Expected Narratives: Seattle Can't/Won't Stop; Presumably Sorry/Not Sorry / by Ian L.

Wayne Rooney has conquered Major League Soccer. It is time to forget all of that clearly misguided “young South American talent Atlanta-y whatever” and get back to what really works and that’s bringing in over 30 stars from European leagues. I chuckle heartily at all of you “it’s not his age, it’s how many minutes he’s played - the man can barely run” types who seem somewhat surprised to watch the captain and leading goalscorer of England and Manchester United perform at a high level in Major League Soccer. I mean he’s turned Luciano Acosta into Ronaldo (either one, take your pick - I don’t care), and vanquished the mighty outliers of Atlanta.  All hyperbole aside, DC United are looking good and that’s something worth smiling about.

Let’s all take a few minutes and welcome Internazionale Miami CF into the fold. Lord, give me strength with these faux European naming conventions. Everybody is going to call them “Inter” and that’s going to be annoying and embarrassing for people like me who care what other people think. It’s like calling David Ousted “The Great Dane”. You can’t do that. There’s already a Danish GK with that nickname and he damn sure wouldn’t have gotten denied a TAM contract. The “FC” thing is just something we’re going to have to accept at this point and I’ve come to an uneasy but binding peace with it. This whole two euronamey thing, however, is a bridge too far. Atlanta United FC vs Inter Miami CF sounds like something I would have proposed sarcastically a few years ago and yet here we are. At least they aren’t a Fussball club. Lord. Also this whole “The sun’s seven rays are an homage to the career of David Beckham and hint at the number’s significance within the club” is straight up Illuminati sounding and who am I kidding, I’m extremely here for that.

LUIS FELIPE FERNANDES UPDATE:

Ok, so predictably, highlighting him once again last week undoubtedly gave way to a somewhat uninspired showing from the Brazilian/American #future. It’s hard to lay the blame at his feet for what was an odd outing from San Jose and he did ok in this 58 minutes. It sure was nice to see Jackson Yueill finally get some minutes though! The kid hardly put a foot wrong and tacked on an assist. LFF/Yueill for USMNT 2022.


NARRATIVES!

Why do Seattle keep winning?

We’re just doing this one narrative this week. I’ve started and stopped trying to answer this one several times over the last month or so, because I wasn’t able to find a satisfactory answer. I’ll go ahead and spoil this for you. Nowhere in the next thousand words or so are you going to read something that makes you go AHA! So THAT’S how Seattle keep winning. Unfortunately, there isn’t really a simple answer to that question. It’s a lot of little things and a lot of things over which Seattle have little to no control. I’m done procrastinating. Let’s dive in.

Seattle sandbagged us all again. Typical. While many around the MLS sphere sat with bated breath as the perennial achievers looked to finally be on the verge of complete collapse, Seattle apparently were merely biding their time, lulling the league into a false sense of security before throwing yet another late season rope-a-dope. Eight wins in a row now and suddenly the cat has claws. But why? How? They don’t seem to be doing anything significantly different from what they were doing earlier in the season. Pundits are shrugging. Some are declaring it to be a house of cards. Well I don’t like questions that don’t have satisfactory answers, so we’re going to dig and dig deep here. Let’s start with some basic facts.
 

GamesPPGShots ForShots AgainstGFGAGDxGFxGAxGD
Pre July 4150.812.513.30.871.4-0.531.271.61-0.34
Post July 4112.6412.213.81.730.551.181.241.4-0.16

So that’s a staggering difference in points per game, but the rest of these metrics don’t suggest a tremendous shift one way or the other. They’re actually shooting less, conceding more shots, but scoring almost twice as much and conceding over 50% less often. Now, to be fair, it’s worth acknowledging that even pre July 4th, an xGD of -0.34 wouldn’t normally suggest a run as bad as Seattle started the season. It wouldn’t take a huge shift to turn a -0.34 xGD team from one losing every match to one winning a few, but can that explain this completely new course? Maybe not.

It’s hard to look at these numbers and conclude something other than that the Sounders have been extremely fortunate over these last two months or that the numbers are missing something. I hate shrugging and going “luck” so let’s talk about some of the things that the numbers might be missing.

Raul Ruidiaz

Ruidiaz has been good since his arrival. His three goals and an assist are a decent return, though he’s not taking the league by storm like Lodeiro did after his arrival. What the numbers might not show is that while his production and underlying stats are more or less on par with WIll Bruin’s, Ruidiaz’s speed and guile make Seattle’s attack more unpredictable.

Kim Kee-hee

While it took him a few matches to acclimate, Kee-hee has been an excellent defensive partner to Chad Marshall. Roman Torres returned from captaining his team in the World Cup and found his job was no longer available. It’s always kind of hard to peg defenders with numbers. Victor Cabrera’s look excellent, but his hyper aggressive style tends to lead to mistakes which don’t show up the numbers. Kee-hee’s numbers are decent sure, but I think I probably undersell how good he’s been.

Stefan Frei

We do actually have some numbers for Stefan Frei that lend some credence to the best in the league claims. Frei has been a very good MLS GK for a few years now and this looks to be his best season yet. His xG-G is the best in the league at -10.55, his GAp96 is neck and neck with Jeff Attinella, and his xG-Gp96 of -0.42 is easily tops in MLS and almost twice as good as the next best. When you’ve got a GK in this kind of form, you’re probably going to be winning matches that you ordinarily might not.

Osvaldo Alonso

We talked last week about how people tend to thumb their noses at defensive midfielder statistics, and that’s fine. You can use your eyes, your gut, whatever your barometer is, or if you like numbers, his stack up nicely with the league’s best. Alonso has been missing for large swaths of the last two seasons, and while the Sounders have learned to mitigate his absences a bit with Roldan and Svensson, they’re still seemingly stronger with their captain. There’s an argument to be made that his presence in the middle forces Roldan out wide where he is a bit less effective (but still fairly effective), but I wouldn’t argue with whatever has been working for 8 wins in a row.

So now then, let’s talk about luck. Luck is an interesting thing and especially in the way that it applies to our metrics here at ASA. It’s not crazy for a player or team to overshoot an xG model by a significant amount. Josef Martinez had 6.1 more goals than expected last season, Lee Nguyen’s 2014 campaign in which he scored 9.4 more goals than expected still boggles the mind. This year alone, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi sits at +7.1. Last season Toronto and Atlanta finished with an actual GD of 25.7 and 27.5 higher than their xGD respectively. All this to say that runs of good fortune do happen, and can last an entire season or more (Toronto has come back down to earth and hard, and Atlanta are still scoring a lot, but are actually under their xGD this season).  There’s the old expression that it’s better to be lucky than good, and ever since I got into this whole analytics game, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s possible and best to be both. So how much can we say that the Sounders’ unprecedented run is the result of chance?

Soccer balls bounce funny on different surfaces. They carom off of defenders legs at weird angles. A ref looks the other way for a second while someone gets pushed in the buildup. A defender’s hand splays dangerously far from its body and meets a cross in an unfortunate collision resulting in a penalty. There’s a misplaced tuft of grass or turf and that penalty is kicked into the stands. It’s a 1v1 with the keeper and the keeper guesses right. A defensive midfielder trips over the ball and loses his footing creating a breakaway for the opponent. A well meaning official breaks up a promising give and go because he can’t leap over the ball fast enough. There’s a beach ball on the field and the ball strikes it and bounces weirdly into the goal (that ACTUALLY HAPPENED). We’ve seen all of these things and more. It can be frustrating to try and draw analytical conclusions based on these kinds of events, but it’s not impossible.

Let’s look at it another way. If we divide Seattle’s points across the entirety of the season instead of this huge lump of matches here, we’d have them in exactly the same place they are currently but nobody would think anything of it. Seattle would be a team on the edge of the playoff picture and almost entirely unremarkable. This reminds me of the frequently used example in probability where you flip a coin say 5000 times. By the end of all those flips you’re going to be pretty close to 50% heads and 50% tails. During those 5000 flips though, you’re going to have runs of consecutive heads or tails throughout. This isn’t much different, but also it is because it’s soccer and not coin flipping, but hopefully you see what I mean.

Perhaps it’s as simple as Seattle had a lot of bad luck at the beginning (and indeed, injuries, a number of red cards, some individual errors, etc cost them points) and have had a lot of good luck recently. That just about averages out to a pretty middle of the road luck team and their place in the standings reflects it. Ok so, that’s all well and good. What you would like to know is whether or not the Sounders can keep performing at this level.

I’m relieved to tell you that I have no idea. Do the underlying numbers suggest that this is an unsustainable level of points production? Yes they do. Do we have any precedent for teams performing at unsustainable levels of points production for long periods of time? Yes indeed we do. In our dataset (2011-present) we have nine teams that had a higher GD-xGD per game over the course of a season than Seattle currently does.

TeamYearGD-xGD per Game
Atlanta20170.81
Toronto20170.76
LA Galaxy20110.65
Real Salt Lake20140.6
DC United20140.59
San Jose Earthquakes20120.54
Real Salt Lake20130.51
Vancouver20130.51
Seattle20180.46
NYRB20130.44
NYRB20120.44
LA Galaxy20160.43
Portland20130.34

So do you feel more empowered with knowledge? Probably not. I feel this whole thing is deserving of a TL;DR

Seattle’s underlying numbers would suggest that they’ve been benefiting from intangible or unquantifiable elements.

Seattle is trending positively and may continue to do so.

While underlying numbers would suggest this run of form isn’t sustainable, there is plenty of precedence for teams overperforming for long stretches.

Seattle will either:

1. Stop winning.
2. Continue to win despite underlying numbers.
3. Improve their underlying numbers and continue to win.
4. Win some of their remaining matches, lose some of their remaining matches, and/or draw some of their remaining matches.

That’s all for this week. We’re probably going to take a break along with MLS teams next week, so unless the narrative machine pumps out something real juicy I’ll be be back here in two weeks to talk about what we’re talking about.