You have to love a midweek slate of games.
That’s what my legally binding and highly lucrative MLSsoccer.com contract says. But I also think there’s some truth in it. Sometimes you have to break the week into parts to get through it. “If I can make it to Wednesday, the rest of the week will be easy.” The midweek slate is an added bonus or maybe even the biggest incentive for anyone looking to take the week step by step.
Besides the fact that we get a full night of soccer tonight, we also get a legitimately interesting night of soccer. My contract doesn’t require me to say that either. It’s a good stretch of games. So in celebration of the undeniable truth of article 12 paragraph 3 clause 2, let’s look at the biggest and best storylines heading our way tonight.
Ok so maybe it’s not so much a surge so much as it’s a slight push forward. It is a push forward though. And Chicago are at least starting to resemble the 2020 version of itself. Please note that’s not necessarily a great thing. But in context, it’s definitely an improvement.
Because this team had regressed. After they ended 2020 as one of the league’s premier underperformers compared to their expected goals, a sense existed Chicago could take a step forward in 2021. That year two under Raphael Wicky could mean a team that not only improved on its expected goals total, but had the results to match that total. It kind of seemed easy too. Just get a little luckier offensively, plus fix the critical mistakes they kept making defensively and make them less...well, critical.
The mistakes are still there. They’ve been unluckier.
Last year’s team finished with an actual goal differential per game of -0.22. Their expected goal differential per game came in at 0.06. You can see how they should have been better and how that can accumulate pretty substantially over the course of a season.
This year’s team has an actual goal differential per game of -0.55. Their expected goal differential per game is 0.12. Which...THEY’VE TECHNICALLY GOTTEN BETTER! This broke my brain a bit and I hope it broke yours too. They’re creating a little less each game, but they’ve improved some defensively. At least over the course of the game. Those same critical mistakes are there, but they’re also just catching some bad breaks.
If you look at the league as a whole, Chicago are actually 10th in expected goal differential this season. The only team with a worse disparity between expected and actual goal differential right now are Toronto. Except Toronto still have a negative expected goal differential. Even if they were getting an exactly average amount of luck, they’d still be bad. Chicago would be pretty decent!
So maybe, just maybe, the last two games for the Fire weren’t a flash in the pan. Perhaps they were an indication of a positive regression back to the team’s actual ability. And we shouldn’t be surprised if they go on a bit of a run sometime soon. If they shock Orlando tonight (8 pm ET | UniMás, TUDN, Twitter (English audio)), you were warned here first. It may not be a surge, but it could be a changing of the tide.
Tonight (9 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+), Seattle can become the first team to go unbeaten for 13-straight games to start the season. That means they don’t even have to win, they can just draw and be done with it. This is great news considering they’re playing Houston, a team that, like the kid in your class who got really into anime last summer, can’t stop drawing. The Dynamo have picked up four draws in their last four games.
I’m not sure how much deeper I need to go on this one. Do you really need me to tell you that breaking records is cool? Of course, as cool as it is, it doesn’t always translate to bigger things. In 2014, Real Salt Lake became the fourth team to tie the record for an unbeaten start. Even with 12-straight games unbeaten to start the year, they finished third in the conference and then lost 5-0 in the playoffs. I don’t know how I ended up making this kind of dark, but I guess we’re here now.
For Seattle though, that’s all in a potential future that doesn’t seem likely. Especially because their current record-tying streak doesn’t really have an end in sight. Houston is good, not great. After Houston, they get one of their favorite punching bags in Minnesota. After the Loons they get an Austin team they should be able to handle. And then there’s a massive match with Sporting KC. If they’re still unbeaten after that, let’s just go ahead and assume they’re just going to remain unscathed until at least, I dunno, October? Of 2022? This is just the reality we live in.
But even if the streak does go on into infinity, there will only be one record-breaking game. That’s what we have a chance to see tonight. That’s pretty special. It will at least tide us over until we get to Seattle breaking the record for going unbeaten at any point during the season.
I’m not sure I believe in the new manager bump. A bunch of guys suddenly deciding after an extended period of playing bad soccer that they should suddenly be good at soccer because they got a new boss just doesn’t seem likely. Although, it appears the numbers back it up. Teams often register a better points per game total in the five games after a manager is fired. Seems legit. Except the thing is, the numbers are full of lies and secrets.
Think about when managers are fired. It’s usually after a low point. Like a 7-1 loss to D.C. United. Naturally, when you ride a slope down to a low point, momentum takes you back up. Low points are low points for a reason after all. The new manager doesn’t do anything but enjoy the praise that comes with a well-timed regression to the mean. And would anyone be surprised if a wildly talented team like Toronto that’s underperforming its expected goal differential by two goals more than any other team in the league suddenly regressed to some form of statistically normal and found a few points here and there?
So maybe the new manager bump isn’t necessarily a thing, but a regression to the mean is. However, let’s not lose sight of what forces could truly be at play tonight when Toronto head to New England (7 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+). Whether or not you believe in the new manager bump, you should be well convinced of MLS’ ability to deliver the silliest result possible at any moment. And I can’t think of a more appropriate one tonight than Toronto, the league’s worst team through 11 games, taking points off the best team in the Eastern Conference.
Hey speaking of regression to the mean, Austin finally got a taste of the regress life last week when they absolutely hammered Portland in a 4-1 win. Before last Thursday’s rout, no team had a bigger disparity between their expected goals created and their actual goals created. Basically, they were creating chances and weren’t getting rewarded for it. Part of that is bad luck. Part of that is a clear need for a striker who can finish those chances.
Help is on the way there. Austin signed Moussa Djitte from Grenoble last week. He should be around sometime soon. And he appears to be pretty decent at the whole finishing chances thing.
But for now, they’ll have to make due without him against LAFC. As Matt Doyle wrote in his Sunday column, a version of Diego Fagundez that plays on the left wing. might be crucial to accomplishing that.
They want the ball, and they want to use the ball to disorganize their opponents. They have struggled with the latter.
Against Portland they did not, collecting nearly 70% possession (part of this was the Timbers just tapping out), completing over 90% of their passes and funneling a lot of both through Fagundez and DP Cecilio Dominguez, once again operating as a false 9, in the half-spaces. Portland could not keep up.
If Matt knows this, I’d like to assume avid MLSsoccer.com reader Bob Bradley does too. It will be interesting to see how LAFC adjust to Fagundez’s new station on the wing. And it will be interesting to see if Austin will continue to be able to finish the chances they create while they wait for their new striker.
Or, ya know, maybe none of this will matter and Carlos Vela will go out and do that thing where he gets bored and wins a game by himself.
Either way, a very wise person once told me, “You have to love a midweek slate of games.” And that frightening lawyer was right. Tonight should be fun.