Voices: Andrew Wiebe

Playoffs miss to contender? Judging if 6 MLS teams’ turnarounds are for real

Want proof fortunes can change (and change quickly) in Major League Soccer? The table changes, but it never lies.

We’re 10 weeks into the 2022 season, and a quick glance tells you four teams in the Western Conference and two in the East were all below the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs line last year. They’re not just keeping their heads above water, either. They’re legit contenders. Greatly improved? Yes. Realistic championship contenders? Also, mostly, yes.

LAFC, Austin FC, the LA Galaxy and FC Dallas are the top four teams in the Supporters' Shield standings, legit contenders either above or just below a two-points-per-game pace. For context, only one team put up more than 1.79 points per game last year: the record-setting New England Revolution. In the East, CF Montréal have strung together a seven-game unbeaten streak (five wins, two draws) after picking themselves up off the floor from their pounding Concacaf Champions League hangover.

And the sixth team, just outside that contender status? None other than FC Cincinnati, who’ve already put nine points between themselves and a fourth straight Wooden Spoon. It’s pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps stuff. Dream it, and you can do it.

Unless it all falls apart, of course. Fortunes can change quickly in MLS. The table changes, but it never lies.

So what’s for real? And what’s for right now? All statistics are courtesy of TruMedia via StatsPerform. Let’s dig in ahead of Week 11.

  • 7-1-2, 23 points (2.3 ppg, +13 GD)
  • 1st in Supporters’ Shield, 1st in the Western Conference
  • 2021: 12-13-9, 45 points (1.32 ppg, +2 GD) … 9th place

How are they doing it?

Quality, depth and experience all over the field. Set-piece dominance. And they’re not even playing to their full potential!

What do the underlying numbers say?

They’ve won the xG battle in every single game they’ve played.

Let’s start with the unsexy part. Nobody has conceded fewer big chances (4). Nobody has allowed fewer xG (9.00, 10 goals conceded). They haven’t made any big defensive errors. They haven’t given up a penalty. They haven’t shot themselves in the foot. That won’t hold all season long, obviously, but their attacking prowess means they should be able to deal with the occasional hiccup.

From an attacking perspective, LAFC are overperforming (third-most Goal – xG, +3.81) what’s expected. That mostly comes down to set pieces, but they’re not a one-trick pony by any means. They create a ton of goals from open play (13, fourth in MLS). They’re tied for first in shots on target inside the 18 (45). They get in good positions, and it’s their set-piece dominance (more on that in a second) that’s covering for a bit of rough finishing from Cristian Arango and Brian Rodriguez, in particular.

Quick, which LAFC player has the most non-PK xG? If you guessed Kwadwo Opoku, I don’t believe you. Eight players have more then 1.0 xG. That’s pretty incredible.

Potential Red Flags

Historic levels of attacking set-piece dominance can’t possibly last all season, can it?

LAFC have scored nine times on restarts, the best in the league by far. Put another way, they’ve scored at least one set-piece goal in all but two games! Then again, with Mamadou Fall attacking the ball and Ryan Hollingshead cleaning up loose balls, maybe that’s not as large an outlier as it seems.

The other big red flag for me is Carlos Vela. He has four goals on the season (on 2.87 xG, 2.08 xG excluding penalties), but just three games of more than 0.25 xG. Outside of the home-opening hat trick against a Colorado Rapids side dealing with CCL heartbreak, he hasn’t been consistently goal dangerous, not in the way we’ve come to expect anyway.

Even a semi-dominant Vela raises the ceiling of this team considerably. It tells you how well things are going that neither he nor Rodriguez are in form (Uruguayan international's been out injured) and LAFC are still the highest-scoring team in the league. Right now, it’s a champagne problem for new manager Steve Cherundolo.

Crystal Ball

Lifting a trophy of some kind.

I predicted the double for LAFC last year, so take this with a grain of salt but … this feels like a team that’s capable of winning the Shield-Cup (maybe swap one with the US Open Cup) double. Capable is one thing. Doing it is another, of course.

Right now, they’re not getting anywhere close to the most they can out of Vela and Rodriguez. They’re almost certainly going to sign another Designated Player in the summer, perhaps a No. 10. They’re the best defensive team in the league by the numbers. They’re stocked with MLS veterans in their prime. They seem to genuinely enjoy playing for Cherundolo.

They are for real.

  • 6-2-2, 20 points (2 ppg, +13 GD)
  • 2nd in Supporters’ Shield, 2nd in the Western Conference
  • 2021: 9-21-4, 31 points (0.91 ppg, -21 GD) … 12th place

How are they doing it?

They’re finishing everything in sight. And yes, the schedule has been quite kind.

What do the underlying numbers say?

Reality is going to hit once things regress closer to the mean. No team in MLS is overperforming their expected goal difference by more than Austin FC (10.15 goals better than the xG model expects).

That’s pretty evenly distributed on both sides of the ball. Thanks to a bangers clinic from Sebastian Driussi and Maxi Urruti, they’re +5.18 in Goals Above Average (Goals – xG). Thanks to some shoddy finishing from their opponents, they’re +4.97 in Goals Against Below Average (Goals allowed – xG allowed).

Basically, the underlying numbers are screaming that they’re a solid team that’s going to have a difficult time sustaining this form.

Potential Red Flags

The schedule is about to get much more challenging. No more bonus games, so to speak.

Part of that is the remainder of the schedule is almost all conference opponents (ORL, @CHA, @ATL, RBNY remain against the East … none of those are easy points). More pertinently, eight of Josh Wolff’s team’s next 11 games are away from Q2 Stadium. Austin’s road record is 4-14-3 all-time, through the 2-1-1 mark this year is encouraging.

The early summer months will be a big test. They could very well pass it with flying colors, but it’s more likely they’ll come back down to earth.

Crystal Ball

Playing to host a playoff game on Decision Day.

They’re a much-improved side, no doubt about that, but is the current 2 ppg pace sustainable? The numbers say no, and the road-heavy schedule coming up is likely to damper spirits (and their place in the standings) just a tad.

Still, I don’t think they’re going away. They’re well-coached and they have a game-breaker in Driussi. I’d expect them to be within a result (and maybe some help) of a top-four spot come the end of the season. That’d be a hugely successful regular season for Year 2, indeed!

  • 6-3-1, 19 points (1.9 ppg, +4 GD)
  • 3rd in Supporters’ Shield, 3rd in the Western Conference
  • 2021: 13-12-9, 48 points (1.41 ppg, -4 GD) … 8th place

How are they doing it?

By keeping games close and, more often than not, coming out on top in the big moments. Sunday at Austin (1-0 win) was a prime example.

What do the underlying numbers say?

That the Galaxy are a better defensive team than they are an attacking one! That seems strange to those of us who’ve become accustomed to assuming the backline is going to implode, but it’s true.

LA are middle of the pack in most attacking metrics other than xG underperformance (sixth, blame the attackers not named Javier Hernandez). In other words, they should be scoring more than they are (11 goals in 10 games). Chicharito is performing as you’d expect (5 goals, 4.91 xG), but the wingers and attacking midfielders are falling short of both expectations based on their talent, salary level and expected goals.

Being reliant on Hernandez is not a new thing. Kevin Cabral, Douglas Costa, Samuel Grandsir and Efrain Alvarez have to step it up.

LA are still third in the Shield standings because they’ve made a leap defensively – seven goals allowed co-leads the league – though they are overperforming what the models expect by a couple goals. They’re third in MLS in xG allowed (9.98). They don’t allow many shooting opportunities (third-fewest shots conceded) and most are from low probability scoring zones.

Only the Red Bulls have allowed fewer shots on target (25 to 29), and no team has allowed fewer shots on target inside the 18-yard-box (19). That could be down to defensive prowess or poor finishing. We’ll find out more as the data expands.

Potential Red Flags

What if either Mark Delgado (the team MVP so far) or Chicharito aren’t available? At least there’s a like-for-like replacement for the latter in Dejan Joveljic, but we saw what it meant to miss Hernandez last year. It meant missing the playoffs.

As for Delgado, acquiring midfield depth would appear to be priority number one in the summer. He (or some facsimile) needs to be on the field for this team to play anywhere close to its peak.

And forget peaks, it’s been valleys only for attackers without a vegetable-based nickname. I am belaboring the point, but they’re not pulling their weight. You can’t get one goal and three assists combined in 1,454 minutes from two DPs and a TAM player and expect to sniff your potential.

Crystal Ball

Same as Austin. Fighting to host a playoff game on Decision Day.

If those wingers and attacking midfielders start firing at the pace they’re expected to, then I could be convinced that LA will be comfortably in the top four. As it stands, I think they’ll be in the scrum to stay there.

  • 5-1-4, 19 points (1.9 ppg, +9 GD)
  • 4th in Supporters’ Shield, 4th in the Western Conference
  • 2021: 7-15-12, 33 points (0.97 ppg, -9 GD) … 11th place

How are they doing it?

They’re on an eight-game unbeaten streak thanks to the Golden Boot-level production of Jesus Ferreira (and Paul Arriola’s all-around game) and a stingy defense that’s tied for the fewest goals allowed. They don’t lose at home. That’s a good mix.

What do the underlying numbers say?

That they’re Austin-lite when it comes to overperformance against the xG model.

Only Minnesota United FC (+6.46, thanks in large part to the play of Dayne St. Clair) are more in the green than Dallas (+5.43) when it comes to Goals Against Below Average (Goals allowed – xG allowed). Like Austin, that mostly comes down to opponents straight up missing the target in high-probability situations.

Meanwhile, Ferreira is on a career-best tear, and when players do that, you figure they’re scoring some goals they might not all year long. Sure enough, he’s overperforming his xG by 2.35. That may just be who he is now, a highly efficient finisher compared to his peers, or he might come back down to earth.

Potential Red Flags

They have six points from games in which they lost the xG battle. It’s not a red flag, per se, just a sign that their point total is a good bit better than their performances. That has a way of evening out.

Crystal Ball

This is going to sound boring and repetitive but … fighting to host a playoff game on Decision Day.

In my opinion, LAFC and Nashville SC are the two best teams in the Western Conference. I expect them to finish first and second and fight for the Shield, leaving four or five teams to jockey for the final two of the top four seeds. Dallas are a playoff team, but they’re going to have to jockey to get more than just a berth.

  • 5-3-2, 17 points (1.7 ppg, +1 GD)
  • 7th in Supporters’ Shield, 3rd in the Eastern Conference
  • 2021: 12-12-10, 46 points (1.35 ppg, +2 GD) … 10th place

How are they doing it?

Without CCL to suck away resources, an MVP candidate emerges in Djordje Mihailovic! Wilfried Nancy establishes himself as one of the best young managers in MLS! The backline is stout, even if the goalkeeper spot could use some sharpening.

What do the underlying numbers say?

They’re arguably the best open-play attacking team in MLS by the numbers … and they’re among the league leaders in UNDERPERFORMANCE on the defensive side of the ball. They’ve given up more than seven goals more than the xG model expects!

No team has more errors leading to goals (5). No goalkeeper has fewer Goals Prevented (-4.85) than Sebastian Breza. For reference, that’s the goalkeeper stat that’s told us Matt Turner is historically good for five years now. To be fair to Breza, much of his negative Goals Prevented comes from early-season matches during that CCL campaign. Not all of it was his fault. There were some diabolical plays from his defenders, too.

Still, he only has two games in the positive column of that stat. Not ideal.

And yet, they’re third in the East's table despite CCL contributing to three straight losses to start the season and the backline and goalkeeper giving up softies. Plus, Montréal haven't made an error leading to a goal in their past six games.

This season can get even better!

Potential Red Flags

Is Mihailovic going to be around to finish out the year? Can the backline and Breza minimize errors leading to goals?

Those two questions are going to be the difference between a good and potentially great season.

Crystal Ball

Home game in the playoffs, but only if they don’t sell their No. 10 in the summer. I think they’ll find a way to keep Mihailovic through the end of the season. If they do that and stop giving up bad goals, I think they’ll be among the top four teams in the East.

  • 5-5-1, 16 points (1.45 ppg, -3 GD)
  • 9th in Supporters’ Shield, 5th in the Eastern Conference
  • 2021: 4-22-8, 20 points (0.59 ppg, -37 GD) … 14th place

How are they doing it?

Pretty simple.

They have a coherent plan, based on long-standing knowledge of what it takes to succeed in MLS.

They are giving up goals, but they aren’t giving up goals they shouldn’t give up.

Luciano Acosta is the best chance creator in the league and the team is built around maximizing his abilities.

Brandon Vazquez has played 804 minutes and already recorded a career year with six goals.

What do the underlying numbers say?

That this improvement is not a fluke. In fact, you can credibly argue that Pat Noonan’s team is unfortunate not to be higher up the table.

I’m just going to run through the highlights. My guess is you’ll be as shocked as I was, even with Matt Doyle screaming from the mountaintops every Monday that Cincy’s improvement isn’t some red herring. There is but one minor caveat: they are one of seven teams that have played 11 games, the most in the league thus far.

  • 1st in Expected Goals Excluding Penalties (20.00)
  • 1st in Expected Goals Per Shot (0.153)
  • 1st in Expected Assists (16.80)
  • 28th in Goals Above Average [Goals – xG] (-8.37)

The first three tell a story of league-best chance creation from open play. The fourth tells us that nobody has failed to capitalize on that dominance more than Cincinnati. The percentages may not completely even out, but they’ll get closer to square as the year goes on.

Yeah, but what about defensively? Fair question. We all know this club has a -105 goal differential in three years in MLS. I’m not going to lie. The numbers don’t love that side of the ball, other than to say they’ve allowed just about what they deserve… but it’s not Wooden Spoon dire, which is saying something.

They’re a more than respectable ninth in xG per shot! Alas, they’ve allowed the most shots in MLS. So yeah, they’re not perfect, but they’re trending in the right direction, and fast. Here are their last three games, all wins, in terms of xG allowed: 1.0, 0.5, 1.0.

Potential Red Flags

What happens if either Vazquez (the league leader in non-PK xG) or Acosta can’t play (knock on wood) or have a dip in form? What if Brenner (zero goals scored, 3.16 expected) and Dom Badji (zero goals scored, 2.59 expected) aren’t just unlucky?

This team, unless the last three games are truly a harbinger of defensive performances to come, needs to put the ball in the back of the net at a decent clip to remain a playoff team. They’re awfully reliant on two players to both create those opportunities and score them right now.

I’m lapping up the Cincy success like any other chaos-loving (and Lucho-loving) neutral right now, but they’ve got to diversify to keep this going for 23 more games.

Crystal Ball

On the playoff bubble come Decision Day.

Just six points separate Cincy from last place in the Eastern Conference. All but two teams below them have at least one game in hand. I want to believe, but I also know teams are going to start kicking Lucho up and down the field and we have no idea if this is Vazquez’s forever level or just right now.

So I’m saying there’s a chance. Playoffs? Hey, it could happen!