Voices: Joseph Lowery

MLS' best and worst set-piece teams in 2021

Back in 2019, I drove out to US men’s national team training in Phoenix, Arizona to watch the end of one of Gregg Berhalter’s earliest sessions.

I got to the stadium, walked in and got ready to take some notes, but then I immediately felt a little disappointed. What was the USMNT working on? Not their buildup shape or their attacking patterns. Not their defensive block or counter-pressing. No, they were working on set pieces.

It made sense, practically speaking. Most coaches aren’t interested in showing their open-play tactics to people outside of their team. I understood that. But still, I wanted to get a look under the hood – and I wanted that look to be cast towards something that I thought was interesting and important.

Looking back on that moment today, I’ll readily admit that my perspective was too narrow.

Corner kicks and free kicks are an essential part of both international and club soccer – and the rise of both innovative set piece routines and set piece coaches is a fascinating tactical development that’s happening before our very eyes. Set pieces are like a middle child, going under-appreciated and under-discussed while open-play attacking (obviously the youngest sibling) and open-play defending (clearly the oldest sibling) get the attention.

You don’t necessarily have to love watching teams practice set pieces in training or watching them take corners or free kicks in games, but it's foolish to dismiss them as an unimportant part of soccer. So far this season, MLS teams have scored 147 goals from set pieces or from an action closely following a set piece, per Second Spectrum. Taking things one step further, MLS teams have scored 887 total goals this year, which means that 16.6% (!!!) of all goals in 2021 have come from set pieces.

All set piece-taking teams are not created equal, however. Some teams are better at creating shooting opportunities from set pieces than others. Using Second Spectrum’s data, let’s dive into a few of the teams that are really using set pieces to their advantage – and get into a few teams that seem to have missed the memo.

Top three teams

According to Second Spectrum, no team in MLS has created as many expected goals (xG) from free kicks and corner kicks as D.C. United; their 6.59 set piece xG leads the league. With the right-footed Julian Gressel taking primary responsibility for set piece service (he’s created 4.5 of his team’s total set piece xG), D.C. have one of the most dangerous crossers in MLS. Among players who have taken at least 100 restarts, Gressel is fourth in terms of average xG created per attempt.

Looking at some of the other numbers, D.C. average 3.24 shots from set pieces per game, which puts them fifth in MLS. They also average the eighth-most xG per shot (0.014).

Now, D.C. United haven’t turned a ton of their set piece chances into goals – they have five goals from corners and free kicks this year, which puts them in the 59th percentile. But between their underlying numbers, Gressel’s service, and at least two (if not three) big-bodied center backs on the field at all times under Hernan Losada's tactics, D.C. should be a team that opponents are scared of in dead-ball situations during the rest of the regular season and potentially the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.

NYCFC thrive on restarts, sitting second in MLS in set piece xG (6.54) this season. They’re tied for the league lead in goals scored from set pieces with nine (to be fair, four of those goals came from their win over FC Cincinnati back in April) and they’re second in MLS in xG per restart (0.015).

NYCFC assistant coach Rob Vartughian’s work on set pieces has helped City climb the fictional, but nonetheless real, MLS restart standings.

“[Vartughian] is the best set play coach I've seen in my life wherever I've been,” head coach Ronny Deila said last year. “He's so unbelievably good to analyze and to find the opportunities to attack the opponents and also defend."

The numbers agree with Deila’s sentiment. With Maxi Moralez, Jesus Medina, and Gudmundur Thorarinsson sharing set piece-taking duties, NYCFC have a mix of creative restart takers to go with some creative movement off the ball on set pieces. Last month, The Outfield’s Chris Campbell put together an impressively detailed breakdown of some of New York City’s set piece tendencies, which you can find right here.

NYCFC are already hard enough to stop in open play, so their work on set pieces makes them even harder to defend against.

Second Spectrum’s set piece xG tally has Minnesota United third in MLS at 6.45 xG. How has Adrian Heath’s team compiled so much xG from restarts? Well, the answer to that question is extremely simple. I’ll give you a hint: the answer rhymes with Temanuel Teynoso.

Woah, no way! You guessed it! Minnesota’s set piece hack is letting Emanuel Reynoso take the lion’s share of their attacking set pieces. Reynoso has created 4.26 xG from set pieces so far this year, which is far and away the highest total on his team – and it’s also the fourth-highest individual total in MLS. Reynoso’s left foot is a weapon, and it’s one Minnesota widely take full advantage of in both open play and in dead ball situations.

Minnesota typically vary their set piece approach, using a mixture of short restarts and direct crosses. The Loons are 12th in MLS in direct crosses played per restart in the final third and 14th in the league in restarts taken short and then retained in the final third. With a flexible set piece approach and one of the most skillful set piece takers in MLS, Minnesota United’s work on set pieces makes them a tall task for opposing teams down the stretch.

Honorable mentions for strong set piece teams:

  1. New England Revolution – 6.4 xG, 7 goals
  2. Nashville SC – 6.19 xG, 5 goals
  3. New York Red Bulls – 6.12 xG, 7 goals

Bottom three teams

If you look down at the bottom of the MLS restart standings, you’ll see Orlando City, who have only racked up 3.26 xG on set pieces in 2021. They’ve scored five goals from corner kicks and free kicks, which puts them in the 59th percentile, but their total set piece xG and their average xG per set piece are both the worst in MLS.

Nani has been Orlando’s most consistent set piece taker this season, leading the team in restarts taken and in xG created from his restarts. Zooming out to examine all of the set piece takers in MLS, Nani is only 45th in the league in xG created from set pieces.

As Orlando City look to secure a playoff spot, their lack of consistent chance creation in dead-ball situations could be a concern.

I feel a little bad bringing Austin FC into this discussion because, really, they’ve had enough things to worry about this year. But alas, their work on attacking set pieces has been poor this season. Head coach Josh Wolff’s team is second-to-last in the league in expected goals created from corner kicks and free kicks (3.3).

Austin like to use their restarts as a crossing opportunity, which is something a number of strong set piece teams do. They’re in the 85th percentile for crosses taken directly per restart in the final third, with 0.67. Only three teams (Nashville, Colorado and Dallas) cross the ball more from set pieces in the final third than Austin FC.

While Alex Ring, Zan Kolmanic, Cecilio Dominguez and, more recently, Sebastian Driussi have all taken a chunk of the team’s set pieces, none of them rank higher than 36th in MLS in terms of xG created per restart.

After looking through the numbers, we can safely add set pieces to the list of things Wolff and company need to work as the expansion club’s first MLS season nears its final laps.

Like Orlando and Austin, the LA Galaxy haven’t been effective at creating shooting chances from set pieces this season. Currently, the Galaxy are third-to-last in MLS in set piece xG (3.34). That number is just over half of D.C. United’s 6.59 total.

The Galaxy have only scored three goals from set pieces this year, which puts them in the 11th percentile, and their 0.008 xG created per restart is the fourth-worst in MLS. Greg Vanney likes his team to take their set pieces short before crossing them into the box. LA take the fifth most short set pieces that are then crossed towards goal in the league.

Still, despite a deliberate set piece approach, the Galaxy are yet to cause opposing teams consistent problems on corner kicks and free kicks.