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 Nicolas Lodeiro to Raul Ruidiaz, Seattle Sounders, 22nd minute, 0.318 expected goals
Passes in sequence: 2
Earlier this week Matt Pentz had an article in The Athletic in which he looked at what the Seattle Sounders call “optimal assist zones.” The areas Matt describe in his article are also known as Zones 16 and 18. Here, we actually see two chances generated from this area, first the pass from Victor Rodriguez to Nicolas Lodeiro, whose shot results in a Tim Howard save, then Lodeiro’s pass to Raul Ruidiaz which Ruidiaz finishes.
The Sounders have been much more productive in Zone 16 and 18 since the beginning of July, coinciding with their improvement in form. To the right is the frequency of goals by assist zone for the Sounders from the beginning of the season through June 30, and from the beginning of July through their most recent game.
It’s also impressive how involved Lodeiro is throughout this sequence. Lodeiro has three passes leading up to being the one to take the first shot, then reacts immediately to the rebound in order to assist on the goal in the end. There’s obviously been a lot that has improved about the Sounders since the beginning of July, but the difference in Lodeiro is stunning.
What’s interesting about Lodeiro’s xG numbers being up is that overall the Sounders haven’t seen much increase in xG per game over the same time. The xG per game through June 30 was 1.27 per game, and since July 1 they’re at 1.30 per game. The two big differences as a team are that they’re actually converting their chances (1.67 goals per game since July 1, compared to 0.87 before) and that they’re defending better, with their xGA down by 0.15 goals per game since July 1.
#4 Jefferson Savarino to Corey Baird, Real Salt Lake, 9th minute 0.33 expected goals
Passes in sequence: 6
Oh how I love a defense-splitting through ball. Jefferson Savario does a phenomenal job making this run from midfield and then playing Corey Baird in with the perfect touch to set up this goal. Savarino and Baird both deserve a ton of praise for their timing on this ball. Baird waits utnil Ilie Sanchez steps toward Savarino to really start his run, leaving Matt Besler (who I guess Ilie assumed would pick Baird up) behind, and Savarino takes Ike Opara out of the play by making the pass just as Opara starts to turn to pressure him.
It’s been an interesting ride for RSL this year. After being picked by many to contend for the top spot in the Western Conference things did not go well early. Things have improved, but they’re still such a question mark going into the playoffs. Picking up a draw in this game, away to Kansas City, has to be encouraging for a team that has struggled mightily at home. They look like a good bet to make the playoffs (our model has them at 78.1% probability of making the playoffs), their most likely result is the 6 seed, meaning they’ll have to win a road game to go any farther. Winning on the road has been a huge struggle for this team.
I didn’t actually do the math to prove this, but I feel pretty confident there’s few, if any, teams who have a bigger gap between their home and road performances this year.
#3 Miguel Ibarra to Angelo Rodriguez, Minnesota United, 20th minute, 0.451 expected goals
Passes in sequence: 8
I don’t know what is going on in New York City, but it is not good. Since the beginning of August NYCFC has two wins. This team went from a strong Supporters’ Shield Contender to basically being locked into the 3rd seed in the East (though they could still fall further). The reality is that NYC was out of the Shield race before this game, but with the playoffs approaching they need to figure things out quickly, and with defending like Sebastien Ibeagha shows off here, that doesn’t exactly seem likely to happen.
I know this column is supposed to be devoted to the chance creators, so here are my words of appreciation for Miguel Ibarra’s cross: it’s nice. Not spectacular, and if Ibeagha was doing any defending at all it’s probably not an assist, but Angelo Rodriguez scores, so Ibarra gets an assist, well done. Now that we’re done with that, I want to take a second to compare Rodriguez to the man he replaced, Christian Ramirez.
I took a look at their numbers, limiting it to their time with Minnesota United and I have to say they look very similar. Rodriguez is at 0.48 xG+xA/96 while Ramirez was at 0.43, slight advantage to the new guy, but nothing significant. Now I know Rodriguez is new and he may still be settling in, so his numbers may improve going forward. That said, I wonder how Minnesota United fans are feeling about a high-priced player whose arrival forced the trade of a fan favorite, and who isn’t producing at a significantly higher level.
#2 Nicolas Lodeiro to Raul Ruidiaz, Seattle Sounders, 73rd minute, 0.461 expected goals
Passes in sequence: 3
So maybe a bit of luck here, but it’s probably one of those things where when you’re playing well you make your own luck. Against another team, maybe a defender is able to get on the ball here, or maybe someone tracks Ruidiaz. That said, it could easily have gone the other way where Rodriguez plays a softer ball to Lodeiro and instead of an assist Lodeiro ends up with a goal.
All that said, this is yet another case of the Sounders using the movement of their attacking 4 (notice the involvement, on opposite sides of the field, of all 4 of Roldan, Rodriguez, Lodeiro, and Ruidiaz in both this goal and the previous one) to create space and get the ball into dangerous spaces leading to easy finishes.
#1 Alex Muyl to Tim Parker, NYRB, 75th minute, 0.933 expected goals
Passes in sequence: 4
The MLS chalkboards called this a blocked shot, but MLS and our data still give Alex Muyl an assist here and at 0.933 expected goals this shot has the 7th highest xG in our dataset this season. It’s another case of I’m not really sure what the defense is doing, as Atlanta is so slow to react to Marc Rzatkowski getting the ball in Zone 14 giving him way too much time to play Muyl in, and then NOBODY tracks Muyl on his run. Even Tim Parker basically goes in unmarked, as Chris McCann just doesn’t react when Parker starts his run.
This game felt like an opportunity for Atlanta to slam the door on the Supporters’ Shield race, particularly with Red Bulls missing key players, but instead it feels like even if Atlanta holds on in the Shield race (our model has that probability at 72.8%) the Red Bulls are the favorite to come out of the East right now.
Andrew Tarbell vs Mauro Manotas, SJ Earthquakes, 68th minute, 0.993 keeper expected goals
Sometimes expected goals shows us what we expect based on what we’ve seen on the field. Other times it offers a good reminder of what is important in soccer. Take this save from Andrew Tarbell. Watching live, it seems fairly simple. Tarbell anticipates the direction of the ball based on the cross and on Mauro Manotas’ run, and because he anticipated it, Tarbell is in position to make this look like a simple save, despite a goalkeeper xG of 0.993. The little things in soccer are so important, and sometimes it takes some numbers to remind us of that.
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!