Central Winger: Gauging the "Juan Agudelo factor" in New England Revolution's success
Since arriving at Gillette Stadium, Juan Agudelo has been scoring at a tremendous clip. Tallying six goals in 11 shots through eight appearances is so off-the-charts that it's unsustainable.
With elite MLS strikers like Marco Di Vaio, Camilo Sanvezzo and Robbie Keane scoring anywhere from 15 to 25 percent of their shots, and the league average hovering around 10 percent, shooting 54 percent just won't stand up to the eventual equalizer of sample size. But, don't be so quick to exclude Agudelo from this shortlist of league-leading strikers – the sample size is no fault of his own.
While there is no question that Agudelo's scoring blip has been helpful to the surging New England Revolution, his positive influence has cascaded across the pitch into areas that do not traditionally show up on the box score. A constant theme across discussion on the #NERevs Twitter hashtag has been Agudelo's exceptional ability to act as a target man and hold the ball upfield.
For a midfield littered with exceptionally technical players like Lee Nguyen, Kelyn Rowe and Scott Caldwell (the most recent starting midfield trio), this extra moment of breathing room has made all of the difference.
In games that Agudelo has participated in for New England, the Revolution have been an entirely different team in terms of possession efficiency. With him on the field, New England's average length of possession increased 1.7 seconds (7.9 to 9.6) and 0.6 passes per possession (2.0 to 2.6).
While these numbers may seem slim, remember that there are about 130 possessions per team in a normal MLS match thus far in 2013. These slight upticks can account for an extra three minutes of ball possession and almost 80 additional passes per game.
Metrics like passes per possession and seconds per possession are heavily biased in favor of teams that are currently in a winning situation. For the sake of this comparison, we only looked at situations where the Revolution were currently tied with their opponent. For what it's worth, the difference in these metrics were even more lopsided when not controlling for current game state.
Can this increase be solely placed on the shoulders of the Stoke-bound young American? Probably not. The essence of what we have described here probably falls under the category of a "plus/minus" metric that is relatively useful in sports like basketball where there is significant player turnover throughout a single game. In games like soccer, with relatively little player turnover, it's slightly less conclusive.
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To lend further credence to these numbers, let's investigate Agudelo's direct influence on possession. Of the 1,058 possessions that New England have had during games he has been active, Agudelo touched the ball in 236 of them.
During the possessions that he was not involved in, the Revolution possessed the ball for an average of about 8.1 seconds and completed 2.1 passes per possession ... exactly the same as their average in games where he did not play. These metrics shift dramatically during possessions in which Agudelo was involved, with an average of 12.2 seconds and 3.5 passes per possession.
Now, again, we must be aware of the biases that are being introduced. Possessions that reach a striker are probably exceptional to begin with, and it is perhaps unfair to treat all of these possessions in the same way. To make a more fair comparison, let's examine Agudelo alongside Dimitry Imbongo – another Revs player that has also been tasked with the being a target player in coach Jay Heaps' system.
If we consider Imbongo's possessions "replacement level" for other target presences for New England, Agudelo's effect really shines through. The “Juan factor,” statistical or not, has turned the rebuilding and re-factoring Revs into a legitimate Eastern Conference contender in what could prove to be an immense playoff race deep into the fall.