We’re situated squarely inside Major League Soccer’s international break, which means it’s time to sort through some of the things we’ve learned from the first leg of the season.
Last week, I wrote about each team in the Eastern Conference, highlighting one statistic that gave us some insight into each team’s season so far.
1.5 xG allowed per 90 minutes
As enjoyable as Josh Wolff’s team has been to watch at times this season, Austin’s defensive struggles have them 11th in the West. Only FC Cincinnati and the LA Galaxy have allowed more xG per 90 minutes than Austin. It’s not easy playing your first-ever set of games on the road, but Austin’s defensive work has been holding them back. They’ve been slow to pressure the ball both in their organized 4-3-3 defensive shape and in defensive transition moments.
So far this year, Austin FC have given up six of the top 50 single-game xG totals in the league. To climb up the Western Conference table, Austin will need to continue showing defensive improvements like they did against the Seattle Sounders right before the international break.
0.371 xG per 90 minutes via counter attacks
While the Rapids spend plenty of time on the ball, their counter attacking play has been especially lethal in 2021. Through seven games, Colorado have created more xG from counter attacking situations than any team in MLS other than the San Jose Earthquakes. With quality service from their central midfielders, Michael Barrios providing speed in wide areas, and Diego Rubio able to drop in and connect play to spring an attack, the Rapids are a challenging team to stop in transition.
4.842 passes per possession
Luchi Gonzalez wants his team to use the ball. Only Gabriel Heinze’s Atlanta United and Greg Vanney’s LA Galaxy have strung together more passes per possession than FC Dallas this year (4.842). Despite their ability to move the ball, Dallas find themselves at the bottom of the Western Conference with just six points from their first seven games. Things aren’t all bleak for Dallas, though. According to Second Spectrum’s xG model, they’re fifth in xG created per 90 minutes and 10th in xG allowed per 90 minutes. Those aren’t “last in the West” kind of underlying numbers. The blueprint is there for FC Dallas.
23 team presses per 90 minutes
In his second season in charge of Houston Dynamo FC, Tab Ramos has seriously upped Houston’s pressing game. In 2020, the Dynamo only put together the 23rd-most team presses per 90 minutes in MLS (17.9). This year, the Dynamo are pressing 23 times per 90, which is the eighth-highest total in the league. Houston aren’t overly effective pressers yet, winning the ball within five seconds on 47% of their team presses (11th in MLS), but their shift towards being a proactive defensive team has made them much more of a threat in the Western Conference.
5.19 passes completed below expectation into key attacking zones
By their standard, LAFC’s attacking performance has been lackluster so far this season. LAFC have generated 1.2 xG per 90 minutes, which is ninth in the league. Last year, LAFC generated 1.58 xG per 90 minutes, which was best in MLS. One of the reasons behind this offensive decline is their lack of consistent passing into key attacking areas. LAFC have only completed 48.91% of their passes into the zones highlighted below, while Second Spectrum’s expected passing model shows that they should be completing 54.1% of those passes.
Most teams struggle to play passes into those highlighted areas, but for LAFC, who typically spend a lot of time in possession in the final third, incomplete passes into those spots really hurt their attacking output.
28.9 seconds per possession
In direct contrast to Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s Galaxy, Vanney is currently trying to mold his Galaxy into a thoughtful possession team. Though Vanney’s efforts haven’t yet produced an overwhelming amount of expected goals (9.1, 12th in MLS), the LA Galaxy are spending much more time on the ball in 2021 than in 2020. Their average possession duration is up from 25.9 seconds to 28.9, their average passes per possession are up from 4.1 to 5.1, and their crosses per 90 are down from 15.6 to 11.5. The Galaxy’s Vanney’s transformation (their “Vannsformation”?) is clearly underway.
Emanuel Reynoso’s 5.913 passes leading to a shot per 90 minutes
While Carles Gil is busy lighting up the Eastern Conference, Emanuel Reynoso is pulling all of the strings for Minnesota United out West. Other than Gil, no MLS regular has more passes leading to a shot per 90 minutes than Reynoso (5.913). Looking at his own team, Reynoso has nearly double the amount of passes that lead to a shot per 90 minutes than Minnesota’s next regular starter, Hassani Dotson (3.004). Reynoso isn’t just the shot-creator — he’s the shooter too. He’s taken more shots (24) than any other Minnesota United player so far this year. In Minnesota, all roads lead to Reynoso.
The Portland Timbers entered the international break with a bitter taste in their mouth after conceding three goals from set pieces against the Philadelphia Union. That game is the best example of Portland’s defensive struggles on set pieces, but it certainly isn’t the only example. The Timbers have given up six of the top 52 single-game set piece xG totals in MLS this season and their 0.64 xG allowed from set pieces is the most in the league. Their defensive work in open play has been average this season (they’ve allowed 0.84 xG per 90 from open play, which is 13th in MLS), but Gio Savarese needs to improve his team’s set piece defending for them to become a well-rounded threat in the Western Conference.
117.7 off-ball runs per 90 minutes
Real Salt Lake have shown an ability to move the ball with purpose in possession and create goal-scoring opportunities using possession in 2021. The issue is, they haven’t shown enough of those moments. After their first two games of the season, RSL haven’t generated more than a single expected goal in any of their games. Part of their chance creation struggles may stem from their lack of attacking movement. Real Salt Lake’s 117.7 off-ball runs per 90 minutes is the second lowest number in the league, only above the Houston Dynamo. Additional off-ball movement could help RSL put opposing defenses under additional strain and boost their offensive output.
1.5 xG for per 90, 1.5 xG against per 90
If we’ve learned anything from Matias Almeyda’s time in charge of the San Jose Earthquakes, it’s that the Quakes are one of the must-watch teams in MLS. Not necessarily because they’re always good, but because their games are entertaining. In 2021, San Jose have generated 1.5 xG per 90 and conceded 1.5 xG per 90, putting them in the top five in both categories. And if you combine their xG for and xG against and call it xE (expected entertainment), no MLS team can top their 3 xE per 90 figure. MLSsoccer.com’s own Tom Bogert looked at this same idea before MLS’s most recent slate of games and…the non-per 90 numbers back San Jose too. Long live xE, baby.
271 pressures in the middle and defensive thirds per 90 minutes
The Sounders don’t play a hyper-modern style. They don’t dominate the ball and they don’t high-press for 90 minutes. But they do sit at the top of MLS’s Supporters’ Shield standings after the first 20% of the season and they do have some of the most impressive defensive numbers in the league. Through eight games, they’ve only conceded three goals (the least in MLS) and allowed 0.8 xG per 90 minutes (fourth least in MLS). Seattle’s ability to step forward and pressure the ball out of their 5-3-2/5-2-3 defensive block helps them frustrate opposing attacks. No team in MLS registers more combined pressures in the middle and defensive thirds of the field than the Seattle Sounders (271).
Daniel Salloi’s 3.68 xG
It’s happened quietly, but SKC’s Daniel Salloi is currently second in MLS in xG with 3.68 on the season, only behind Seattle’s Raul Ruidiaz. Getting consistent starts on the left wing, Salloi has been a truly effective cog in Peter Vermes’ attacking 4-3-3 this year. SKC have racked up 1.4 xG per 90 this year (third in MLS) and Salloi’s ability to cut inside from the left wing, get the ball on his right foot, and fire off a shot on goal has been a major part of that.
17.8 passes attempted between the lines per 90
While Marc Dos Santos has used some creative offensive positioning this season, frequently rotating the Whitecaps’ left side, Vancouver’s offensive output has been extremely limited in their first seven games. They have the second-lowest xG per 90 (0.78) and they’ve only scored six goals this season. Vancouver’s attacking play isn’t resulting in many quality chances, not least because their passing game is overly safe. The Whitecaps attempt fewer passes between the lines (17.8) than any other team in MLS. To improve their offensive numbers, Vancouver could stand to position additional players between the lines and look for those players in possession.