Will Trapp

2015 ASA Preview: Columbus Crew 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'm not sure you all remember, but last off-season about this time I talked up Columbus. I liked Federico Higuaín a lot more than was healthy (I've since sought help—only to run away) and low and behold I stumbled across a pretty good (read as: lucky) prediction.

This year we all know about Will Trapp, Higuaín is still Higuaín, Steve Clarke may be a top-three keeper in MLS and they've got perhaps one of the most underrated defenses of MLS. Oh, and they added a bunch of pieces too.

The Coach

Gregg Berhalter is back in 2015 and contrary to last season, people aren't questioning his peculiar methods and tactics. Last year he pushed his full back hard into attacking areas, focused on wing play, and did it all by possession based soccer through the middle and allowing a 20-year old to pick out passes to his attackers down field. The result saw much of his team grow from potential into a systematic and fundamental line-up that flourished immensely under that tutelage.

His ability to not just find 'MLS guys' and fit them into his system, but to plug and play the lineup when needed and to even lose guys like Alavaro Rey, and Giancarlo Gonzalez along the way shows his ability not just as a manager, but also as someone that has a keen insight into his players.

Berhalter, in just 15 short months, has taken a club that looked to be on a very sharp declining trajectory after the 2013 season and injected them with new life that saw them take third in the East in 2014 and reached the playoffs after two seasons of missing out. For now, forget about what happened in the playoffs and the dismantling they took at the hands of Lee Nguyen and company. This is a coach that showed his team should be taken seriously in 2015.

The Goalkeeper

Steve Clark was always someone that sat on the periphery of American Soccer, succeeding over in Norway with Hønefoss BK, a team he help get promoted to the Tippeligaen and then watched be relegated the year he left. While he was a returning US international, he was a quiet returner and there were some, such as myself, that may have questioned whether Andy Gruenebaum's exodus was fair. That being said, Clark had an outstanding year being credited with saving nearly six goals more than should have been expected.

Clark's advanced numbers such as available 90, reach 90 and height 90 all closely mimic that of the season Bill Hamid had, but with more shots on goal. Much like how Hamid's accomplishments were questionably attributed to the DC United Defense, much of Clark's performances are heaped upon the Crew's defense—though with much more validity. Columbus posted both below average shots against and shots on goal per match. Additionally, his Dist10, which is The 10th percentile distance to goal (in yards) for shots faced, was in the bottom-three among starting keepers.

An easy way of saying this is that Clark had a good year and was further helped by having a good defense. It's extremely difficult to say what this 2015 season has in store for him, but as of right now I'd put him as a candidate for Keeper of the Year.

The Defense

The defense was good in 2014, and it's possible it got even better in the offseason. While he has been great for them, the Crew may have the chance to upgrade Tyson Wahl at centerback. It's not that Austrian Emanuel Pogatetz wasn't around at the end of last season (remember how well Berhalter did at actually providing leadership rather than simply managing) so much as it was just not the best timing to shake up the starting lineup with Wahl performing well.

This offseason, “Pog” aka Mad Dog didn't leave Columbus but stayed and trained and focused on being a member of Crew SC, which is an incredibly encouraging sign of someone that not only wants to be at the club but wants to do well.

Pogatetz will likely have the starting job this season with Wahl as depth, and he'll be coupled with Michael Parkhurst. I've never been a huge Parkhurst fan myself, and his sub three duels won p90 along with the rate at which he won headers (45%) raises further questions. But should Clark be able to dominate the aerial challenges when they come, every thing should be fine.

The biggest story to coming out of the offseason for the defense is who starts at fullback. Waylon Francis and Hernan Grana would typically start, but through a series of fortunate events during the MLS SuperDraft they landed Chris Klute, too. All three are capable of starting at fullback, with Klute capable of being played on either side. Just one year ago Klute produced a 3.69 expected assists (xA) from the left full back position. Likewise, Francis posted a 3.18 xA in 2014. It should be a tough decision all the way around.

The Midfielders

I'm not sure what to say about the midfield besides that it's one of the most gifted and deepest in MLS. Toni Tchani, Justin Meram, Ben Speas, Hector Jimenez, Ethan Finlay, Wil Trapp, Romain Gall, Kristinn Steindorsson and, yes, even Kevan George have starting XI potential in this group. While it's pretty simple that Tchani and Trapp will have the middle on lock down, the outside wide-positions are less certain.

Trapp is amazing and I don't think there is anything more that I want to say on the subject of him except I can't wait to see what he does another year older. Tchani is a duel winning machine (5th in total duels won, with 203) and pairs brilliantly with Trapp in the midfield.

Looking outside, Meram will start the season with a suspension and thus probably give way to Steindorsson for at least the first match. Despite all the love that people have given Meram this off-season, it's Finlay that has my attention. His 10 expected goals with change compiled in only 1800 minutes is impressive and I'm very interested in seeing him get more time this season. Beyond a flash of the obvious, Gall (who was loads of fun to watch during the U-20 CONCACAF tournament) along with Speas and George will push their counterparts for playing time.

The Forwards

Anyone that knows me or listens to the podcast is probably pretty familiar with my love of Federico Higuaín. Is he a midfielder? Is he a forward-type? False nine? Who cares? I put him in the forward category and I'm sure someone on Reddit is going to rip me for it. Whatever. My bottom line: Higuaín makes goals happen, pure and simple. Let's just take a moment not to care how we define it.

We have a data set with four years of data, and despite only playing three of those seasons, Higuaín finishes 12th overall in total expected goals created (46.58). Which is bananas. His shot-to-key pass ratio, which gives us a small bit of insight into whether the individual is inclined as a shooter, a balanced creator, or simply a provider, is heavily in favor of him creating shots (0.78). That being said he's still accumulated 25 expected goals scored over 6,000 minutes. Again, this is bananas. These are video game type numbers and it only serves to prove he's easily a top-five player in MLS.

In years past, Higuaín has either worked underneath a striker or teamed with one that takes a volume shot approach to scoring. Basically they take everything that Higuian gives them and try to make something out of it. Guys like Jairo Arrieta and Dominic Oduro have not been to the liking of Berhalter for one reason or another.

I'm not against the idea of quantity over quality as it's not necessarily a terrible approach, considering the base level finishing skills by the average starting striker in MLS. And I'm not convinced either Arrieta or Oduro were terrible experiments. I have long toyed with trying to figure out what happened to Arrieta in Columbus and if he was misused or underused or what. Oduro gets a bad rap, but he contributed 47 goals out of an expected 45 over 9,400 minutes the last four seasons. He's done this with four different teams (now a fifth) while being pushed and pulled between midfield and striker. I'm a fan and I think Montreal got a very good player on the cheap.

Looking to 2015, Berhalter and company look to partner Higuaín with Kei Kamara... we think. Most people seem to continue thinking Kamara can't play striker because he was largely used a wide forward during the past few years. I don't think it matters what he did previously in Columbus because Berhlater has used him up top in the pre-season, and most pundits believe he'll continue to be used in that role. It makes sense.

The scary thing for Crew fans is that Kamara has shown worse shot positioning during his time with Sporting KC than either Arrieta or Oduro, though that's possibly more to do with the position and role he was fulfilling. Looking at our data set (so excluding the likes of Kaka, David Villa, ect), Kamara finished 10th* in expected goals for this season, contributing 15 total goals.

Additionally, I have a strong feeling that one of Aaron Schoenfeld or Adam Bedell will have some big performances. Both are well liked by the minimal data that we have and having a guy like Higuian that can put them in great positions to take shots only amplifies the likelihood of their success. I also feel the need to reference Sagi Lev-Ari, who I know nothing about besides his history playing at California State Northridge and being born in Haifa, Israel. It'll be interesting to watch his young career.

Summary

Last season Columbus was an average attacking team. Largely lead by Higuaín, the emergence of Finlay, and a bit of luck, too. Their expected goals was only 1.39 per game, tied for ninth with New England. The addition of both Kamara and Steindorsson should hopefully bring more offense over the next year and with more time for the club to meld it could all lend to some really positive results.

That being said, the club was led to a third place finish because of their defense and on pure talent weren't the third best team in the Eastern Conference. Their expected goal difference in even game states was actually in the negative, and could indicate that the nice narrative I gave at the beginning of this introduction might be a bit skewed.

The club held 54% possession and turned that into 12% possession in the attacking half. They took the fight to their opponents with a possession in the final third ratio of 1.13, meaning they averaged more control in the attacking in than their opponents did on the opposite end. So who knows. Overrated? Underrated? Maybe just rated?

The Crew have the potential to take the number one seed in the East, and really, they probably could even be a dark horse for the Supporter Shield. But while I'm a huge fan of a lot of the parts and coach Berhalter, I feel that something a bit more down to earth is in store for this season. My guess they regress to the mean on their expected goals and end up fourth in the East.

 

*I excluded Diego Valeri from this data set for a couple reasons, first because we're not really sure when he'll return this season and second because at this stage I don't project him to play 2500 minutes.

5 Reasons Why You Should Watch Major League Soccer by Harrison Crow

So you’re excited about the US Men’s National team breaking through the group stage? It may even be that you find yourself liking this whole soccer thing. That’s not surprising; most Americans you talk to that follow soccer, including myself, have had that specific moment that sealed commitment, a moment often from a past World Cup. Whether that be the 2002 World Cup run in South Korea or the 2010 heart break against Ghana that brought you to the “beautiful game," because of the placement that soccer has in the standings of American culture, it’s just common to have these iconic moments associated with the sport. The thing that distinguishes people like us from the rest of the excited US supporters across the nation during this time is that, once the World Cup tournament concludes, we'll still want more.

Well, fear not because there is a serious and thriving league here in the US. If you are or have ever been called a ‘Euro snob’, then you can probably stop reading now. You’re going to argue and just generally disagree with most everything I have to say. So what’s the point? I’m not trolling you and it’s great that you like soccer in Europe. But we’re to talk to these new recruits about soccer in the United States. So here we go. Here are five reasons and examples about soccer in the US, and why you should follow it after the World Cup.

 

1)   Soccer in the United States is actually good.

Once upon a time Major League Soccer was viewed as a retirement league. A place where aged stars came for one last pay day once they were out of their prime. It was viewed as such simply because it was exactly that. It wasn’t that long ago, and because of that there some pretty common misconceptions about MLS.

“It used to be that just CONCACAF [The Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football] internationals and retirees came here. In 2014 Brazilians, Spaniards, Englishmen (that just miss out), Australians, Persians (Iran), and Irish all play in MLS, and they also play roles for their home countries in the World Cup, or are of World Cup quality.”

Look, most people that don’t like MLS likely have not watched more than a couple of games; which is silly considering they base all their opinions on those few games. It would be like me basing the entirety of the NBA on a Cleveland and New Orleans games or New Jersey and Phoenix. Neither of which are what we would call riveting match-ups.

The quality of MLS is improving every year. If you believe MLS still to be a ‘retirement league’ or a ‘first division with watered down depth’ you haven’t really invested any time in getting your facts straight. Truth is most people are forming opinions based on a small sample size from years ago.

Looking at numbers produced by Dave Clark and the statistician known by the handle Sidereal, one finds strong indicators that MLS has just continued to improved over the last few years. The league is gaining traction to being near par with some quality European soccer leagues.

2) MLS is on the verge of getting even better and it starts with increased wages.

“Although not often addressed, there's no question that achieving that vision will require increasing MLS player salaries to attract more top players. It's just a question of how fast, and the salaries may need to increase much sooner than 2022.”

“…”

“What could the future MLS look like? Or what would it need to look like for the Don Garber to see his vision meet reality? Let's build the reality. Let's assume by 2022 the MLS will pay their players 50% of total revenues, in line with the current Bundesliga level. MLS won't need to reach revenues of the Bundesliga to be considered a top league in the world, but they will need to be close to be paying quality players closer to market rate. Let's assume that MLS can achieve Don's dream by reaching Ligue 1 revenues but paying Bundesliga salaries. Finally, let's assume that Ligue 1 revenues grow at a modest 4% per year until 2022.”

“…”

“The target MLS revenue growth of 16% is very aggressive but Don Garber has a good amount of low hanging fruit to pick. The new rumored TV deal is for about $100M in 2015 and would increase the 2012 revenues (the basis for these numbers) by nearly 15%. The next TV deal might fetch the same 15% growth or more. MLS has also announced a five-team expansion plan which will bring at least 26% growth as the teams come on. Without doing much, MLS can get almost a third of the way to the goal according to my calculations.”

Okay, I pray that Jared will forgive me for lifting so many of his brilliant words from his article. Go read the whole piece because it’s great. Unfortunately it’s a bit of an involved article, and I just wanted to frame a great thought from his head.

The United States first division is growing, and growing at a substantial rate. That is due to the injection of money and the fact they can start paying players what their worth. This brings in more players from all over the place that can use the league as not just a place to end their career, but really to start it.

A new Collective Bargaining Agreement will be negotiated this year after the season is over. I get that most of us sports fan are sick of labor talks and news of player strikes. I read you loud and clear. The thing that makes this different is simply that the league gets better with increase salary caps for clubs and the increase of minimum player wages. I don’t want there to be a work stoppage, but with the increased revenue from the TV deal that MLS just signed, they owe it to the players and fans to further the cause of soccer in this country.

 

3a) It’s not just about overpaying old guys to get eyeballs, MLS is acquiring young and exciting talent…

The main example you could probably point to for young guys coming into the league is Fredy Montero. Montero has transitioned over the last 18 months from one of the MLS top scorers to being a perennial talent in Portugal. Montero, who spent four very good seasons in Seattle, had the opportunity to make mistakes in a league that pushed his abilities enough even four years ago.

Montero’s arrival was followed by an influx of young international talent.

Darlington Nagbe, for example, is an international and former collegiate star at the University of Akron. He has been a critical piece for the Portland Timbers, is one of the most creative and eccentric talents in all of MLS.

Fabian Castillo, the Columbian winger with plenty of technical prowess, passed up opportunities in Europe for a stable playing environment and a chance for consistent playing time in Dallas.

Deshorn Brown is a high-end prototypical speedster from Jamaica. In his first season with the Colorado Rapids, he lead his club in goals scored and took them to the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.

For every Montero, however, there will always be a player that just doesn’t work out. The examples are many. In spite of that, MLS has begun the reverse transition from retirement league to what many would call a feeder league. While many, if not most, would not purpose to spend the prime of their careers in MLS (see point: 3b), they can still make a fine career for themselves and good wages because of how the league has grown to reward these players.

More and more young players are coming here in the vein of Montero, now viewing the US as an opportunity to get on the radar of European scouts and develop a pathway to launch a more lucrative career while still having stability and having the chance to prove them in a physical league.

“The increased visibility in M.L.S. is attractive to the players, who also benefit from the league’s financial stability compared with some leagues in their home countries.” (Leander Schaerlaeckens, NY Times)

It’s true that MLS still has more players retire at the end of the year from soccer than will transfer out of its league, but the players that are being transferred out are going to better and better clubs.

 

3b) ...and some of that league talent is even in its prime.

As I said, there aren’t many who look at MLS and think “gosh, I could have a good living in the US in the prime of my career." However there are a few where the stars lined up perfectly and they've chosen to play in America rather than going abroad with their talents. Such examples are:

Diego Valeri, the creative midfielder from Argentina, has been a force since arriving in Portland. And teamed with their young budding star, Nagbe, they're a spectacular pair just to watch.

Juninho, the Brazilian, is often glossed over in terms of the whole league, but his consistency in LA and his ability to play both ways centrally is fantastic. He could be earning much more abroad but the allure of being on an iconic franchise and coached by one of the best US coaches in the business, Bruce Arena, keeps him in LA... for now.

Osvaldo Alonso is a unique case. His heroic escape from Cuba and passport situation limit his options abroad, but believe me... he has them. Yet, he loves Seattle and MLS. He's easily a top-3 midfielder in the entire league and still has a couple prime seasons left in the tank.

Matt Besler, the Sporting KC and USMNT centerback has had chances to go abroad, and yet here he is in his prime. This has happened by way of MLS introducing retention funds to pay for... well, people whom they define as worthy of using it. His salary relative to the cap has been kept manageable because of those funds and he loves playing in Kansas City. He's possibly and probably the best defender in MLS.

 

4) It’s not just about foreign talent; we have a thriving league to grow future US national team talent.

Players like Shane O’Neil (Colorado), Luis Gil (Real Salt Lake), Benji Joya (Chicago) and DeAndre Yedlin (Seattle) are just a few names that play significant roles on their MLS clubs, and they still can't drink legally in this country. You could almost have thrown Will Trapp (Columbus) on this list too, but he busted the beer-drinking landmark at the beginning of the year.

All four have been featured in U-23 matches gearing up for the Olympics, just two short years away, and all look to be prominent members of future World Cup teams. There are others worth mentioning also, but the point here is that MLS is starting to become a facilitator of growing US talent. That’s important.

That doesn’t even highlight players such as Gyasi Zardes or Jack McInerney, who are both big-time names in the league and may not qualify as members of the Olympic roster. It also doesn’t include 19-year old striking sensation Diego Fagundez, who just graduated from high school two weeks ago and just entered his fourth season as a member of the New England Revolution. Sadly enough, he is still technically not a US citizen…yet.

 

5)  There is parity, and possibly more so here than in any other relevant league in the world.

“The three factors above were weighted equally and assigned a standard deviation (either + or -) for each league and each metric. Add them up and MLS is indeed the most competitive league in this 15-league sample. Interestingly, Brazil was not far behind. Of course, there are multiple ways one can measure parity and competitiveness, and this is just one of many approaches.”  - Alex Olshansky

 

“This consistency, when combined with MLS’s overall lower variation, results in a lower proportion of the MLS’s points variation resulting from actual talent differences. The overall impact is that MLS table results are nearly a 50/50 split between talent and luck.” - Zach Slaton

Everyone hates the Yankees and yet wants to be them. It’s one of the greatest catch-22’s in sports. We all hate the winner---unless, of course, it’s us. MLS has developed a single entity program that just doesn’t lend itself to helping clubs that win, but it helps those that do not. In fact it’s worse to finish middle of the pack in the league than to finish at the back.

The league subsidies the salary cap of certain teams based on the order in which the teams finished. Teams towards the bottom get certain stipend (called allocation money) that assists in pay down contracts for cap purposes. Teams at the top also are awarded this money as a means of deepening the team for international competition in CONCACAF Champions League. This enables them to compete against the Mexican League teams that often tend to be superior in talent depth.

This all creates an environment on a yearly basis that creates volatility in casting predictions and makes the whole process rather difficult. A team can be good and have bad luck (see: LA Galaxy) or it can be mediocre with good luck (see: Real Salt Lake, according to Matthias), or it can have best of both worlds (see: Seattle Sounders). The beauty is that teams are never that far out of it, and never that far ahead.

The team that serve as the best example of this anything-can-happen league is DC United. Our readers had predicted prior to the season that they would miss the play-offs and would be generally sit near the bottom. In fact 15% thought they would end up dead last, opposed to the less than 1% that thought they would win the conference. Currently sitting nearly halfway through the season, they are in good position to fight for that very chance. And last year, this is the same club that nearly set all types of records for being anemic and generally pathetic in their overall performance.

There are few, if any, instances in which you can point to a club going from worst to best in a single season. The 1990 Atlanta Braves come to mind for me, but thinking abroad in the world of soccer, that seems improbable if not all together impossible. In MLS, it's a yearly event.

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These are just a few reasons on why you should turn your attention to Major League Soccer after the World Cup. I'm sure others could add to this list, and generally speaking I know I missed things that others would include. But in talking with so many people down here in the South, I felt compelled to at least try to provide a this motivation to get involved in a dynamic league right here in the United States.