Preseason and hope aren’t actually synonyms – I know this because I just checked Thesaurus.com – but they might as well be.
Teams can do anything in preseason. That team that finished well outside the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs last season? They’re going to be better this season. That team that was oh-so-close to winning a trophy last year? This is going to be their year. That team with a new coach and a new squad? The pieces are going to fit together perfectly.
But even though it’s preseason and this should be a sacred time of hope, I’m still going to pour a little cold water on you. There are plenty of things to be excited about ahead of the 2022 MLS season, but what should your team be nervous about at the start of this new year? This week, we’re looking at one statistic that each MLS Eastern Conference team should be worried about in 2022.
Let’s get into it.
7.9 passes into the box per 90 minutes
Nobody held the ball more than Atlanta United last year. The big problem for them in 2021, though, was that they created very little with that possession, failing to consistently move the ball into high-value scoring areas.
In 2021, they were 19th in the league in passes into the box per 90 minutes with 7.9. Atlanta improved their ability to move the ball into the 18-yard box under Gonzalo Pineda, but were still just 16th in the league in passes into the box per 90 minutes during Pineda’s time in charge.
15.35 meters per shot
There are a lot of unknowns surrounding Charlotte’s expansion roster. Just a couple of those unknowns are the two attackers that they acquired from within MLS: Yordy Reyna and McKinze Gaines. While both of those players have shown some quality during their MLS careers, neither is a super-proven or disciplined offensive player.
Reyna’s average shot distance in 2021 of 15.2 meters put him in the 61st percentile among all forwards (in this case, a higher percentile means longer shots), while Gaines’ 15.5 meters per shot put him in the 64th percentile.
We don’t know how much Reyna and Gaines will feature for Charlotte this season, but their combined average of 15.35 meters per shot doesn’t paint them as hyper-dangerous attackers.
123.3 defenders bypassed per 100 complete passes
Chicago Fire FC have made some extremely exciting additions to their roster ahead of this year, but letting Alvaro Medran walk could leave them in a tough spot. Medran’s quality on the ball from central midfield was nearly unmatched in MLS and his 123.3 defenders bypassed per 100 completed passes put him in the 98th percentile among midfielders in MLS last season.
The Fire have other talented players in midfield now – especially with Xherdan Shaqiri coming to town – but finding ways to progress the ball and create chances from deeper in midfield will be important for Chicago in 2022.
14.7 more goals allowed than expected
Based on StatsBomb’s post-shot xG model, no team in MLS allowed more goals than they “should have” in 2021 than FC Cincinnati. Post-shot xG, which measures the quality of the shot after it is taken, is a way to evaluate goalkeepers and to determine their shot-stopping ability. If the shot is headed to the top corner, it’s going to have a higher post-shot xG value than if it’s headed right into the goalkeeper’s breadbasket.
Using post-shot xG, we can see that Cincinnati had the league’s worst goalkeeping crew last season, allowing 14.7 goals more than expected. Free-agent signing Alec Kann, who has been a good shot-stopper in his albeit limited MLS career, should help stabilize things in the back. But will that be enough? Time will tell.
5.3 meters per second
The Columbus Crew moved slowly in 2021. In fact, they were the slowest team in the entire league during their off-ball runs with an average sustained speed of 5.3 meters per second.
101.3 kilometers per 90 minutes
Hernan Losada did some impressive things with D.C. United last year. While they just missed the playoffs, D.C. had some of the best underlying numbers in MLS.
With their hard-running, hyper-aggressive tactical approach, D.C. United ran some teams off the field in 2021: No team covered more ground on a per-90 minute basis than Losada’s team (101.3 kilometers). No team ran more at a high speed per 90 minutes or covered more ground while sprinting per 90 minutes, either.
If Losada can get that same effort out of his players in 2022, we might be looking at a playoff team. If he can’t…D.C. United might be in trouble.
0.73 open-play xG per 90 minutes
Heading into 2022, the task for Inter Miami is simple: create more chances this year than last year. Miami finished 2021 at the bottom of the league in open-play xG per 90 minutes.
While the task is simple, the execution of that task could be a massive challenge for Phil Neville’s team. With Lewis Morgan and Rodolfo Pizarro no longer on their roster, Miami are without two of their top four xG-ers from 2021. I’m not saying moving on from those players was a bad idea, but Miami will need to find some real production from other places on their roster if they want to compete in the East this season.
44.8 progressive passes per 90 minutes
I love so much of what Montréal and Wilfried Nancy did in 2021. Between some creative and energetic attacking players and ball-progressing center backs, Montréal were a near must-watch team for me last season. If they want to get over the hump and make the playoffs in 2022, though, I think they could use more progressive passing from their central midfielders.
Last year, Montréal finished in the 37th percentile in progressive passes completed by their central midfielders per 90 minutes (44.8). As much as I love watching Kamal Miller dribble forward, taking some of the attacking pressure off the center backs and getting more out of your midfielders in possession feels like a desirable outcome for Nancy.
5.9 more goals saved than expected
Woah, woah, woah, Joe, you’re thinking to yourself. Saving almost six goals more than expected feels like a really good thing. You’re right. It is. Matt Turner’s +5.9 post-shot xG tally and his 0.21 more goals saved than expected per 90 minutes put him third in MLS last year.
Turner’s heroics in goal were a huge reason why the Revolution captured the Supporters’ Shield in 2021, but what happens after Turner heads off to Arsenal in the summer? New England don't have another shot-stopper on their roster who is close to Turner’s caliber, which could spell trouble for them unless Bruce Arena finds a quality replacement.
0.44 open-play xG per 90 minutes
I’m going to be honest: it’s hard to poke holes in NYCFC, given they were MLS’ analytics darling in 2021. But I said hard, not impossible. With Taty Castellanos’ transfer status still somewhat up in the air, Ronny Deila may have to keep an especially close eye on the No. 9 position at the start of this season.
If Castellanos stays in New York until the summer, will he be motivated to match his 0.44 open-play xG per 90 minutes from last season? And if Castellanos heads off to South America before the summer, will NYCFC be able to replace his attacking output? NYCFC have a plethora of attacking talent outside of Castellanos – and they may need that talent to step up in 2022.
8.4 high-pressures leading to a shot per 90 minutes
We know the drill by now. The Red Bulls press, then they press again and then later in the game, they press a bit more. Gerhard Struber’s team registered more pressing actions in the final third than any other team in MLS last season with 75.6.
However, despite registering the most pressures in the final third, the Red Bulls finished just third in the league in high-pressures that led to a shot per 90 minutes last year with 8.4. If RBNY want to improve their middling open-play xG total from last season, turning pressing actions into shots at a higher rate is a good place to start.
0.88 open-play xG per 90 minutes
Orlando City need attacking production this season. They were strong defensively in 2021 but finished third-to-last in MLS in open-play xG per 90 minutes with 0.88. Even with Daryl Dike and Nani, they struggled to create chances on a regular basis.
2.3 successful dribbles per 90 minutes
There’s a Jamiro Monteiro-sized gap in the Philadelphia Union’s midfield/attack right now. Monteiro was traded to San Jose on Monday, leaving the Union without one of their most technical midfielders. Monteiro finished second on the team in xA last season and had more successful dribbles per 90 minutes than any of Philadelphia’s other midfielders.
With Monteiro gone, how will the Union approach breaking down more compact defenses this season? That’s a big question Jim Curtin and the Union will have to answer in 2022 – and it likely involves homegrowns stepping up.
0.72 open-play xG allowed per 90 minutes while organized, 0.54 allowed in transition
Toronto FC needed a refresh ahead of this season – and they got one. With Bob Bradley now in charge, Toronto should look like a much different, and likely better, team in 2022 than they did in 2021.
If there’s going to be notable improvement on the results front, though, Toronto’s defensive numbers will need to improve. In 2021, they were one of only two teams to finish in the bottom five for open-play xG allowed while organized and while defending in transition.
If Toronto really hope to rise up the Eastern Conference standings, they should hope Carlos Salcedo and a much more cohesive team-wide identity will help boost their defensive resolve.