favorably, ranking ahead of Maxi Moralez, Diego Fagundez, and Ignacio Piatti.
In addition to being good. He’s also made other players better. Perhaps nobody has benefited more from the presence of an additional dynamic attacking threat in the attack than Luciano Acosta.
Acosta has always been a bit of an enigma for me. He’s obviously talented, but the end product never seemed to match the potential. He often cut a frustrated figure at RFK, but this new look DC United seems to have breathed new life into the Argentine.
So now the big question. Are DC United going to make the playoffs? You know what? I’m going to say yeah. I think they will. The nine home matches in the run in are an invaluable advantage and they’ve looked great at home in their new stadium so far (five wins and one loss). Now they’re having some tough visitors coming over to be sure. Toronto, Atlanta, NYCFC, and FC Dallas all have dates at Audi Field in the next couple of months and fellow playoff hopefuls like Philadelphia, Montreal, and New England are going to have to do them the courtesy of dropping points.
Defense remains a concern as always, but the addition of Bill Hamid gives them a bit more stability than they were getting from David Ousted. Of course the usual disclaimers apply and sudden injuries to key personnel could greatly derail the playoff run but as things stand right now. I join those who are making the call.
NARRATIVE: Josef Martinez, lethal finisher.
Hey look! We’re going to talk about Josef Martinez again. Yay. First of all a hearty congratulations to the Venezuelan for equaling the MLS record for goals in a season. We will surely be offering more congratulations next week when he has eclipsed the record by two or three goals. You may remember that I discussed whether or not Josef Martinez was the greatest scorer in MLS History a couple of months ago, at the time I acknowledged that yeah he probably was up there. It’s hard to argue with that at all now, but I will take a tiny issue with this idea of his “lethal finishing” ability. Am I risking the wrath of Atlanta fans all so I can be pedantic? Yes. Yes I am.
There’s a joke around ASA circles that “finishing isn’t a thing”. This statement seems unintuitive. Obviously some players are better at “finishing” than other players. When it was first explained to me I refused to accept it. I simply would not hear of it. They could show me mathematical proof that finishing wasn’t a thing and I would say with my mouth: “Oh. I guess finishing isn’t a thing” but in my head I’d still be thinking “of course it is”. Honestly, I still kind of do, but Martinez is actually an excellent example of what analytics people mean when they say something devaluing one’s finishing skill. First of all, it’s important to understand that when we say “finishing isn’t a thing” we actually mean finishing IS a thing, but it’s so statistically negligible that it might as well not be. Furthermore when I say something like Martinez hasn’t shown himself to be an elite finisher, that doesn’t mean he’s bad at it by any stretch of the imagination. He’s just not particularly special when it comes to his ability to strike the ball with his foot or his head. Martinez is the most fearsome goalscorer in the league because of his speed and his movement. Let’s just take a look:
I know the temptation here will be to point out that you’d like to see ME finish shots from there, but the fact is that even I would probably get three or four of those were I standing in the proper place. No, Martinez isn’t an elite finisher. He’s an incredible striker though. Maybe Josef does have the ability to score wild bending balls from 20 yards out. Maybe he’s got some 18 yard lobs in his locker. Perhaps we just haven’t seen these yet because he hasn’t needed them. It begs the question though, would you rather have a guy that scores 12 wonder goals a season or 27 like Josef? I know who I’m picking.
I couldn’t possibly heap enough praise on Martinez’s historical season. I mean the guy is like 5’6 and he leads the league in headed goals. When I say that he isn’t a lethal finisher it may sounds like I’m being critical. I’m not. He has certainly not shown any incredible skill at ball kicking. In fact, I think doing so does the man a disservice. His workrate, pace, instincts, and ability to read the game bely a competitive streak as long as the day and and intelligence that very few MLS strikers possess. Josef Martinez. Ok finisher. Outstanding player.
That’s all we have time for this week. Enjoy the rivalries this week. Don’t throw sandwich boards at each other!