2015 Season Previews

ASA 2015 Season Previews. Every daNG one of them! by Drew Olsen

By Drew Olsen (@drewjolsen)

In preparation for this weekend's games (they're actually happening!), we've been writing two team previews per day for the last two weeks. Going in reverse order of 2014 finish, ASA and our (very) small band of writers have published 20 articles, covering each team's 2014 season, their offseason changes, and their prospects for 2015. If you haven't read them all yet, AND WE KNOW YOU HAVEN'T, then you can catch up here.

Eastern Conference

Chicago Fire by Mike Fotopoulos
Columbus Crew by Harrison Crow
DC United by Jared Young
Montreal Impact by Harrison Crow
New England Revolution by Drew Olsen
New York City FC by Drew Olsen
New York Red Bulls by Harrison Crow
Orlando City by Harrison Crow
Philadelphia Union by Jared Young
Toronto FC by Jason Poon

Western Conference

Colorado Rapids by Harrison Crow
FC Dallas by Jason Poon
Houston Dynamo by Harrison Crow
LA Galaxy by Sean Steffen
Portland Timbers by Drew Olsen
Real Salt Lake by Matthias Kullowatz
San Jose Earthquakes by Tom Worville
Seattle Sounders by Harrison Crow
Sporting Kansas City by Matthias Kullowatz
Vancouver Whitecaps by Drew Olsen

2015 ASA Preview: Orlando City SC by Harrison Crow

By Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)

Orlando City Soccer Club; a team that has won it all. A team that has seen its share of trophies over a short period of time and accomplished so many impressive feats. Yet, here they are starting anew with no real past. No MLS victories,n o MLS golden boot winners, and no MLS championships. The club has a storied history, it has great (albiet short) history and, yet, all at the same it has no history. This is the life and evolution of the once Austin Aztex and former USL PRO Orlando City grown up and now an expansion team in Major League Soccer as the Orlando City Soccer Club.

Their club is an enigma, and that thought represents the entirety of the season with what lies before them and the many predictions that are being made upon their behalf. Some with swooping claims of cups and glory, yet others with tales of unexpected challenges and a year of transition into an unforgiving league.

Vigorous youth mixed with gritty veterans and all those cute narratives that can be packaged together through the cliché good will is bought and sold around this organization. The question is, even with all the upgraded talent, coming into a tougher league can this club still be among the best?

The Coach

Adrian Heath and his tale is remarkable to me. For those that don't know he was basically hired after a meeting with owner Phil Rawlins in a Newcastle pub and moved his family from England to Texas to coach a team with no name and no pitch, simply trusting Rawlins' dream.

Either that's really stupid or he's just someone that is brilliant at understanding, evaluating and deciphering people. Considering all the talent that he has brought and cycled through Orlando in the last four years, I tend to believe it's the later.

The obvious example of Heath and his ability to deal with talent is the situation of Dom Dwyer. Dwyer was disappointed initially when Sporting loaned him to Orlando City in 2013 as part of the USL-MLS partnership. Dwyer admitted retrospectively to the UK guardian he didn't like the idea of being loaned out but credits the experience as a time growth and that “learned so much, especially from Orlando head coach Adrian Heath”.

Dwyer wasn't the only person that Heath mentored over the years. You could point to Jamaican Dennis Chin, who scored 21 goals in 84 matches for Orlando and was an MVP candidate in 2012. Most recently the example of Heath's work can be found in winger and 2014 USL golden boot winner, Kevin Molino. Many pundits believe that Molino is MLS' newest budding star.

Heath has shown a keen ability to not just mentor talent but put them in logical positions that fit their talents and, at the same time, bolster his schemes. A staunch believer in the 4-3-3 over his time in USL it's very likely that a slight tweak will be in order to facilitate the addition of Ballon d'Or winner Kaká. It's likely that there will be little defensive responsibility on the former world player of the year lending to the idea that Heath might favor a 4-2-3-1.

The Goalkeepers

Donovan Ricketts looks to be the starter early on and MLS pundits will all hail the move. A lot of people are down about Ricketts for goals that he should probably have saved in 2014. They point to routine situations where he has lost his positioning or was slow in identifying movement across the backline. But despite that, our numbers imply that Ricketts has still been pretty good in three out of the four seasons and the two most recent years have some 260 shots involved in them. In 2013 Ricketts won Goalkeeper of the Year, which some say should have gone to Nick Rimando. Our data suggests that Ricketts was well-deserving of the honor. 

The real question is what happens once Tally Hall becomes healthy. Obviously at 37 Ricketts is no spring chicken and this looks like Hall's job for the future. But how will this be handled if Ricketts is still plucking bullets out of the sky and performing when Hall is ready to step back between the pipes?

Furthermore, up until last year our data was pretty certain Hall was a fine starting keeper and at 29 he's about to really start hitting the prime of a goalkeeper's career. It's a big decision and possibly not as easy as it seems.

The Defenders

The Lions were quick to put to use that bang bang allocation cash-ola they get with being an expansion team. The first of many offseason moves was to snag Aurélien Collin from Sporting KC. There are many that have thought the past few years that Collin was among the best defenders in all of MLS, and the numbers lend credence to that thought. He has averaged roughly eight duels won per 90 minutes in back-to-back seasons good for 13th overall in 2013* and 10th in 2014* winning over 50% of his duels in both seasons. But he is also a bit of a card hazard, collecting a total of 15 yellow cards in 2013. Still, he seemed to have scaled back his aggressiveness in 2014 with only two yellows, though this also came with an additional two red cards. His foul ratio also dropped in 2014 from 1.9 in 2013 to 1.5. There were questions last season with Sporting KC defense, so it remains to be seen whether or not he can still be a top-tier defender and anchor a line that is badly in need of support.

I suppose I should throw a sharp little quip about Brek Shea being back at left back, but I really have little opinion on that whole thing. Good for him. He's making some money, doing what he likes and looks to be apart of a team that could be good over the whole of the season. Does he fit at left back? Sure. Should he takes Molino's spot? Nope. Do I think Shea possibly killed Mr. Green in Downton Abbey? Yes, actually, I do.

The Midfielder

I am so interested in Kevin Molino for a few different ones. First his shots attempted have steadily increased each year and with more playing time. Starting off at nearly two shots per 90 minutes played in 2012 and reaching over four shots this past season.

While we didn't have a strong track record for Dom Dwyer, we saw the number of shots that he took during his loan in Orlando carry over to his time at Sporting KC. Obviously this works this way because Dwyer is going to handle the ball and largely hold the responsibility for creating the scoring opportunities.

That said, Adrian Heath has deployed Molino almost as a strike partner for the trio of Corey Hertzog, Chin and Giuseppe Gentile with the way he would make slashing moves into the 18-yard box.

I know everyone is enamored with the idea of Kaká being in MLS and it's cool, it's not a regular thing for this league to attract former Ballon d'Or /World Player of the Year caliber talent, however, I'm not yet certain if I buy him being the same thing that Thierry Henry was for the Red Bulls. I think of him being more of a creator than a goal scorer, and if that's going to be the case the team is going to depend very much upon the talents of whoever ends up with the starting striker job.

Speaking of which...
 

The Striker

I think it's really interesting the comparison between young designated player and probable starting striker Bryan Róchez and “failed” New England designated player, Jerry Bengtson. I say failed with quotes because I'm not personally of the belief that you can label anything a failure without giving it at least a full season of minutes (3,060). Instead he got 2,200 minutes across three seasons, which in turn saw only a paltry four goals created.

However, our data suggests that Bengtson actually didn't fair as poorly as the surface numbers suggest. Expected goals has him for a total of nearly nine goals with a shot leverage of 0.152. These are still not great numbers from a striker but far from the “failed” narrative gets paraded around.

Prior to arriving in MLS, Bengtson was the star striker of C.D. Motagua in Honduras making appearances in the CONCACAF Champions League and scoring a total of 26 goals through 54 games for the Eagles prior to being loaned to New England.

Much like Bengtson, Róchez is coming from Honduras and a club that wasn't necessarily the top of Liga Nacional in Real España. Róchez notched similar numbers to Bengtson with 29 goals over 59 matches. However, the key difference between that Róchez is making this transition having JUST turned 20 in January, compared to Bengston being 24, and has played in only half as many games played (78) in his career compared to what Bengtson had (147) at the time of his arrival to the US.

These are just differences between the two players. They don't necessarily convey talent levels and they won't lead to us anywhere near being able to make any substantial claims one way or another on future success. They're simply just interesting comparisons.

There is a lot of room for error in comparing matches and goal tallies. There is no context to the situation and there isn't much depth to what little information lies on the surface. Will Róchez be any good? It's really impossible to tell at this point, but it's interesting to note what a firm grasp he has on the starting position considering his youth.

The Summary:

I'm not trying to predict where this club is going to land. It's a foolish task. They could win everything, they could win nothing. The truth is that we have no idea how they might succeed and whether or not that potential success is even sustainable. What we do know is that expansion teams tend to have heavy roster churn and changes within the front office,  and while there was some roster turnover because of the expansion the core has remained intact, and the coaching staff office has stuck around. All of these are positive signs.

Only one other club since 1998 has made the MLS playoffs in their first season, and while the East has no powerhouse, it's ruled by many clubs with gross amounts of talent all looking to collect scalps. The question is can OCSC can steal one of those six spots? Any answer seems valid to this point. Yes? No? 17 red cards for Aurélien Collin. Who knows... who freakin' knows? One thing is for sure. This will be a fun team to watch.

 

*minimum 14 match appearances

2015 ASA Preview: NYCFC by Drew Olsen

By Drew Olsen (@drewjolsen)

For a team that has yet to play a professional game, NYCFC sure has seen - and cultivated - a lot of drama. From stadium deals falling through to the Frank Lampard debacle, to the lackluster jersey reception, to the purported rules surrounding permitted ways to support the team, it has been a rocky entrance into MLS. But the assembled on-field product looks to be a decent one. David Villa and Lampard are the big names, but an interesting combination of newcomers and seasoned MLS veterans have filled out the squad. If any MLS coach can get a brand-new team to work it is Jason Kreis, but it is already clear that the distractions will be many.

Only two teams (Chicago in 1998 and Seattle in 2009) have ever made playoffs in their expansion year, but NYCFC are looking to be the third. With the Yankees and Manchester City backing them they’re clearly not afraid to spend money, and expectations are very high. Still, success in 2015 is unlikely to be measured in team performance, but rather a series of more existential factors. Has the city of New York accepted the team? Has the organization created a more stable front office? Is there a legitimate plan to build a soccer specific stadium they can call home? Has Frank Lampard returned from England? With that said, let’s take a look at what type of team has actually been assembled.

Coach

Kreis is the great American hope for coaching. With Bob Bradley’s team Stabaek finishing mid-table in Norway and favored by many to be relegated in 2015, Kreis is now the American coach with the biggest overseas audience. At only 42, he’s also the favorite to follow in Jurgen Klinsmann’s shoes and coach the USMNT if all goes right. So what type of team has Kreis built to implement his patented 4-4-2 diamond? It’s a squad made up of a lot of familiar faces; Kreis either played or coached six of the players on his roster before bringing them to NYCFC. He also brought in players from abroad; another six players come from a league outside of North America, ranging from Uruguay and Colombia to Norway and Germany. There is a lot of pressure on Kreis, and his job may depend on his ability to get his team to sync.

Defense

MLS Veteran and MLS Cup winner Josh Saunders is the presumed starter in goal, with former Red Bulls starter Ryan Meara on loan as the backup. Saunders has only played four games in MLS since winning the Cup in 2013 with the Galaxy, and has dealt with personal issues, but our xG models for 2011-13 show he allowed fewer goals than the average goalkeeper would have expected in each of the three seasons (though small sample size caveats apply), suggesting he’s a better than average netminder. Meara performed as expected in his starting season in 2012, which implies there wouldn't be much of a letdown if Saunders can’t cut it.

In front of Saunders will be Kreis-favorite Chris Wingert at leftback, with Ecuadorian Andres Mendoza and former Earthquake Jason Hernandez in the middle, and former Crew player Josh Williams on the right. With an average age of 29, this is an experienced and hardened backline. It has lots of MLS experience, and won’t come with flash. These are solid, if unspectacular, players that won’t surprise anyone. When building a new team from nothing, consistency is important. This looks to be a good place to start.

Midfield

USMNT member Mikkel Diskerud (or simply “Mix”, as his jersey will say) will do the playmaking until Lampard arrives from England. His style seems to fit perfectly into the role Javier Morales played for Kreis in Salt Lake, though playing in Norway won’t have prepared him as well as Argentina did for Morales. For the midfield diamond to work with Mix at it’s apex, he will have to quickly adjust to the speed and physicality of MLS. If he is slow to adapt, things will be tough for NYC in the early-going.

Former FC Dallas man Andrew Jacobsen will form the bottom corner of the diamond. Fresh off a successful loan to the aforementioned Stabaek, Jacobson will bring strength in the air and hard tackles to protect space behind Mix. To his left will be another RSL vet and the only player with hair rivaling Diskerud, Ned Grabavoy. He’s the ultimate role-player. He won’t grab headlines or pull cheeky moves, but he’s usually in the right place at the right time. At 31 he’s beginning to slow down, but should be able to quietly hold his own against most opponents.

The right-mid starting spot looks to be a competition between former Atlanta Silverback Kwadwo Poku and MLS journeyman Mehdi Ballouchy. On the surface they couldn't be more different. Ballouchy is a known quantity. He will bring a bit of flash and finesse to the wing, but is also prone to boneheaded mistakes and sometimes forgets to play defense. He also hasn't played more than 1000 minutes since 2011, so may require some time to find his form. Conversely, Poku is big and fast, two traits that are generally signs of future success in MLS. He has shown signs of inexperience in preseason, but seems to have a high soccer IQ. He may not start at the beginning of the season, but my money is on Poku starting by the end of it.

Forwards

Either Slovakian international Adam Nemec or former USMNT U20 Tony Taylor are the favorites to start in the number nine position. Taylor had moderate success in Cypress and Portugal after going to college at South Florida, but only made only appearance last season for New England. Nemec was most recently in the German second division, where he scored 14 goals in 60 appearances since 2012.

Another way of saying it is that David Villa is all on his own up top. Possibly now the most talented player in MLS, Villa’s career speaks for itself. Since joining Valencia in 2005, he has averaged a goal every other game against some of the best competition in the world. Still, success usually doesn't come quickly for foreign starts coming to MLS. Even the likes of Henry, Beckham, and Dempsey have struggled to begin with. If Diskerud can’t get him the ball, then it will be a painfully long wait until Lampard arrives, and there is no promising that he’ll adjust quickly either.

Prognosis

NYCFC has built arguably the most imbalanced team in MLS history. The top starting players are arguably the best in MLS, and the bottom starting players are arguably the very worst. Even if he adapts quickly, it will be odd for a player like Villa to play next to the likes of cast-offs Ballouchy and Taylor. He’ll have to find his own space, and is likely to be double-teamed constantly. With no numbers or data to look at it is a fool’s errand to predict how this season will go, but a bottom three or top three finish seem equally likely. The truth is probably somewhere in-between. If Villa and Diskerud are slow to acclimate to MLS, it will be a very long season. If they find their niche quickly, and Lampard arrives to bring experience and goalscoring from the midfield, this team can make a run in the playoffs. I think a finish between seventh and fifth in the Eastern Conference is most likely

2015 ASA Preview: Seattle Sounders by Harrison Crow

*xG = expected goals, xA = expected assists, xGD = expected goal differential. For more information see our xGoals by Team page.

By Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)

I am a Sounders fan. Let me allow you in on a little secret... there are plenty of people that dislike Sounders fans, and that's warranted—most of the time. There is no one more ready to tear apart a Sounders fan than... well, another Sounders fan. You think you're clever with your little “ACES” slogan or whatever but by the time this is over I'll have more angry comments and hate mail from Sounders fans than I do non-Sounders fans.

There are still supporters wondering why Sigi Schmid has a job. Mind you, the Sounders just won two out of the three trophies they were afforded the opportunity to win last season. Pay all that no mind. We'll argue and talk down and be disparaging to each other for whether or not Brad Evans is good or if Obafemi Martins works hard enough or if he really is 30 years old or not. We're self loathing, scum of the earth and no one hates us as much as we do. And if you haven't figured it out by now, we invented hating the Seattle Sounders.

Last year they didn't win MLS Cup and that's a huge indictment on the organization, front office, coaching staff and players because supporters put such a premium on each season and every single match. Supporters have the highest, and probably a bit unrealistic, expectations every year. Some may choose to look at that as being entitled and I can certainly see the fine line that is walked carefully by many supporters in their realm.

Scoring goals, winning games, hosting cups. These things are expectations of wearing the Sounders badge. The goal every year is to lift the MLS Cup regardless of the probabilities or likelihood of such scenarios from the start. It's setting the bar high and never wavering from that, and that, you have to admit, is ballsy and kind of cool.

Looking back at the 2014 season there are a few things that will stand out, but the one thing above all else is NOT that on the last day the Sounders defeated the LA Galaxy at home to take the trophy. No, more interesting to me is the fact that Seattle kept pace with a club that according to many of our measurements was the best team in MLS, perhaps of all-time. You can argue about Chicago, New England or Columbus in the early, mid and late-00's. DC United in the late 90's or periodically through the years. You could talk about the 2012 version of the Galaxy. I don't care who is actually “the best”. Seattle kept pace with a team that is flat out HISTORIC and that's incredibly impressive.

Seattle didn't have one stretch of more than two games where they didn't have a win. Their biggest slump was taking only seven of 21 points from July 5th to August 20th which they in turn rebounded with four straight wins.

The Coach

Sigi Schmid is maybe the most under-appreciated coach in US soccer history. He's always considered a second fiddle to Bruce Arena. Despite being one of the winningest coaches in MLS history he's always having something he does questioned, and regardless of how he wins it's never good enough or classy enough or “soccer” enough.

Schmid to me is a coach that is constantly evolving. Looking at the fact the Sounders scored the second most goals (30) in MLS in the final 30 minutes of a match and conceded the least (10) during that same time period speaks to me. I felt his substitutions in the second half where the best by any coach in MLS last season and I just wish he was a bit more respected by both home and opposing fans. When all they have is weight jokes... maybe, it's not such a bad thing.

The Goalkeeper

I've played the back-and-forth game a lot with Stefen Frei. Our numbers last year didn't favor him as Frei accounted for four additional goals by himself. Again, there is a sample size to consider and it's not to say he didn't perform exceptionally well in the playoffs. I personally think, though there are numbers that can be crunched to verify, that he performed better down the stretch of the season once the rust of not playing the past two seasons was shaken free.

That said, the Sounders needed a back-up keeper and made the move to bring in Troy Perkins this off-season. Perkins has been a starter at his last four clubs, but his time in Montreal wasn't great (we account for him adding a full five goals above the average keeper) and while his defense didn't help him (saw nearly six shots on goal a game, top-five during his tenure) neither did being the highest paid keeper in MLS. I'm interested to see if having Perkins will push Frei to be better than last season or create personnel decision and complications for the coaching staff.

The Defenders

Obviously no more DeAndre Yedlin, he's gone. Gone, gone, gone. Yedlin wasn't just fast, he got to a lot of loose, 50/50 balls. He won 53% of his tackles and was in the t-17th in interceptions with 78 and 4th among full backs. It's not that those specific stats yield much difference in expected goals against but he did a great job of helping Seattle retain possession and create shots as quickly as possible. He's going to be missed for more than singular physical attribute—and the cool hair cuts.

Yedlin's absence has given way to the club signing Tyrone Mears, former Bolton Wanderer. So... yeah. He runs like a soccer player, so I've been told. Any other data can remain on the sideline to this point because it's all from England and we don't like data from them because it's all in the metric system.

Also, filed under news I'm sure you already knew, Zach Scott is old! Love the guy and I really love that he's somehow gotten better every year after the age of 30. But the time has come that Seattle has to gameplan that he can't be the fall back guy. The heir apparent for that role seems to be the ever versatile Brad Evans,  a guy who most know from his time at right back with the USMNT. He's great with the ball at his feet, was 18th in total aerial duels--winning 60% of them--and had an great foul/win ratio of 1:1. How that translates to being a defender, I guess we'll see.

Lastly, there is Leo Gonzalez whom I can't believe is no longer getting Costa Rica call-ups. His defense is among the best at full back in MLS. The key is health and keeping healthy. Dave Tenney, Ravi Ramineni and the rest of the impressive Seattle Sounders sports science team have to find a way to keep Gonzalez on the pitch for those last five or six games in the playoffs. Basically, I just want a chance to reference Dave and Ravi because I think they're pretty neat fellas.

The Midfielders

Lamar Neagle is perhaps one of my favorite things about the Seattle Sounders. Yes, I know Oba and Clint play there too. I'll get to all of that. Over 2500 minutes Neagle projects to create about 10 goals a season. That's not a crazy amount but the fun thing is that whenever he's given the minutes he does all that AND a bag of chips.... not even Lays, no grease!

I wonder if Neagle might be a top-five wide midfielder/winger in MLS. And not only are you, the RSL or Portland fan that is, for some reason or another, reading this article and wanting to barf, but so are most Sounders fans who right now have at least three fingers counting other players in the league they'd rather have.

Look, I'll give you Brad Davis and Graham Zusi for sure, but Lloyd Sam, Darlington Nagbe? I like both a lot and on pure talent you have an argument, but I'm not sure either are better than Neagle or that there is substantial data that proves either theory. Maybe, Ethan Finlay. Maybe. This is seriously an interesting conversation with you start to think about it on a production level.

Real quick, Ozzie Alonso was on a bit of a downward trend with minutes the last four years. From 2011 to 2013 each of his seasons saw decreased minutes and more injuries, which was frighting for any supporter to see happen to a vital member of the team.

Alonso finally breached the 2800 minute mark again (for only the second time in his six season career) in 2014 but is now looking at missing more time after having surgery on his groin. The question I have not just is whether or not the Sounders are going to be able to recover from a losing out on Alonso for any amount of games but if we're going to see that once great ball winner return to be actually great.

The Forwards

I'm not sure two players in Major League soccer have as much fun as Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey do while they are on the pitch together. 

Still, when you look at our expected goals and see that we tally Oba with scoring three more goals than the expected goals model predicted last season, that isn't just luck. His Shot leverage (.162), which is the average location and expected likelihood that a shot would score, is the 10th highest in our four year data set. Meaning that Oba doesn't take lucky shots. He's made some lucky shots, but the ones he makes aren't all luck. He obviously has an immense amount of skill in repeatedly getting to his goal scoring locations. While the model hints at some regression, it should be an interesting case study to see if he can continually beat the model and what we can take from how he does it.

Clint Dempsey is awesome too, and expected goals loves what he does more than Martins. That's because of two things: volume and quality. He creates an incredible amount of shots from all sorts of great locations, and while his shot leverage is four points lower than Oba, he makes it up in nearly two and half additional shots created a game.

Summary

Seattle has all the pieces to continue being really good and they didn't have a lot of roster churn which I think is vital in MLS. It makes a lot of sense to consider them the team to beat out of the Western Conference and possibly the MLS Cup favorite to this point. 

The thing that really distinguished them as a club for me last year was their expected goals against was about in line with what it was last year and the amount of goals they gave up regressed back to the mean. I'm sure a lot of that had to do with using Chad Marshall, but don't underestimate the amount of heartache that defense went through between using the Djimi Traore, Scott tandem and Dylan Remick at full back, too. Finishing 6th in MLS isn't anything to sneeze at and you shouldn't sneeze at things anyway, as it's rather gross.

The team's expected goals in even game states fell back a tiny bit. That is to say the likelihood that the team scores before their opponent. I don't think it's anything to worry about. The take away from an expected goals point of view last year is that they're not as good an attacking team as they seemed, but they're also a better defense team than they seemed, too.

While a first place finish and competing for the Supporters Shield is very possible, I think a 2nd or 3rd place finish is probably more likely for Seattle in 2015.

2015 ASA Preview: LA Galaxy by Sean Steffen

*xG = expected goals, xA = expected assists, xGD = expected goal differential. For more information see our xGoals by Team page.

By Sean Steffen (@seansteffen)

With the retirement of Landon Donovan, the Galaxy have lost a player who in large part defined their identity. To say that the LA Galaxy are a team in flux is an understatement, which makes making predictions about next season a fool’s errand. But the fear of looking foolish has never been an adequate deterrent in my writing career, so let’s give this a shot. 

Let’s make no mistake about it: Landon Donovan was a chance creating God.  Last year 32.2% of the Galaxy’s total xG came from either a Donovan shot or pass. His stylistic impact on the team was perhaps even greater. This can be backed up by my own recent passing analysis of the team which can be read here

In short, I isolated two distinct buildup styles that the 2014 Galaxy employed to score and Donovan was involved in 75% of them. He was also the driving force behind the famed "Tiki-Taco" style of play which lead to Gyasi Zardes getting so many uncontested shots within the box, a phenomenon I wrote about here. Now that 75% is admittedly skewed somewhat by my methodology since my article was aimed more at analyzing style than overall number, however, if does show that Donovan either scored or was within four passes of a bare minimum of 39% of the Galaxy’s assisted non-set-piece goals.

It took a lot of math, but I think we've finally proven this Donovan fellow was pretty good at soccer. The obvious question becomes, who replaces him, and how does that effect the Galaxy’s xG numbers? This is a huge question mark because the Galaxy have played few preseason games and have rotated players at left mid to a point that it’s impossible to guess who will be starting. As of now, Bradford Jamieson IV looks to be Bruce’s pick to be the starting left mid on opening day (whenever that will be).  We have no data available on Jamieson, but his season in USL Pro last year suggests he will be a player that will contribute mainly by way of expected goal and will have few expected assists. Now, from a numbers standpoint, a goal is a goal, however, the expected goal numbers of an entire team fall when chance creation is depleted, which is a very real possibility for the Galaxy next year. 

Luckily for the Galaxy, however, their expected goal difference totals from last year were so great, that they actually have a considerable amount of xG to give, if the defense can remain consistent. I addressed this quite thoroughly in this article, but here is a key takeaway

Team Expected Goal differential per 90
2014 LA Galaxy 0.88
2014 Seattle 0.41
2012-2014 Avg. Supporters Shield Winner 0.28
2012-2014 Top of the West 0.34

The Galaxy somehow managed to lose the Supporters' Shield race last year despite a redonkulous xG differential. This is can be viewed as a cushion, of sorts, because it means that, with a bit more luck and better game management, the Galaxy can lose a lot of xG and still be a top team. Here are the quick hit points. 

From a numbers standpoint, the Galaxy could replace Donovan with a player that contributes 0 xG by way of shot or pass and would still have a 0.43 xG lead on the Supporters' Shield average over the course of a full season. If you apply the same neutral left mid scenario to the average for teams that finished top of the west over that period, the  Galaxy only fall under the western mark by 1.39xG. And finally, subtracting Donovan’s output last year still only puts the Galaxy 3.88 xG behind Seattle in xG differential. That’s a marginal difference, and one that can be easily overcome by a combination of Stefan Ishizaki shouldering more of the chance creation load, and the xG Bradford Jamieson IV brings to the table. 

There is also the matter of Steven Gerrard, who arrives in mid July, and will surely boost the Galaxy’s numbers; however, his impact on the Galaxy’s xG Differential numbers will probably be a bit more complex than him boosting xGF. History suggests that his addition might be at the expense of more shots against.  

You see, the data we have on the Galaxy is interesting. The first year available is from the famous 2011 team, who many consider to be the greatest MLS team of all time. Of the four total years of data, we have two years in the Beckham era and two years in the post Beckham era. During the Beckham years, the Galaxy played a lethal brand of counter-attack soccer. In the years following Beckham, the Galaxy became an elite possession team. Over the four years of data, the Galaxy won three MLS cups, but by using two very distinct styles of soccer. 

Why do I even bring this up? The data clearly shows that the Galaxy’s defense improved by leaps and bounds in the post Beckham years. This may come as a shock to some, as the 2011 LA Galaxy team is generally regarded as one of the best defensive sides of all time, sporting a goals against average of 0.79 a game,  however, the data suggests that the Galaxy’s goals against numbers were anomalous that year. 

Now I do not know if this jump in improvement is related more to tactics or personnel, since Beckham wasn't exactly the best defender, but I can say with much confidence that the Galaxy were simply a better defensive team post Beckham. 

Let’s dive into the data and look at goals against average.

As you can see above, the Galaxy’s goals against average has consistently been well below that of the conference for three of the four years.  The problem, however, is that the xGoals against data shows that the 2011 Galaxy’s numbers may be a bit of an outlier. From an xG standpoint, there is a very clear distinction between the Beckham and post Beckham years.  Take a look.

The very same thing can be said for shots against. 

Well what about shot leverage? That is, the positions of the field he Galaxy are giving up shots. Has that remained constant?

At first glance, yes, despite the varying levels of shot volume faced. 

Metric 2011 2012 2013 2014
Avg Shot Leverage against 0.095 0.104 0.09 0.093
Shots Against 408 439 326 348

The problem, however, is if you plot it against league averages, the Galaxy during the Beckham era were giving up shots of leverage consistent with the rest of the league. Over a four year span, shot leverage has climbed league wide, however, in the post Beckham years, the average shot leverage given up by the Galaxy was in decline.

The Beckham years saw a very defensively oriented Galaxy team. Ironically, however, it is the post Beckham years that have yielded the best defensive numbers (ignoring the anomalous goals against totals of 2011 for the reasons shown above.)

This is in large part thanks to the staggering decrease in the number of shots the Galaxy give up. Now some of this probably correlates to possession, however, if you look at the Goals 3.0 table, you’ll find that possession is a poor corollary to shots against. In fact, there isn't a stat listed on that page that isn't.

Now, perhaps buried deep in the numbers is a great explanation as to why certain teams are so good at limiting shots, however, I would postulate that it is in large part tactical and linked to how many men you have tracking back.

If I am correct in this assumption, then I feel that the Galaxy will continue to dominate MLS in terms of giving up the least number of shots next year, at least until the arrival of Gerrard, as their shape and general personnel make up hasn't changed. Yes they lost Marcelo Sarvas, but Baggio Husidic is a player who tracks back just as much and makes as many tackles.

Of course, when Gerrard arrives, it’s anybody’s guess how the Galaxy will utilize him. Bruce has stated that he wants him closer to goal, which seems to rule out the possibility that we see Gerrard play in the role of deep-lying playmaker which we saw David Beckham play so well. This could suggest that the Galaxy’s xGA numbers will not rise above the totals we saw in the Beckham years, and the same can probably be said for shots.

While Gerrard still has some legs in him and still averages about three defensive actions a game, his ability to get back into the Galaxy’s shape will probably be less than whoever it is he replaces in the lineup. This means that the Galaxy probably will give up more shots against per game after he arrives. This more than likely means higher xG against, and higher goals against, but again, not as high as the Beckham years.

In other words, the Galaxy data during the Gerard era may fall about halfway in-between the 2012 and 2013 numbers.   

2015 ASA Preview: Real Salt Lake by Matthias Kullowatz

*xG = expected goals, xA = expected assists, xGD = expected goal differential. For more information see our xGoals by Team page.

By Matthias Kullowatz (@mattyanselmo)

2014 Review (and beyond)

Real Salt Lake finished third in the Western Conference last season and competed in the MLS playoffs for the seventh consecutive year. RSL’s president, Bill Manning, was awarded Executive of the Year, and for good reason. RSL—the Tampa Bay Rays of MLS—has continued making the playoffs year in and year out on a low budget. In 2014, the team’s total compensation paid to players was sixth lowest in MLS, $2.4M below the league average team.*

The top story around here about Real Salt Lake revolves around its ability to frustrate me. Over the past two seasons, RSL has led the league in scoring more goals than our model expects it to, and in allowing fewer goals than our model expects it to. So what’s in the water in Utah?

Nick Rimando is in the water. Over the past three seasons, Rimando has made saves valued at more than six goals per season better than average.** Using a simple regression, we can estimate that those six goals in a season were worth about four additional points for RSL in the standings each year. Not bad for one player.

Offensively, we've shown that outperforming expected goals becomes a stable metric as the season progresses. The only question is, how does RSL do it? Perhaps of importance, its offense is extremely slow and methodical relative to other teams. According to Tempo Free Soccer, RSL was third in the league in 2014 in passes per possession (PPP) but dead last in possessions per game (PPG). There is certainly a correlation across the league between PPP and outperforming expected goals, indicating that perhaps long possession (by number of passes) frees up players for shots with more time and space. Or maybe teams that are capable of creating time and space know that they need to pass the ball around enough to find the right opportunity. Either way, it’s clearly possible that RSL is such a team that has an ability to outperform its expected goals offensively.

Between 2011 and 2013, striker Alvaro Saborio consistently outperformed his own expected goals by about two per season. In 2014, he started just 13 games and played 1230 minutes, making way for the four-foot-15-inch Ecuadorian, Joao Plata. Plata clearly appreciated his opportunity, producing 56 of his own shots and 13 goals in just 24 starts—6.5 goals more than expected, given his quality and quantity of opportunities. While Plata will likely regress some in the finishing department, it seems that RSL’s style fosters overperformance. It is still up for debate as to how much of this overperformance comes from each of team style, individual finishing, and random variation.

2015 Preview

Whenever the season actually starts, RSL will kick off with one of the best goalkeepers in the league once again in Rimando. We’ve talked about him already, but his backup may be one of the more undervalued assets on the team. Jeff Attinella made just below $50,000 in total compensation in 2014, not too far above league minimum of $36,500. Our keeper ratings show that he saved four more goals than expected last season, and while 10 starts is hardly a large enough sample size to conclude he’s a top goalkeeper, a history of success in the NASL suggests that he’s capable. Additionally, our own Will Reno projects him essentially as a typical starting MLS goalkeeper, and Tom Worville suggested that Attinella was an undervalued keeper using WhoScored data. For 50,000 bananas, RSL fans can be reassured that if Rimando were to go down, the season wouldn't be hopeless.

Defense

This offseason saw the departure of two starters along RLS’s backline, Nat Borchers to Portland and Chris Wingert (and his classy tucked-in jersey) to New York City FC. They combined for 5,780 minutes, half of which will likely go to the prodigal son, Jamison Olave. Olave will replace Borcher’s position at centerback, but probability in a much different way. Olave features an athleticism that does not conjure up any images of Borchers, though it’s perhaps a reckless athleticism at times. Olave did accumulate eight yellow cards last season, exactly as many as Portland’s Diego Chara who is particularly known for such chicanery. Despite the physical differences, for what it’s worth, some of their statistical outputs are quite similar.

Player xG xA Shots KP AirDuels/G Steals/G Pass%
Borchers 1.2 0.2 13 4 2.6 0.4 86%
Olave 1.4 0.4 13 3 2.6 0.5 83%
Data from both our archives and Whoscored.com

Who will get those other minutes left by Wingert is up for debate, but Demar Phillips appears to be the frontrunner. The Jamaican international joins RSL from Aalesunds FK, a successful team in Norway’s top division. Also an option is the 26-year-old Abdoulie Mansally, who made 11 appearances with six starts last season. Both could provide a stronger offensive presence than Wingert from the back. Mansally was once a forward, and produced more xGoals and xAssists than Wingert on a per-minute basis in 2014, and Phillips has scored 12 goals for the Jamaican international team over the years, indicating some experience being offensive.

Midfield

RSL is known for its 4-4-2 lineup with an effective diamond midfield. It started four midfielders in every game but one last season, at least nominally. This is interesting because multiple sources suggest that RSL could come out in a 4-3-3 in 2015. After losing Ned Grabavoy to NYCFC in the expansion draft—in addition to a growing pool of forward talent—RSL may be rethinking its personnel and style. Last season the midfield quartet of Grabavoy, Javier Morales, Kyle Beckerman, and Luke Mulholland produced 15.5 expected goals and 16.2 expected assists in 10,581 minutes. For comparison’s sake, D.C. United’s primary middle four logged 10,359 minutes and recorded just 10.8 expected goals and 6.8 expected assists. Though it may not be completely fair to compare them to D.C. United, team style aside, it shows that RSL got a lot more out of its midfield than another successful MLS team that also played a 4-4-2.

Regardless of formation, 2015 is likely to feature more of USMNT member Luis Gil and less of Mulholland. Mulholland outpaced Gil in shots and expected goals last season, but not by much once you consider that Gil played 500 fewer minutes. Just 21 years of age and getting USMNT experience, Gil is ready to start and play 2,500+ minutes.  But the question remains, will RSL’s midfield be able to continue to produce high quantity and quality of chances in a new formation? Was Grabavoy more important to the mix than many thought? I don't have these answers, but perhaps 2015 does.

Forwards

Another reason for the potential formation change may have a lot to do with the emergence of Plata, Olmes Garcia, and Devon Sandoval as good young forwards, as well as the mid-season signing of Argentine striker Sebastian Jaime back in August. With Saborio returning from an injury-shortened season, RSL may feel that it can maximize production by simply allowing more forwards to play at once. The loss of Robbie Findley’s 822 minutes may not even be noticed.

There was a focus Plata’s 13 goals and what he was able to do for RSL by scoring, but I noticed something else in his statistical line. He led RSL’s forwards in 2014 by far in key passes and expected assists with 48 and 5.7, respectively. Of course, he played more minutes, so how about this one: in 2,084 minutes, Plata recorded more key passes and xAssists individually than every other main RSL forward in a combined 4,294 minutes.*** Even if it starts three forwards in 2015, Real Salt Lake would have one that distributes enough to make it work well.

Conclusion

Despite the losses of Borchers, Grabavoy, and Findley, among others, RSL definitely has the fire power to compete for a top three finish in the Western Conference, though that may not be the average projection. I feel that RSL’s success in 2015 hinges on its ability to make the midfield as effective as it was the past, whether it chooses to replace Grabavoy with a forward (4-3-3) or work Gil in with the remaining midfielders (4-4-2). Our predictive model from the end of last season suggested that RSL would be expected to finish essentially tied for fourth in the West with Portland, Sporting KC, and Vancouver. I think it's fair to project RSL to finish somewhere between 3rd and 7th in a tight Western Conference.

 

* http://www.mlsplayers.org/salary_info.html

**Check out our keeping ratings under the xGoals tabs!

***Includes Saborio, Garcia, Findley, Sandoval, and Jaime.

2015 ASA Preview: DC United by Jared Young

*xG = expected goals, xA = expected assists, xGD = expected goal differential. For more information see our xGoals by Team page.

By Jared Young (@jaredeyoung)

Time for soccer analysts to perk up because D.C. United’s 2015 season is the one to watch if you are into numbers. Why? Because in 2014, D. C. United defied them. And the story of the year, at least for the geeks, is whether or not D.C. United can do it again.

After one of the worst seasons in franchise history in 2013, D.C. United shocked the league and won the Eastern Conference in 2014. A turnaround like that required improvement on both sides of the ball. United went from easily the worst offense in the league with 22 goals to a solid offense with 52. And they turned the worst defense in the league with 59 goals allowed to tied for the league’s best with 37 goals.

So what’s the problem? The issue is that the numbers say it shouldn't have happened. The ASA expected goals model says that D.C. United should have scored just 38 goals compared to their 52. And on the defensive side the ASA models thinks that 48.6 goals against would have been a more likely number, compared to the actual 37. Their expected goal ratio in fact was 3rd worst in MLS. Michael’s Caley’s expected goals model suggests a similar story to that of ASA. Were D.C. United just lucky or are they doing something that the models don’t contemplate? On the offensive side of the equation the positive story can be traced to two dynamics scorers.

D.C. United’s dynamic duo

If United fans had their way, they’d pair Luis Silva and Fabian Espindola at the top of Ben Olsen’s 4-4-2 formation. And despite the fact that the two play a very similar style of forward, they’d be right. That pair was the reason for the strong shooting from United. The paid scored 22 goals last season, but the ASA expected goals model suggest they should have 11.4. That 10+ goal gap is most of the team’s “overproduction” last year.

Espindola’s finishing prowess is puzzling because he actually took his shots on average four feet further from the goal than other shooters.  Remarkably he was terrific at avoiding blocked shots. While shooters on average have their shots blocked one in every four attempts, Espindola had that happen approximately once in almost eight attempts. He may have been more focused on getting open looks versus how far he was from the goal. Silva’s ability is tougher to figure. Everything but his finishing rate appears average. His shots on target level was slightly higher than average and the percentage of his shots that were blocked was 23 percent. Unless the team finds new ways to increase their shot totals, the duo’s ability to shoot better than expected will be depended on going into 2015.

What’s changed going into the 2015 season?

The biggest change for the red and black this offseason was actually confirmation of a new soccer specific stadium to be built for the 2017 season. That stadium has the opportunity to enhance the soccer experience in the D.C. area and build a bigger base of fans for the team.

From a roster perspective there were just a few changes. United added Jairo Arrieta from Columbus Crew as forward depth. He will be a key contributor, especially in the early going. The most intriguing acquisition was nearly 31 year old Malmo FF and Finnish national midfielder Markus Halsti. Halsti is a versatile defensive minded midfielder who also adds depth for the defense. He should fit in well with Perry Kitchen, Davey Arnaud, Nick DeLeon and Chris Pontius. D.C. United also signed their first round pick Miguel Aguilar, who figures to get his feet wet on the wings this season.

No change is good news for the defense that led the league is goals against. Second year emerging star Steve Birnbaum and Bobby Boswell anchor the center of the defense while Sean Franklin, Taylor Kemp, and Chris Korb will rotate at the fullback.

What to expect in 2015

When expected goals models fail how can you expect what to expect? The defense-first United stand to keep up their stingy ways despite the models. The return of the core defense and the continued development of one of the bright young keepers in MLS, Bill Hamid, should mean Ben Olsen’s squad maintains their perch near the top of MLS.

The offense could prove to be more difficult to maintain, at least to start the season. Espindola starts the campaign with a six game suspension and Silva has been nursing a hamstring all preseason. Eddie Johnson’s playing future is uncertain at this point due to an enlarged heart, and that leaves Chris Rolfe and Arrieta to maintain status quo. It could be a rocky opening to the season, but one of United’s strengths is that they have a number of players that can play multiple positions. Rolfe and Pontius, for example, are hybrid offensive players that give Olsen flexibility with both lineups and styles of play.

And therein lies United’s core strength; while they prefer to play defense first and are usually more reactive than their competition, they can win playing all styles. Early on Ben Olsen will need to mix and match players until he lands on a core group and formation. There’s no reason to think that D.C. United will slip so far as to miss the playoffs, unless of course you believe that numbers never lie.  

2015 ASA Preview: FC Dallas by Jason Poon

*xG = expected goals, xA = expected assists, xGD = expected goal differential. For more information see our xGoals by Team page.

By Jason Poon (@jasonhpoon)

2014 was about the return of a legend in Oscar Pareja to coach the Hoops, the final breakout season of a young promising attacker in Fabian Castillo and the return to playoffs after a two season absence. 2014 was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Dallas after Pareja was snatched up from Colorado days before the SuperDraft, but the emergence of several young stars (Mauro Diaz, Tesho Akindele, and Victor Ulloa) pushed Dallas into the post season and came within a goal of reaching the Western Conference Finals.

2015 will be about correcting some of their own mistakes (red cards), fitness issues (injuries), improving on the little things (fewer shots against), and making another deep run into the playoffs to challenge for the MLS Cup. I wrote some similar stuff here at BigDSoccer.com, so if this looks familiar, well there you go. 

Silly Reds

The most infuriating part of watching FC Dallas in 2014 had to be their propensity to needlessly shoot themselves in the foot time and time again. Dallas was the most red carded team in MLS last season with 10 send offs. Chivas USA were second with nine and Toronto and Columbus tied for third with seven a piece. It's an entirely different story if you go in for a potentially goal saving tackle and miss or deliberately handle the ball ala Luis Suarez circa World Cup 2010, but those are professional fouls to eliminate a goal scoring threat. Dallas did none of that in 2014. Every single red card was a result of poor decision making, rash challenges and plain silliness. 

FC Dallas gave up at least eight points from matches where they picked up a red card in 2014, and that only accounts for the games that the red card took place, not the games missed following the suspension. Let's give Dallas the best case scenario that they didn't pick up those reds and secured all 8 points, that would have put them with 62 points, ahead of LA Galaxy and good for second place in the Western Conference last season. Or, we'll be more reasonable and conservative give them half of the points (4), that still would have elevated Dallas to third place. Bottom line, Dallas has to stop picking up pointless red cards if they want to give themselves a chance at becoming one of the elites in MLS in 2015.

Defensive Spine

The biggest question mark for me about this Dallas team is how will the defense hold up over the course of the season. If you'll take a quick look at the player transactions (as of 2/27/15) you'll notice something about the defense, namely that lots of players have left and few new players have come in to replace them:

Incoming: Michael Barrios (Uniautónoma/Colombia), Kyle Bekker (Toronto FC), Otis Earle (UC Riverside/SuperDraft), Atiba Harris (San Jose Earthquakes), Dan Kennedy (Chivas USA), Alex Zendejas (Homegrown)

Outgoing: Jair Benitez (Águilas Pereira/Colombia), Walter Cabrera (loan return to General Diaz/Paraguay), Andres Escobar (loan return to Dynamo Kiev/Ukraine), Raul Fernández (Universitario de Deportes/Peru), George John (New York City FC), Peter Luccin (option declined), Adam Moffat (New York Cosmos), Brian Span (waived), Hendry Thomas (option declined), Jonathan Top (option declined), Nick Walker (option declined), Je-Vaughn Watson (unattached)

Out went standout defender George John, and defensive midfielder Hendry Thomas. Granted John didn't play any minutes in 2014 and Thomas was limited to just 10 games so they didn't contribute much, if at all, to the team's defensive woes but the outlook was more positive had they recovered from their injuries and stayed with the team. The lack of incoming players to replace them is concerning and just who will step up for Dallas in ball winning and preventing goal scoring opportunities? 

Dallas gave up an atrocious 14.4 shots per game, which was only bested by San Jose's even more inept defense which shipped 16.1 shots per game. In the Western Conference, the team average of shots against was 13.1. Dallas will have to do better in this department if they are hoping to improve in 2015.

Health

Related to the above but at the moment, Dallas only has three true centerbacks on their roster in Best XI candidate Matt Hedges, former first round draft pick Walker Zimmerman and serviceable journeyman and fan favorite Stephen Keel (who is currently out injured). Zach Loyd (who actually did extremely well here), Moises Hernandez and Je-Vaughn Watson (not on the team) all took shifts there last year, but if one of the CBs goes down with an injury, a makeshift backline will be in the works again. With Zimmerman having only played in 17 total games (13 starts) in his two seasons in MLS, asking the young CB to go an entire year injury free might be too much to ask so soon.

MLS Player of the Month in March, Mauro Diaz also spent a lot of time on the sidelines having only played in 17 games (9 starts) as well. Dallas did eventually figure out how to win points without their magical unicorn of a playmaker, and switched to a more direct counter attacking style of attack, but Diaz offers a vision and passing ability that no one else in the league can match at the moment. 

The outlook for 2015 is hard to determine at the moment. We've seen teams like DC United go from worst to best in the East in the matter of two consecutive seasons and we have seen teams like the San Jose Earthquakes go from Supporter's Shield winners in 2012 to whatever you want to call them last year. I'm cautiously optimistic that Dallas will be even better in 2015 but the history of the league has shown us that predictions are entirely a crapshoot at this point.

2015 ASA Preview: New England Revolution by Drew Olsen

*xG = expected goals, xA = expected assists, xGD = expected goal differential. For more information see our xGoals by Team page.

By Drew Olsen (@drewjolsen)

It is not an overstatement to say that New England had the most up and down season in MLS last year. Just take a moment to look at the season progression chart above. Seriously, I’ll wait.

Here’s another way of looking at it, taken from the league results map:

Let’s put that in perspective. After week 12, the Revs had the 2nd best record in MLS. They were on a five game winning streak that included some of the best teams in MLS. In order, they won 2-0 over Kansas City, 2-1 over Toronto FC, 5-0 (!!) over eventual Supporters’ Shield winners Seattle, 3-5 over Philadelphia, and 2-1 over eventual Eastern Conference winners DC United. That is maximum points over one of the most difficult stretches of their schedule. So what did the team do? It responded by losing eight consecutive games, including losses to lowly Montreal and Chicago. Montreal finished the season with 28 points in 34 games. New England had 22 points in week 12. 

But New England also had 22 points after week 21. Matthias wrote about their roller coaster ride while it was happening, and came to the conclusion that giving the Revolution a 60% chance of making the playoffs was probably too high. Presumably, he would have also said the odds of another five game winning streak were even lower than 60%, so that’s what they did. Twice. If you include the playoffs, the Revs went 12-2-3 over their last 17 games, with one of those two losses being in MLS Cup.

So how good was this team? Was it the explosive and creative team that started and ended the season, or the smoldering tire fire that played during the summer? The answer is somewhere in the middle. While the summer addition of Jermaine Jones may have coincided with their second winning streak, he was not the only reason for it. Our expected goals model showed New England with a 0.01 xGD and a -0.11xGD when the score is tied and both teams are even on players. In other words, based on where they and their opponents were taking shots from, this was an about average team on the whole for the season. But some other numbers suggest it was no fluke. No team possessed the ball in their opponent’s final third more than the Revs last year, (despite them averaging only 46% possession for the season) and no team in the East averaged more shots on goal per game.

Finishing 2nd in the East and making it to MLS Cup is a great accomplishment, one that will be difficult to repeat in 2015. That said, nearly the same team returns, and improvements have been made. The goal for this season is simple: bring some silverware back to Foxboro.

Defense

It starts in back with Bobby Shuttleworth between the sticks. Our xG for last season show he allowed about four fewer goals than the typical keeper would have expected based on the shots he faced, which was good for 6th best among keepers with at least 20 games played. His backup Brad Knighton saw limited time last season, but was about average in 2013 and doesn't figure to challenge for the starting job.

While Shuttleworth proved capable last season, it is the defense upon which Coach Jay Heaps’ system was built. It all starts with former Defender of the Year Jose Goncalves, who finished 7th in MLS with 219 clearances last season, despite playing in only 27 games. With A.J. Soares, who led the team in appearances last season gone to Norway, 2013 number one overall pick Andrew Farrell will transition from outside back to pair with Goncalves in the center. Still only 22, Farrell is loaded with potential. And while he saw some limited time in the middle last season, Heaps is now making the move permanent, and the ability of his defense to prevent goals may depend on it.

On the left will be Revs institution Chris Tierney, who had a phenomenal 2014 season which culminated with his goal in MLS Cup. On the other side, it looks like a competition between Kevin Alston and Jeremy Hall, who comes over from Toronto. Hall mostly played in the midfield for the last three seasons, but based on the preseason Heaps has him pegged at right back. With only two appearances for Toronto last season, Hall will be relied on to find his form again quickly if he starts. Alston is the more likely candidate, despite only 11 appearances last year as he made his inspirational return from Leukemia.

If Farrell can manage his move to the center and the new right back fits in seamlessly, we can continue to expect a lot from this defensive unit. But the loss of Soares and the question marks hovering over Hall and Alston suggest we’re likely to see a dip in quality on the backline.

Midfield

The center of the field is mostly credited for getting New England to MLS Cup last season, and it is unchanged for 2015. Jermaine Jones, coming of his successful World Cup, provided an important defensive cover when he came to the team towards the end of the season. With fewer than 1000 minutes played it is difficult to judge his quality in MLS, but he will undoubtedly be an important defensive piece in front of Heaps’ newly reformed backline. That said, Jones is 34 and doesn't figure to get any younger. He also didn't appear in the preseason after having sports-hernia surgery last month.

Next to Jones in front of the defense will be homegrown player Scott Caldwell, who nailed down his starting spot in the 2nd half of the season. He was dribbled past more than any other player on the team last season (1.2 times per game), so will need to continue to learn to keep attackers in front of him. Still, he was solid if unspectacular last season, and at 23 will only continue to improve. 

While Jones was the big name signing that got the headlines, it was MVP finalist Lee Nguyen that provided the heart and soul of the Revs. He had 18 goals, nine more than our model suggested he should expect, which was the biggest difference in the league. Did he just get lucky or is he just a better finisher than everyone else? The quality of some of his goals imply the latter, but this season may tell us. Like Jones, he hasn't appeared in preseason, but hopes to play in the season opener. If New England are to make another through the playoffs, Nguyen will need to again be at his best.

Teal Bunbury is back, and will again be the third wheel in the midfield. He’ll streak up the right, and create space for Nguyen to operate in the center. Leaving Kansas City seems to have been a good move for Bunbury, and he’ll hope to continue to improve on last year. Kelyn Rowe, the Revs’ 3rd pick in 2012, will slot in on the left side but has shown to be versatile; he played in every midfield position at some point last year.

Daigo Kobayashi, whose 86% pass completion rate was best on the team last year, and the once-touted Diego Fagundez, are the favorites to be Heaps’ first subs off the bench. Both players have impressed in the preseason, and will see their share of time.

Forwards

While Charlie Davies returns, his three goals last year were a disappointment. Heaps knew he needed an upgrade, and in comes familiar face Juan Agudelo. Still only 22, Agudelo will bring a new threat, and hopes to return to his goalscoring ways after playing only 14 competitive games in the last year. His nine goals in 2013 were 3.4 more than his 5.6 xG, so he will look to convert at a similar clip.

Prognosis

The Revolution are the preseason pick by many to return to MLS cup from the East, and it’s not an unreasonable expectation. If the realigned defense works out and this is the same Agudelo that averaged a goal every other game in 2013, then New England will be a force to be reckoned with. Still, they seemed to over-perform their expected goals last season, and a regression to the mean seems likely. The loss of Soares is certain to be felt, and we still don’t know how Farrell will fit into the middle of defense. A playoff spot seems certain, but another top two seed will be difficult to come by.

2015 ASA Preview: Vancouver Whitecaps by Drew Olsen

*xG = expected goals, xA = expected assists, xGD = expected goal differential. For more information see our xGoals by Team page.

By Drew Olsen (@drewjolsen)

For a team that entered 2014 with middling expectations, securing 50 points for the first time in MLS club history and making the playoffs was no small success for the Whitecaps. But this is a team that has finished with between 43 and 50 points each of the last three seasons and been eliminated twice as the 5th seed in the playoffs. Vancouver is beginning to take on the same role Costa Rica occupies in CONCACAF qualifying; both are good teams that can be counted on to pose a challenge to any opponent, but are not contenders to finish near the top of the standings.

To try to change that reputation the team is building a young, talented roster led by 2nd year coach Carl Robinson. It is a roster that is unlikely to win MLS Cup in the next season or two, but has lots of promise for the future. With eight homegrown players 22 or younger plus the addition of Young DP Octavio Rivero, the future looks bright in Vancouver.

Expectations are tempered for 2015 and it will be difficult for the Whitecaps to make the playoffs again in a competitive Western Conference, but that does not mean this season won't be a success. With an average roster age less than 24, this year is likely to be a stepping stone towards eventual success in Vancouver.

Defense

There is plenty to build on from last season, beginning with the Whitecaps' stingy defense. Allowing only 1.17 goals per game last year kept Vancouver in many games, and our expected goals metrics suggest they actually got a bit unlucky by allowing as many as they did. In other words, the quality of this defense was no fluke.

David Ousted was an exactly average keeper last year, and it's unlikely much will change for him in 2015. Jordan Harvey started every game last season, and he will again join Steven Beitashour at fullback. The question mark comes from the center of defense, where last year's starters for much of the year, Johnny Leveron and Andy O'Brien, have both moved on. If the quality on the backline of 2014 is to continue, it will have to come with a new centerback pairing. Kendall Waston looks likely to take one of the starting spots, with newcomers Pa Modou-Kah and Diego Rodriguez fighting for the other starting position. The 34 year old veteran Kah comes from Portland, where he has been in and out of the starting lineup for two seasons. Rodriguez joins from Uruguay, by way of La Liga side Malaga. It is not an understatement to say the Whitecaps' season may depend on the ability of its defense to mesh.

Midfield

Anchored by DPs Pedro Morales and the now officially signed Matias Laba, the midfield will again be one to be reckoned with. Morales' 20.75 xG + xA was 4th in the league last season, and he will continue to be relied on to create for the young attacking corps. Laba isn't afraid to get stuck in, and should provide a valuable bit of protection in front of the new centerbacks.

Russell Teibert returns on the left side after a disappointing 2014. A lot was expected from him after two goals, nine assists, and 35 key passes in 2013, but he managed no goals and just two assists and 24 key passes, despite playing 2000 more minutes last season. Erik Hurtado may end up on the right, and also might compete against the aging Mauro Rosales for playing time. Rosales started the final 10 games of the season after coming over from Chivas USA, but at age 34 he set a career high for most minutes since coming to MLS. Whitecaps mainstay Gershon Koffie will also try to regain a foothold in the midfield after missing the end of last season with injuries.

Forwards

Despite the hype surrounding young strikers Kekuta Manneh (20 years old) and former Rookie of the Year Darren Mattocks (24), scoring proved difficult last season. The 42 goals Vancouver netted were 6th worst in the league and six fewer than any other playoff team. To bolster their attack, Young DP Octavio Rivero was signed from Chile, where he scored 10 goals in only 18 appearances last season. Rivero looks ready to contribute from day one, having scored a brace in his preseason debut.

Prognosis

Vancouver has a very young team that looks to be both fun and frustrating to watch this season. While the attack has been improved, a drop-off in defensive quality is likely. It will be difficult to return to the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference, but if the defense can meld and Rivero can score, the sky is the limit.