Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Thoughts & Numbers: What I'm watching for in MLS Matchday 11

Doyle 5.4.23

Scoring remains down year-over-year, and while the 2023 goals per game of 2.48 isn’t quite a historical low – 2010 clocked in at 2.46 – the drop has been jarringly precipitous. Look at the data: 2010’s record low came on the back of 2009’s 2.54 goals per game, which itself was a record low that stood for all of one year, and all of which came at the very end of a decade-long downswing in goalscoring across the league.

But that’s not how things have been lately. Even the relative down years in scoring recently – 2020 & ‘21, the two years the pandemic wreaked havoc upon – clocked in at right around 2.8 goals per game. Last year, which was the first “normal” year since 2019, gave us 2.96 goals per game.

So what’s happening this year is really happening out of the blue. And there are two main reasons:

• The bad defenses aren’t utterly catastrophic. As per the nerds at American Soccer Analysis, only one team (take a bow, Charlotte) have a total xG allowed of greater than 15 thus far. At the same point last year, nine teams – nearly a third of the league – had a total xG allowed of 15 or more. Toronto were over 20!

And it was marginally worse in the box score, as 11 teams had conceded 15 or more goals by this point in 2022. That’s been nearly cut in half, with only six teams coughing up that many so far in 2023.

• A big part of that is set-piece potency dropping off a cliff. Through 282 games last year there were 96 goals off of restarts, as per TruMedia via StatsPerform. Through 276 games this year there have been 66.

Give us more goals, dammit.

All the below numbers are from TruMedia via StatsPerform unless otherwise noted. Let’s dive in a little bit:

Charlotte FC vs. New York City FC

Charlotte, as mentioned, have the worst xGA in the league as per American Soccer Analysis, and are living up to that by posting the most goals allowed this year as well with 19 concessions in 10 games. Obviously the central defense has been a mess, and d-mid Derrick Jones, who was pressed into service in the middle of the backline last week, did not look comfortable in that role.

So we’ll see if NYCFC can finally get themselves a road win.

FC Cincinnati vs. D.C. United

FC Cincinnati are trying to do their part! Through seven games their xGA per game was 1.02, according to American Soccer Analysis. Over the past three that’s nearly doubled to 1.89 xGA per game, which is third-worst in the league over that span.

The good news is, as their defense has kind of fallen apart, their attack has started to come alive. Cincy’s xG has jumped from 1.38 per game in the first seven games to 1.71 in the past three, which is fourth-best in MLS for that time.

They’ll be hosting a D.C. United side that’s been dominant lately, though against lesser foes.

Inter Miami CF vs. Atlanta United

Young homegrown Ben Cremaschi picked up his first assist for Inter Miami last weekend and had a nice all-around game. “All-around” is the operative word there, as he’s much more of a ground-covering ball-winner and outlet rather than a pure creator. You can kind of see on his pass map he’s not exactly setting up in the attacking third, but is operating deeper even when he’s nominally a No. 10:

Cremaschi passing - Thoughts Numbers 5.4.23

I’d expect the 18-year-old American/Argentine prospect to be tasked with making Atlanta d-mid Santiago Sosa’s life hell this weekend. 

CF Montréal vs. Orlando City SC

Bryce Duke has been handed the No. 10 role in Montréal, and the early returns have been promising in terms of his understanding of how to execute in Hernan Losada’s Maximum Overdrive system. This type of pressing and direct play is what I’m talking about:

Duke’s energy clarity in the role has given the team overall greater energy and clarity, and so they’ve strung together back-to-back wins, and now look to make it three in a row when they host Orlando City.

New York Red Bulls vs. Philadelphia Union

The Red Bulls will try to out-Red Bull a Red Bull-ish team when they host Philly on Saturday. And there’s a decent chance the Union will be a little bit dead-legged coming off of their Tuesday night Concacaf Champions League matchup with LAFC, which might give RBNY the chance to take a lead for once.

As it stands, they’re going behind quite often. But credit where it’s due, as there’s no quit in them: seven of their nine points this year have come from losing positions.

San Jose Earthquakes vs. LAFC

Through 10 games, San Jose have seen the biggest year-over-year improvement in xGA, dropping from 1.93 at this time last year to 1.36 so far in 2023, as per American Soccer Analysis. That improved defense will get a hell of a test when LAFC, fresh off punching their Concacaf Champions League final ticket, come calling on Saturday afternoon at Levi’s Stadium.

Toronto FC vs. New England Revolution

TFC had their best overall performance last week, holding NYCFC to just five shots and just 0.34 xG (while generating 1.32 of their own) in a 1-0 win. They host a Revs side currently atop the Eastern Conference and Supporters’ Shield standings, though are dealing with Dylan Borrero’s season-ending knee injury.

FC Dallas vs. St. Louis CITY SC

Nico Estevez has been playing around with different formations, lineups and game models this year, but Dallas remain one of the more patient possession teams in MLS. They have attempted 1,649 passes in their own defensive third, which is third in the league behind Atlanta and NYCFC.

It’ll be interesting to see if they attempt that against the St. Louis press.

Houston Dynamo FC vs. Real Salt Lake

RSL like to make the field big, so they’re third in the league in switches of play, and fourth overall in average distance per pass.

Houston, on the other hand, like to make the game compact through midfield. Styles make fights.

Nashville SC vs. Chicago Fire FC

Nashville have started coming out of their shell in recent weeks, and as such their field tilt – the share of final third passes they hit – has climbed up to 45.2%.

That’s just 25th in the league, but honestly that’s ok. They’re right to embrace a counterattacking identity as long as that’s not all they do, and for much of the past year, it had really been veering in that direction (their field tilt in 2022 was dead last at 41.3%).

Variety is good. They’re a tougher team to game-plan for when they’re not just defending in Joe Willis’s lap. Let’s see what solutions Ezra Hendrickson comes up with for Chicago.

LA Galaxy vs. Colorado Rapids

There’s not much difference from last year’s numbers for Riqui Puig, though one does jump out: He’s completing 85.8% of his passes in the opponent’s half as opposed to 89.1% in 2022.

That’s not a massive differential, but given how poor the Galaxy’s rest defense is – and subsequently how vulnerable they are to counterattacks – the smallest margins have an outsized impact. And “sit and counter” is Plan A, Plan B, Plan C and Plan D for Colorado these days.

Portland Timbers vs. Austin FC

Austin’s cross ratio – their percentage of open-play passes into the box that are crosses – is 48.8%, which is the second-highest in MLS. To put that into context: LAFC are the consensus best team in MLS, and their cross ratio is 17.8%.

Verde’s gotta vary it up a bit.

Vancouver Whitecaps FC vs. Minnesota United FC

I had my doubts about Vancouver’s 4-3-2-1 and specifically moving Julian Gressel inside as a central midfielder/shuttler/line-breaker, but he’s been awesome and currently sits fifth in the league in xA. But arguably more important than that is he’s seventh in the league in xGSeq, or which is the sum of expected goals in passing sequences in which the player is involved.

What this tells us is Gressel isn’t just elite at delivering the final ball when he can pick his head up, but he’s also been elite at moving possession into high-leverage spots on the field. Minnesota will need to put the clamps on him.

Seattle Sounders FC vs. Sporting Kansas City

Sporting are 90 minutes away from ignominy. They’ll enter Sunday’s game at Seattle winless in 10 to start the season, which is just one off the all-time mark of 11 set by RSL back in 2007.