MVP

MVP Discussion: Soccer shares baseball's issues by Drew Olsen

In the wake of Major League Baseball awarding its MVP to Miguel Cabrera, debates over what "valuable" means have once again flared up. Though soccer and baseball are two incredibly different sports, I think we can apply some of the same logic to both MVP discussions. Major League Soccer has about two weeks remaining before its MVP award is handed out, and we will no doubt encounter many of the same controversies in the soccer blogosphere that appear in baseball every season. The MVP controversy usually begins with what "valuable" means. I think there's little doubt in most people's minds that "valuable" and "skilled" are correlated. The main controversy is how correlated. To some, asking who was the best player in Major League Soccer in 2013 would be equivalent to asking who was the most valuable to his team. To others, there would be some key distinctions, the most common of which is that MVPs must come from teams that reach the post season.

In retort to that thinking, some very astute commenters in a Fangraphs.com forum offered up these nuggets. Hendu for Kutch made the analogy:

"We each want to buy something that costs $1. I’ve got a quarter, 8 nickels, and 10 pennies. My 'team' of coins is worth 75 cents and falls short of being able to buy the item. You have one dime and 18 nickels. Your 'team' is worth $1, and you successfully buy the item. Is your dime more valuable than my quarter simply because it led to a successful item purchase?"

Mike Trout = quarter and Miguel Cabrera = dime, for those of you not so into baseball, and the question is a good one. Few would argue that the dime is more valuable than the quarter just because it found itself in a position to help buy that scrumptious Twix.

In reply to someone arguing that the quarter had no value because it didn't lead to the purchase of a desired item, BIP and ndavis910 then chimed in:

"Except not everything costs $1, and at any rate, you would always choose the quarter over the dime when accumulating money for a purchase."

"Especially when you don’t know the cost of the items until you get to the store. In baseball, a team cannot be sure how many wins it will take to reach the playoffs until the last day of the season. In your example, the quarter is the most valuable piece regardless of whether or not the item cost $1 or $0.75."

When thinking about attributing value to players like Marco Di Vaio, Mike Magee, Camilo Sanvezzo, Robbie Keane and company, why should it matter where their teams finished? If one believes that Magee, for instance, is the best player in MLS, then does it matter if he took his team from 39 points to 49, versus from 40 points to 50? Either way, it's still ten points of value in the standings. When Magee was traded to Chicago, neither Chicago nor Magee knew that the Fire was going to need 50 points to make the playoffs. The fact that they got just 49 points shouldn't negate any of Magee's value.

If you say that it matters because MLS clubs get real value from extra playoff games, then think about this. Playoff cutoff lines are quite arbitrary. If MLS allowed only the top two teams in from each conference---not completely unreasonable for a league of just 19 teams---then none of the players mentioned above would be considered under this playoffs requirement. Playoffs represent an arbitrary bar that the players competing for the award don't get to set, and while reaching the playoffs does bring the team measurable revenue and value, basing an award on something outside an individual's control would, in my opinion, strip the award of its intended meaning and purpose.

Now let's anticipate the logical counterargument---that players pick up their games in playoff races and play well when it matters most.

For a moment, let's ignore the fact that little evidence has ever been found in professional sports that players can turn it on and turn it off as needed. This past season, Magee scored seven goals in Chicago's final nine games, a stretch in which the team averaged 1.56 points per match. That represents a pace that would have gotten the Fire into the playoffs if maintained for the entire season. Di Vaio scored five goals in his last 10 games---I even included that tenth-to-last game in which he scored two goals---in a stretch where Montreal tallied just 0.7 points per match, limping into the playoffs on a tie-breaker with Chicago. Just because one team makes the playoffs doesn't mean its best player was at his peak when it mattered. Goals are, admittedly, a narrow-minded way to measure a striker's value, but I think the point is still valid.

For me, the Magee-Di Vaio example above may have been no more than an exercise in confirmation bias. I chose to see what I already believed. However, the logic behind the belief that team standings shouldn't matter to players' MVP merits is still good stuff, and transcends any biased example I can come up with.

If we're ready to agree that that the MVP award should essentially be given to the best overall player, then we still have a tall task ahead of us. How do we measure skill on the soccer field? That is the 64,000-dollar question, and one we hope to help tackle here at ASA some day. But perhaps it's not so crazy to think that a guy like Federico Higuain is deserving of the MVP award. If you scoff at that notion, you likely do so because you've been trained to think about MVP awards in a certain way.

We're all about re-thinking things around here.

A Closer Look At The MLS MVP Race by Drew Olsen

Editor's Note: This was the first of many articles by Jacob, who can be found at @MLSAtheist on twitter. It's quite amazing, and I encourage you to read it. He's one of several wonderful writers that we are adding to the site in the coming weeks. Please give him a follow and good feedback, as you have for Drew, Matty, and me. This is all part of putting together newer, better site content.

Not long ago, I saw a piece on ESPN handicapping the MLS MVP race, featuring the one and only Alexi Lalas. Say what you will about Lalas, but what he said on this topic got my mind jogging. The season was still a couple weeks from being complete, but the Redhead tipped Marco Di Vaio over Mike Magee for the award, based mostly on his higher goal total. He explained that goals are the rarest and most important event in soccer, so the guy who scores the most (and in the most games, giving his team a better chance to win) is the best candidate for the award. But here at American Soccer Analysis, we know that just because a guy puts the final touch on a goal doesn’t necessarily make him the most valuable component of that play, let alone that season.

Anyway, Lalas had a point: goals are important. And whether you like it or not, goal scorers and creators are always going to be the award winners in this sport. But still, looking solely at goal totals seems far too simplistic when handicapping the race for MVP. So, as we are wont to do around here, I tried to delve a little deeper.

First of all, you can contribute to goals without being the one to actually kick it into the net. I’ll do the most obvious thing possible, and just add assists to the equation. Additionally, not every player gets to play the same amount. Especially in MLS, where some of the top players are constantly called away for international duty, some MVP candidates only play in two-thirds of his team’s games. But if the premise here is that the award is intended to go to the most prolific goal creator, we should really look at how many goals they create when they’re actually on the field.

Here are the ten top MVP candidates (I know they probably aren’t all that deserving, but ten is a good round number and I’m a little OCD), and how many goals they’ve created, as well as their per 90 minute rate.

Player

Goals

Assists

G+A Per 90

M. Magee

21

4

.806

M. Di Vaio

20

2

.698

R. Keane

16

11

1.22

J. Morales

8

10

.710

Camilo

22

6

1.04

D. Valeri

10

13

.909

F. Higuain

11

9

.694

D. Fagundez

13

7

.742

T. Cahill

11

5

.642

G. Zusi

6

8

.535

It’s no surprise to see Keane and Camilo leading the way with over one per game, as they have the highest sum of goals and assists, and Keane did his work in fairly limited minutes. But again, goals and assists are a little too superficial for us here at ASA. After all, some goals are the fault of terrible defending, goalkeeping, or just some really fortunate bounces; instead it’s preferred to look at chance creation. If a player is consistently creating chances, it’s nearly inevitable that it should lead to more goals. Now rather than just the shots that actually end up in the net, we’ll run the numbers regarding shots, as well as passes that lead to shots (key passes) for the same players:

Player

Shots

Key Passes

Shots Created Per 90

M. Magee*

114

65

5.77

M. Di Vaio

89

25

3.62

R. Keane

54

53

4.86

J. Morales

33

94

5.01

Camilo

95

37

4.91

D. Valeri

55

59

4.51

F. Higuain

69

115

6.39

D. Fagundez

43

27

2.60

T. Cahill

47

19

2.65

G. Zusi

41

75

4.43

This time we’ve got a couple of different leaders, as Federico Higuain and Mike Magee take the lead thanks to their trigger-happy styles. Higuain’s incredible number of key passes, despite playing for a middling Crew team, should raise some eyebrows---the dude’s an absolutely fantastic attacker.

Still, I have an issue with just looking at shots created. After all, we know not all shots are created equal. Without looking up the shot location data of every one of the shots in the above table, I think there’s still a way to improve the statistics: add in a factor of accuracy.

For Higuain, creating over six shots a game is terrific. But from watching a lot of Columbus games, I can tell you that plenty of those shots were low percentage bombs from 30 yards out, and plenty of others were taken by other fairly inept Crew attackers. To try to factor this in, I’d like to look at how many shots on target each player creates - the ones that actually have a chance at becoming goals. While shots on goal stats for individual players are easy to find, it’s tougher to decipher when key passes lead to shots that test keepers rather than boots into the stands. To compensate, I used each player’s team percentage of shots on target to estimate how many key passes turned into shots on goal, leading to the final following table:

Player

Shots on Goal

Key Passes

Team Shot%

SoG Created Per 90

M. Magee*

50

65

48% / 51%

2.68

M. Di Vaio

56

25

54%

2.21

R. Keane

31

53

48%

2.56

J. Morales

19

94

52%

2.68

Camilo

56

37

49%

2.76

D. Valeri

31

59

49%

2.36

F. Higuain

36

115

43%

2.96

D. Fagundez

30

27

50%

1.57

T. Cahill

22

19

48%

1.25

G. Zusi

21

75

42%

2.00

There we have it. My endorsement for MVP this season, based on a combination of Alexi Lalas’ inspiration and my own twisted statistical mind, is Federico Higuain of the 16th-best team in the league, the Columbus Crew.

Just kidding, guys! Obviously the MVP debate should take more into account than who creates shots on goal. Defense, leadership, your team actually winning---all of these things should and do matter. But still, I think this was an interesting exercise and hopefully opened at least one set of eyes to how prolific Higuain is.

Finally, a few thoughts/takeaways in bullet form:

  • Higuain was held back by his team’s terrible shooting accuracy, but not as much as Graham Zusi. Now I understand why analytic folks like Sporting Kansas City’s chance creation so much, yet the team hasn’t always seen the results.
  • Diego Fagundez is incredibly selective about his shooting - almost 70% of his shots hit the target.
  • Javi Morales doesn’t shoot much for being so prolific at creating others shots. Reminds me of this post by Tempo Free Soccer---really interesting as far as categorizing attackers as shooters vs. providers.

*Since Magee was traded mid-season, his season total stats were harder to find. While I used Squawka for everyone else’s stats, I ended up having to tally Magee’s game-by-game stats from Who Scored. It’s possible that the two sites have different standards for what constitutes a shot or key pass, and that could’ve skewed the data for Magee. I’m not sure any of them look too far out of whack that I’m too suspicious, but it’s possible so I thought it should be noted.