It feels like it’s happened in the blink of an eye, but we’re now squarely into the final third of the 2021 MLS season.
We’ve learned a lot during the first chunk of the year. We’ve learned which teams have improved from last season, which teams have dropped off, which teams are struggling and (this is the most fun part) which teams are just downright good.
A quick look at the Eastern and Western Conference standings can tell you who’s bad and who’s good, though. What’s more interesting to me than which teams are good is why the good teams are good. Using Second Spectrum’s data, we’re taking a closer look at what makes MLS’ five best teams so good.
Let’s get started.
Can you say “potential record-setting New England Revolution”? While they lost 2-0 to NYCFC last Saturday, the Revolution are still having a phenomenal season. Their 2.13 points per game put them on pace to equal LAFC’s points record from back in 2019, when Bob Bradley’s team racked up 72 points in 34 games.
Bruce Arena has led New England to 13 points in their last six games even without Carles Gil, the league’s best chance creator, who has been out with a muscle injury, but is now back in training with the Revs. Gil is undoubtedly a huge part of what makes the Revolution shine as heavy Supporters’ Shield favorites. Per Second Spectrum’s expected assist model, the Spaniard is second in the league in xA – only behind D.C. United’s Julian Gressel.
With Gil in the lineup (and at times even without Gil in the lineup), the Revolution create attacking chances in a bunch of different ways. They are sixth in MLS in xG created via set pieces, fifth in xG created via counter-attacks, fourth in xG created via a combination of possession phase and first in xG created via crossing.
The Revs have used several formations in attack this year and don’t tend to dominate possession, but their offensive versatility makes them a challenging team to stop.
However, when they’re back defending, New England aren’t as formidable. The Revolution’s 4-4-2 block isn’t entirely watertight: they allow the 12th most progressive passes between the lines and are ninth in MLS in terms of xG allowed.
Though their defensive work is a slight concern, Arena’s team currently has a comfortable seat atop the Supporters’ Shield rankings, seven points clear of the Seattle Sounders. And if Gil is ready to work his way back into the starting lineup, the machine looks poised to keep on chugging.
In the preseason, Brian Schmetzer put together one of the most seamless tactical tweaks in recent memory: he moved away from the 4-2-3-1 and started using a three-at-the-back shape in possession. Schmetzer’s 3-4-3/3-5-2 possession shape has helped Seattle deal with Jordan Morris’ ACL tear by essentially eliminating the left winger position from their formation.
While the numbers don’t paint the Sounders as a high-octane attacking team (they’re 11th in MLS in xG per game), their right side is excellent at creating chances. So far this year, Seattle have created the fifth most xG in MLS (13.12) via open play phases that start on the right wing or the right half space, compared to 7.26 xG on the left.
Their effective right side coupled with Raul Ruidiaz – his 12 open play goals are tied for first in the league and his 10.1 open play xG is second in the league – lurking in the center of the attack makes it impossible for defenses to relax when Seattle have the ball.
Defensively, the Sounders are excellent at limiting chances in transition and in their organized shape. They allow the fifth-lowest xG per game, the sixth-lowest shots per game and the fifth-lowest average shot quality.
With Nicolas Lodeiro in the starting XI again, a proven goalscorer up front and strong defensive numbers, the Sounders are favorites to win the Western Conference. They’re also certain to make New England’s seat atop the Supporters’ Shield rankings a bit less comfortable.
I haven’t been able to double-check this, but I’m pretty sure if you Google “balling on a budget,” a giant picture of the Colorado Rapids' logo comes up on your screen. 1.90 points per game is a good number for any team, but when you consider the Rapids aren’t among MLS’ big-spenders, 1.90 PPG looks even better.
With a roster full of players who were acquired from within the league, Colorado’s front office has built a dangerous, low-budget squad that loves to attack in transition.
Mostly playing out of a 3-4-3 shape in possession for the last five weeks, the Rapids are the best team in MLS when it comes to shifting from defense to attack: their xG created from counterattacks is the highest in the league. Michael Barrios, who the Rapids traded for in the offseason from FC Dallas, is fourth in MLS in xG on the counter. Jonathan Lewis is 10th. Cole Bassett is 14th. Diego Rubio is 19th.
You can see the pattern here.
The Rapids aren’t entirely one-dimensional in the attack, though. They also do some damage in possession. Currently, Colorado are first in the league in goals and second in xG per game via buildup and progression phases, which are two phases Second Spectrum only activates when a team is attacking against an organized defense. Fraser doesn’t require his team to keep an oversized amount of possession – the Rapids are in the 59th percentile in terms of possession duration – but Colorado can do some damage when they keep the ball.
Without the ball, the Rapids are above average at limiting chances in both defensive transition and organized movements. They also like to high-press, although they’re poor at actually winning the ball when they step into the final third.
Colorado are not a perfect team, but their ability to cause opposing teams problems on the break could help them push for the Western Conference title this year.
Sporting Kansas City play some of the prettiest soccer in MLS. Peter Vermes’ team will possess, press and create plenty of chances along the way.
Currently sitting second in the Western Conference standings (third on points per game), SKC are extremely dangerous in the attack: they’re second in MLS in xG per game and second in non-penalty goals.
Playing out of a flexible 4-3-3 shape, Vermes wants his team to control the ball. SKC average the third-most possessions in MLS, the fourth-longest possessions and the fourth-most passes per possession. More impressive than those high-volume possession numbers is the fact Sporting turn their ball control into meaningful attacking chances. They’re third in xG created via Second Spectrum’s buildup, progression and attacking phases. They’re also second in American Soccer Analysis’ receiving and shooting goals added categories.
SKC will go to great lengths to keep the ball – and they’ll also go to great lengths to get the ball. They’re first in MLS in team presses in the final third per game and have closed more distance while pressing than any other team in the league. While Sporting’s aggressive defensive approach is fun to watch, it hasn’t been very effective for them this season. Their 48% high-pressing efficiency rate is only the 15th highest in MLS and their 1.38 xG allowed per game is the eighth-highest amount in MLS.
It’s clear to see SKC are a good team, but if they want to be a great team and push for the top spot in the West this season, shoring up the defensive side of their game will be key.
They may be fourth in the Eastern Conference standings and fifth in the points per game rankings, but there's a legitimate argument to be made that New York City FC are the best team in MLS this season. That’s right, a team that is currently 15 points behind the top spot in the Supporters’ Shield rankings may just be the best team in the league.
Let me explain. Actually no, let me let the numbers explain.
First up, the attack.
Ronny Deila’s NYCFC is first in open play xG per game by quite a margin. The Cityzens currently average 1.73 xG per game, which is 0.31 more than second-place LAFC. Last season, MLS’ top team in terms of xG per game, LAFC, collected 1.58 per game and the second-place team, the Seattle Sounders, had 1.5 per game.
So not only is NYCFC’s 2021 xG per game figure significantly higher than the top team from 2020, but the gap between NYCFC’s xG per game and the next-best team is significantly higher than the gap between the best and second-best xG-getters from last season.
NYCFC can create chances in possession (they’re first in xG per game against an organized defense) and in transition moments (they’re first in xG per game in counter-attacking and regain phases). With Maxi Moralez pulling the strings as the No. 10 in Deila’s 4-2-3-1, Taty Castellanos finding great spots in the attack, a strong midfield core and capable ball-progressors in the back, NYCFC’s attack is incredibly difficult to stop.
NYCFC’s defensive numbers are almost as good as their attacking ones. They don’t give up many chances – they allow the second lowest xG per game. They’re excellent at engaging and winning the ball – they’re fourth in pressing efficiency. And they don’t let opposing teams break into the heart of their 4-4-2 block – they allow the fewest completed passes between their lines in MLS.
The Supporters’ Shield is likely out of reach for NYCFC, but with their lethal attack and stingy defense, a second-place finish out East and a deep playoff run are certainly not out of the question.