Fans of MLS are certainly familiar with Javier Morales – one of the league's premier playmakers since joining Real Salt Lake in 2007 and an MLS Cup winner in 2009. He was joined in that group of elite creators this season by Diego Valeri, the focal point of the Portland Timbers midfield and a Newcomer of the Year finalist.
The Argentine pair have shown themselves to be two of the best players in the league this year, and their teams will meet for the sixth time this season on Sunday evening to determine who goes to MLS Cup (9 pm ET, ESPN, ESPN Deportes). And though Valeri was mentioned by many observers as an MVP candidate before the finalists were announced Wednesday, Morales drew nary a mention.
Should the RSL man have been a candidate too? The numbers say yes, but also paint an interesting contrast in the usage and styles of the two players.
Going by the simplest metrics – goals and assists – Valeri easily leads Morales, having scored two more goals and collected three more assists. In order to get a better look at the how the two players were used this season, though, we'll have to dig a little deeper.
We are helped by the fact that the two players were only separated by four minutes in terms of time on the pitch this season, and because of this we can more comfortably use totals when discussing differences between the two.
When looking at the players' ability to complete passes, there is almost no comparison. Morales, who generally plays further up the field than Valeri, completed nearly 10 percent more of his passes than his counterpart, both overall and in the final third despite the fact he attempted 557 more passes over the course of the season. Taking a look at the results of those passes shows an even clearer difference between the two players.
It's no surprise, then, that Morales created the second most chances of any player in MLS with 97. Diego Valeri finished in 12th, with 37 fewer chances created than Morales. These totals were 28 and 18 percent of their team’s totals, respectively. Looking at these numbers shows how reliant upon Morales Real Salt Lake were this season.
The problem was that Morales' teammates did not always return the favor when it comes to finishing off all the chances he was creating for them, even as they scored 57 goals on the season – good for second-best in the league.
The contrast between Morales and Valeri becomes even stronger when we take a look at big chances created specifically, where the league conversion rate hovered just below 50 percent in 2013.
RSL were only able to finish off three of the 12 big chances their playmaker created, while Valeri’s teammates finished off three of the six he set up. If the Claret-and-Cobalt brought their big chance conversion rate on Morales’ passes up to the league average, Morales would have tied Valeri for the assist crown.
It goes to show that even among the league's premier creators, not every player is created equal. The numbers paint Morales as more of a provider, creating chances for his teammates and looking for his own only when a quality opportunity comes about. Valeri is used in many ways by Timbers head coach Caleb Porter, but one thing we can say about him is that he is not afraid to take a shot.
Indeed, Valeri ended the season taking 26 more shots (including blocks) than Morales. However, Morales eclipsed Valeri in terms of shooting accuracy and shot conversion rate, both by at least six percent, which belies his choosiness in shooting and in turn helps explain why he his more of a pure creator.
The fact that the Portland man's attacking numbers outside the goal and assist categories are lower than Morales’ may hinge on the fact that Valeri has someone like Darlington Nagbe – a player unlike anyone on Real Salt Lake's roster – lining up alongside of him to help shoulder the attacking and creative burden. It's also in part a product of the contrasting systems the two players play in: though both place a high emphasis on possession, RSL's 4-4-2 diamond leans on Morales as much more of a pure creator than Diego Valeri in Porter's 4-3-3.