Going into the 2018 season, Real Salt Lake’s success depended on a few key signings and the growth of their young talents. Both were mixed bags. Heading into 2019, that mix will tilt more heavily toward their youth, as RSL furthers their dependence on an ability to raise and develop young prospects.Read More
Real Salt Lake
Welcome to Setting the Table. Each week we take some time to focus on the best chance creators in MLS from the last weekend. If you want to see the best chances that were wasted check out Lowered Expectations. Here we focus on chances that ended with the ball in the back of the net.
#5 Nicolas Lodeiro to Raul Ruidiaz, Seattle Sounders, 22nd minute, 0.318 expected goals
Passes in sequence: 2
The last 24 months for Real Salt Lake have been quite the saga. A solid CCL run in early 2016 ended in the semifinals against Tigres, which was followed by a disappointing 2016 season. That was followed by terrible start the 2017 season, but then led to an inprobable late run at the playoffs.
Gone are the years of peak Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando with a magnificent Javier Moralez leading a jewel of an attack. But here again are the days of a potent Real Salt Lake built upon a staunch defense force and skilled playmakers. Much of the cast has changed, but the style has been reborn.Read More
After not making the post-season for the first time since 2007 in 2015, RSL made small improvements to sneak into the playoffs in the 6th and final playoff position. The return of striker Yura Movsisyan to Utah brought high hopes that RSL could relieve some of the offensive burden that was placed upon Joao Plata after Alvaro Saborio's departure after the 2015 season. Movsisyan's nine goals were respectable, but certainly not enough to recapture his 2009 form (his last stint in RSL) where he managed 0.42 goals per 90. His 2016 returns were a paltry 0.37 G/90.
Plata still carried the bulk of the offense, nearly pulling a double-double in goals and assists (9 goals, 12 assists) and took the bulk of RSL's shots. However, his returns were even worse than Movsisyan's as Plata only managed 0.32 G/09 when compared to his breakout season in 2014 of 0.59 G/90.Read More
The abysmal 2015 season for RSL was predicated on the failure to adapt to a new formation and lack of offensive depth. In Jeff Cassar's second season in charge of RSL, the team managed to compile anemic attacking numbers. Transitioning from a 4-4-2 diamond formation that seemingly defined RSL through the Jason Kreis era, the new shape exposed some players that were previously pivotal components to RSL's consistent success in the past.
Both Kyle Beckerman and Joao Plata were sluggish to figure out how to thrive in a new shape and struggled with their new identity, but for different reasons. As Beckerman ages, the expectation is that his motor will slow, his poor first step and general quickness will get even worse, but his game IQ and game management skills will improve. The issue with the attempted 4-3-3 shape is that the single, central midfielder is burdened with a more intense physical workload because of the vertical space that is now only occupied in front by the central forward in the middle channel. Beckerman struggled with the spatial requirements, his significant numbers have been declining for the past three seasons, and was ultimately exposed in the middle of the park.
Set for another terrorizing season in the final third, Plata came back from being injured during the beginning of the season and never found his feet in the new spacing. Although he seemed to thrive in open space, the lack of connection and compactness saw him struggling on isolated islands through many of his appearances.
Our projections for 2016 after the jump.Read More
This off-season is a bit different for MLS fans as we have a sort of free-agency that enables a bit of extra chaos. The players now have a bit of freedom to move around the league and more influence in where they live and with whom the ply their craft. Most of us have already taken to the newly minted free-agent list and picked out their favorite Christmas present, be it Alan Gordon, Mike Magee, Justin Mapp or even Ricardo Clark or Drew Moor.
And with free-agency, it's inevitable that some club is probably going to give Nathan Sturgis another contract and another 1,000 or so minutes despite portraying the definition of a replacement level production. This isn't a personal attack against Sturgis, I'm sure he's a fine locker room guy and he sure does hustle a lot. These are tangible things to coaches and front office types.Read More
Last week, the Alvaro Saborio for Luis Silva trade kind of took the league by surprise. Nobody saw this coming, but after the dust settled this trade makes perfect sense for both parties involved. For DC, they give up a promising youngster for a proven goal scorer they badly need. For Real Salt Lake, they pick up an up and coming midfielder who can help rebuild an aging RSL side.
But for United, this is a move to win now and to take advantage of their favorable table positioning to make a serious run for the Supporter's Shield in a weaker Eastern Conference and a possible deep run for the MLS Cup too. It's a "win now or never" kind of mentality and it's one that will most likely pay off.Read More
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
**Check out our keeping ratings under the xGoals tabs!
***Includes Saborio, Garcia, Findley, Sandoval, and Jaime.
Another weekend of games, and another weekend of contradictions from teams across the league. I thought I'd write today about the six teams in the three games I watched through the lens of huge differences between those teams. Without any further ado, here's how it happened last weekend. Toronto FC 2 - 0 New York Red Bulls
Stat that told the story for Toronto: 6 through balls, 3 key passes from middle third
Toronto and New York are both flawed teams. Toronto doesn't particularly well with possession in the middle third of the field (especially without Michael Bradley), and they tend to set their defensive line of confrontation dangerously deep in their own half. But there's one thing they excel at that helps neutralize both of these weaknesses: they attack swiftly and directly through the middle third with through balls to a striker who's not bad at putting them away, Jermain Defoe. Take a look at that map above: three key passes from TFC midfielders and six more through balls, all coming from the middle third and springing dangerous attacks very quickly. For sake of comparison, New York had exactly zero through balls or key passes from the same part of the field in the match.
Stat that told the story for New York: 4 successful crosses, 34 unsuccessful crosses
If Toronto's greatest asset is their direct attacking speed through the midfield, it's one thing that the Red Bulls commonly lack. I already noted that they had no key passes or through balls from the midfield recorded against Toronto, but that number of crosses is fairly absurd as well. I'm not one who believes crossing is a terrible gameplan at all times: Lloyd Sam has maybe been the best Red Bull this year, and they really should've scored at least one goal from those 38 crosses on Saturday. But the lack of variety and speed in their attack is stunning for a team as talented as New York. Hopefully this improves when Peguy Luyindula returns and adds some spark to the midfield, but right now New York looks about as flawed as Toronto.
Real Salt Lake 2 - 1 Colorado Rapids
Stat that told the story for RSL: first 50 minutes of the game: 93/110 passing in center of field vs. 61/84 for Colorado
The Rocky Mountain rivalry is always a hotly-contested one, and in years past has been a game with a clash of styles, too. That was less the case in the first half of Saturday's game: both teams came out with narrow midfields looking to control the center of the field. The Rapids have tried out these tactics this season, but RSL has been using them for years, and to be frank, it showed early in the game. Salt Lake's diamond midfield (even without Kyle Beckerman) had little trouble passing the ball around Colorado like a church congregation with the offering dish. The lead-up to their first goal was absolutely beautiful to watch, and they created oodles of other chances in staking themselves to a 2-0 lead.
Stat that told the story for Colorado: 5 out of 7 successful crosses, 11 of 16 total crosses, 10 of 16 shots came after going behind 2-0
Pablo Mastroeni was a really good central midfielder in his playing days, and he has a couple of very good ones in his current squad (especially Dillon Powers). But his insistence on lining his team up with 3 or even 4 natural center midfielders on the field has confused me all season. Colorado was one of the surprise stories of the league last year, and a lot of their success was due to a fairly direct style of play. It certainly wasn't all long balls and crosses a la Stoke City, but they made a lot of good things happen by getting the ball into the box to Edson Buddle and Deshorn Brown. In this one, after falling behind 2-0 in the 50th minute, Colorado reverted a bit to their 2013 ways. They lumped in significantly more crosses, and not coincidentally they had more success getting legitimate chances, shots and goals. I hope the Raps were taking notes on some of what made them successful in the second half.
Seattle Sounders 1 - 0 San Jose Earthquakes
Stat that told the story for Seattle: Obafemi Martins was/is really good
So far this year, Clint Dempsey has (deservedly) gotten a lot of attention for being the best player in the league. Obafemi Martins has gotten less attention for being just about as good. Martins and Dempsey are absolutely the most fearsome attack combination in the league right now, and it's very much because of how well they play off each other. Dempsey's success has come very much thanks to Martins' passing and hold-up ability, while Martins has sacrificed some of his goal-scoring to do the dirty work for Seattle. In this one without Deuce, Oba unleashed the fury with a pretty incredible goal that you've probably seen already. He's been everything you could ask for of a Designated Player this year: making plays each and every game that have helped the Sounders to the top of the league.
Stat that told the story for San Jose: Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi was/is really boring
If Seattle's DP additions from last season have been the most fearsome duo in the league this season, San Jose's recent signings have been about as scary as the Odd Couple. Let's run them down: Yannick Djalo looked super exciting, then got hurt. Andreas Gorlitz didn't look very exciting, then got hurt. Brandon Barklage, Atiba Harris and Khari Stephenson have all been basically the best any Quakes fan could hope for: extremely average MLS journeymen. But the one guy that I want to mention is the one who's been most disappointing: Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi. I mean no offense to Pierazzi at all, but he came in from French club AC Ajaccio with nearly 180 career appearances in France's top league and a lot was expected of him. From what I've seen of him so far, he's struggled to fit in with the team as well as the physicality of MLS. He's hardly been a bad player, but he's definitely not made the impact you expect of a high-profile addition from a top European league.
Agree with my assessments? Think I'm an idiot? Let me know. @MLSAtheist