By Alex Bartiromo
Amidst another difficult season for the Colorado Rapids, a few changes have provided hope for the club and its supporters. Sacking Anthony Hudson was long overdue after a season and a half of shaky leadership, poor results, and a feeling that the team was falling behind newer and better run MLS franchises. The change in manager, plus the addition of various proven MLS vets like Nicolas Mezquida, Clint Irwin, Sam Nicholson, and Keegan Rosenberry; undervalued young talents such as Lalas Abubakar and Jonathan Lewis; and the development of homegrown talents Cole Bassett, Sam Vines, and Sebastian Anderson has reinvigorated the squad and given fans hope for an improved season in 2020. However, this has left many of the players acquired under Hudson in limbo. Will they form a part of the Rapids core moving forward, or will they be victims of another Rocky Mountain rebuild? One player who has proven his value to the team—albeit in an unusual way—is also one of the least talked about around the league. That player is Jack Price.
*Hold for applause*
I’m still waiting.
Jack Price is a thoroughly unheralded, unheard of, unsexy player, the type whose number you have to memorize to spot him on the field. (He’s number 19.) If there’s any connotation associated with him, it’s his “grit”, which, let’s be honest, is a descriptor that could and would be applied to any midfielder signed from the English Championship. And yet, he has remained a constant amidst the significant personnel turnover in Colorado this season. Why is that? What skills does Price bring to the table that may be eluding the eye of the casual fan and beat writer alike?
At face value, Price’s profile strikes an odd note. He’s a defensive central midfielder who never scores and rarely appears around the box: he has accumulated a grand total of 0.1 xG for the season in 2019. He doesn’t defend exceptionally well either, coming in well below league average in defensive actions and tackle success. By Dave Laidig’s player value measure, he creates about .088 xG for the Rapids via his turnovers (per 90 minutes), and 0 via his pressure, which make him—hold on while I calculate this—not very good. He’s not a traffic cone, but if his primary job is intercepting passes and defending zone 14, Colorado could do a lot better. On the other hand, Price has the 4th highest xA (4.8) and 5th highest xA per96 (.22) of any non-attacking midfielder in the league with more than 500 minutes. He has the highest PlayerKP% in the same category with 11%, meaning that he plays the final pass in a possession that leads to a shot at a higher rate than any of his fellow center midfielders, and all but seven players league wide.
So, what’s Price’s deal? A defensive midfielder who generates most of his value from his passing and assist numbers is certainly unusual. Is he some kind of Pirloesque deep-lying playmaker? The Rapids would like you to think so.
But if you’re willing to look past hastily-made promotional videos, another picture appears. No, Jack Price is not an elite open play passer, some kind of master orchestrator pulling the strings from the back. He is a role player, who, much like Liam Neeson, has a very special set of skills, skills that are more valuable to his team than any other. He also looks like he could be an extra in a Neeson movie, so that doesn’t hurt either.
You see, Jack Price generates hardly any of his value from open play; he is a set piece specialist. Like, really specialist. He just recorded his 10th assist off set pieces this season, more than any other player in the history of MLS. The analytics bear this out as well. According to Laidig’s measure—where Price ranks first out of CMs and CDMs on the CREATE Index—Price gets a full 58% of his passing value from his corners, and another 18% off his free kicks. That means that only 24% of his pass value can be explained by his open play passing. Shropshire Pirlo? More like Commerce City Brad Davis.
Of Price’s seven assists on the season, only one of them came from open play. Let’s take a look at it.
Price takes a short free kick, immediately gets the ball passed back to him in the exact same spot, and lobs in a suspiciously free kick-like cross to Kei Kamara, who takes advantage of an overly aggressive keeper and heads it into the back of the net. That play might be called an open play assist, in the same way you might call the latest edition of Windows a new operating system: the name might look different, but you’re still having those same old startup problems. Damn you, Clippy! (Please hire me, John Oliver.)
If anything, Price’s assist total actually undercounts how many times his corners have led to goals. On three different occasions a Price free kick or corner kick has directly led to a goal, but in a way that didn’t allow him to collect the assist. Who can forget his opening day missile to Kei Kamara, who banged the ball off the crossbar only to have it hit an incoming Tommy Smith?
Or a few weeks later, when Smith headed the ball at his own teammate, Benny Feilhaber, who was busy doing his best impression of a goalpost, only to come to life and score?
Or the first edition of the Rocky Mountain Cup, when Price’s corner disappeared into a scrum of players, only to magically appear in front of Danny Wilson for an easy tap in?
Still, it’s not as if Price is getting shafted. For all the assists he hasn’t gotten, he is still outperforming his xA by 3.2. There may come a time when opposing teams decide that defending the near post is better than not, and the wellspring of his assists dries up. But the point is that Price is a valuable set piece taker on a team that relies on set pieces as one of their primary methods of scoring goals. A full 32% of Colorado’s goals and 19% of their xG have come from corner kicks, both numbers are top five in the ASA era (since 2011). Colorado’s goal difference on corners this season is +10. Their GD on every other phase of play is -16. They have struggled a lot. Without set pieces, they would be even worse; it would be 2018 all over again.
Not all of this is down to Price, of course. Any Colorado corner kick taker has a great target to aim at in Kei Kamara, long known as one of MLS’s best headers, in addition to hulking center backs Tommy Smith, Danny Wilson, the aforementioned Abubakar, and Axel Sjöberg. Luck plays a role as well—in such a small sample, a few lucky bounces can significantly change a season stat line, and Colorado has outperformed its xGD on corners by an astonishing 8.3 goals. In other words, whereas they might be expected to have scored 0.7 more goals than they have allowed from corners, they have scored 9 more. Yeah, 9. And Price only had two assists in 2018, compared to seven this year, so you have to wonder if some regression is due. On the other hand, Price’s xA has increased by 1.3, so his improved performance in that department can’t totally be written off as luck-based.
Price also compares well to his peers. Minnesota’s Ján Greguš is another passing-oriented central midfielder who takes set pieces. Greguš is a Slovakian international and a DP who is credited for turning what had previously been a weakness for the Loons—a soft central midfield—into a strength.
|Passing Value p90||Season Passing Value||Free Kick Value p90||Season Free Kick Value||Corner Kick Value p90||Season Corner Kick Value||Minutes Played|
Looking at the two side by side, Greguš comes out on top in open play passing, generating .096 goal equivalents in passing value per 90 compared to .083 for Price. Over the course of the season, those numbers come out to 2.277 for Greguš and 1.590 for Price. In other words, Greguš’s efforts have led to an effect that’s nearly equal to scoring an an extra goal for his team (over Price’s efforts). As mentioned above, however, Price’s open play passing only accounts for about 24% of his overall passing value, whereas it is 37% of Greguš’s. Free kicks account for another 18% of Price’s output (11% for the Slovakian), and he gets about double the value that Greguš does per 90: .063 to .029. Those numbers prorate to 1.219 and .689 on the season. And on corner kicks—Price’s bread and butter—he outpaces Greguš again, earning .202 p90 and 3.878 compared to the Slovakian’s .133 and 3.152. Worth noting is that Greguš has played about 400 more minutes than Price this season, meaning he has had more opportunity to bump his season numbers compared to Price, which mitigates the difference between them in terms of open play passing and widens it on set pieces in Price’s favor. Greguš has also taken 36 more corner kicks this season (100 to 64), putting the value Price gets out of them in an even more favorable light. Remarkably, JP has completed almost as many corners as not (29 to 35) and almost as many as Greguš total (29 to 37), despite having many fewer chances. Jack Price has been an exceptional corner kick taker in 2019.
To qualify the argument a bit, Price’s value to the Rapids doesn’t only come from his set piece taking. As the bar chart above shows, his Pass Quality and Progressive Passing both sit >25% above league average, and his ball security is second to none—Price completes more passes per turnover/loss of possession than almost anyone in the league. This leads to an xGC (expected Goal Chain) that, while not elite, is still better than more heralded central midfielders like Darlington Nagbe, Saphir Taider, and Alexander Ring. Looking at it from a different perspective, the chart below uses Cheuk Hei Ho’s WOWY measure to show the moderately positive impact Price has with his passing from the defensive and middle thirds of the field. Comparing Price in 2019 to his own 2018 season, he influences the game significantly more with his passing from the defensive third, increasing his WOWY z-score from well below average to slightly above average. However, as the ball moves further up the pitch, Price’s impact on Colorado’s passing becomes more and more limited; his impact in the final third is negligible. So whatever positive impacts Price is having must be qualified, as his overall impact is relatively muted. That may be an understatement—Price’s WOWY is the lowest at his position since 2018. His influence on Colorado’s possessions is minute. This may not be because of lack of quality; that’s not what WOWY measures. Colorado plays a pretty vertical game: the average distance of their forward passes is third highest in the league. Perhaps their counter-attacking strategy leads them to bypass the midfield altogether. Still, Price’s own partner in the middle of the field, Kellyn Acosta, grades out better (with a WOWY of 0.222 compared to Price’s 0.004), meaning that it can’t all be blamed on team style; Price has teammates in the same position who are much more influential than he is. Price’s impact during open play is extremely—uniquely—limited, for good or bad.
It is hard to find a player whose value comes so much from one aspect of their game, especially when that aspect is not goal scoring. It is often good to be well-rounded, to have something to offer in various different phases of the game. Jack Price shows, however, that it can be just as valuable to be very good at one thing and play for a club that emphasizes it as much as possible. There’s a lesson for all of us in the workings of the Shropshire Pirlo.
Huge thanks to Cheuk Hei Ho for his help with the WOWY code and visualization; Dave_Laidig for pointing me towards the Price/Greguš; DummyRun for the bar chart; and to anyone else who had conversations with me about Price—they all influenced my thinking and writing of this piece.