Voices: Joseph Lowery

Why LAFC may just win MLS Cup: 5 key stats explained

1004 Lowery LAFC Cup

LAFC captain Carlos Vela positioned it well after Sunday’s 2-1 win at the Portland Timbers.

“This is the real work of all the year, when you do a good job,” said the star forward. “Of course, we decided to complicate our way to get it, but in the end I think we did a lot of good things and this is the reward to the team for all the effort.”

LAFC were among the preseason favorites to win the Supporters’ Shield, and with Decision Day right around the corner, last weekend they officially became MLS’s top regular-season team in 2022. It wasn’t totally smooth from start to finish, but with a defined style, stars and breakout players, they are worthy trophy-holders for the second time in four years.

The work doesn’t stop there for first-year head coach Steve Cherundolo’s team, though. It’s time for their attention to shift to lifting MLS Cup on Nov. 5, for which they now have hosting priority as long as they remain in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.

“You play all your season in three [playoff] games,” Vela said over the weekend.

Right now, LAFC are MLS Cup favorites with a 36% chance of lifting more silverware, as per FiveThirtyEight. But let’s get a little more specific, shall we? Here are five stats that show why LAFC can (and maybe even will) win this year’s MLS Cup – possibly bucking the trend of just one (2017 Toronto FC) of the past 10 Shield winners completing the double.

+0.69 expected goal differential per game

No team in MLS has a better expected goal differential (xGD) per game than LAFC, according to American Soccer Analysis. LAFC out-create their opponents at the highest rate in the league, which certainly bodes well for them in the postseason.

Per American Soccer Analysis, the Philadelphia Union (0.60) and New York City FC (0.57) are relatively close behind LAFC’s +0.69 xGD. Still, LAFC are in the top spot. And when you look at their squad, it’s easy to see why.

In the attack, Vela (12g, 11a) and Cristian Arango (16g, 5a) are both in the top 20 players in terms of expected goals and actual goals in 2022. Vela is also in the top 10 when it comes to expected assists and key passes. With all of their attacking talent, LAFC make it extremely difficult for opposing defenses to deal with them in the open field.

However, xGD isn’t all about attacking. It’s also about your ability to defend well and limit your opponents’ chances…

1.05 xG allowed per game

Speaking of defending, LAFC have some excellent defensive numbers this year.

Per American Soccer Analysis, they’re second in all of MLS in xG allowed per game with 1.05. The only team in front of them? CF Montréal (1.05, with an edge in the thousandth place) over in the Eastern Conference. So that means LAFC are the Western Conference’s best team when it comes to limiting their opponent’s chances.

Part of that is due to their strong defensive structure, where Cherundolo uses a 4-3-3 with good spacing and effective counter-pressing. Per Second Spectrum, LAFC have allowed the second-least open-play xG per 90 in transition this year (0.27) only behind Nashville SC (0.24). That speaks to their solidity even in difficult defensive situations.

The other part of LAFC’s top-tier defending comes down to individual performers. Giorgio Chiellini’s summertime arrival from Juventus may get the headlines, but center back Jesus David Murillo and left back Diego Palacios have both been effective at breaking up plays in the back. They have two of the best interrupting scores in MLS this year, according to American Soccer Analysis’ goals added metric. Maxime Crepeau has struggled with his shot-stopping in 2022, allowing 4.4 more goals than expected based on FBref’s post-shot xG metric. Fortunately for LAFC, they’ve had the defensive quality to overcome some of Crepeau’s errors.

With a smaller margin for error in the postseason, LAFC’s strong defense will be key.

0.08 xG allowed per shot

You thought I was done talking about the defense, didn’t you? Not quite.

One other important defensive trend that stands out when you look through LAFC’s numbers is the low-quality shots they allow. According to Second Spectrum, opposing teams only average 0.08 xG per shot against LAFC. That number is the second lowest in MLS, only behind Gary Smith’s Nashville SC team (0.07).

So far in 2022, teams have only taken 82 shots from the middle of the penalty box against LAFC, which is the fewest in MLS. Because opposing teams really struggle to break into the 18-yard-box and fire off dangerous shots, they’re often forced to take low-quality shots from distance.

As a coach (or as a defender), those are the kind of shots that you can live with.

Arango’s 0.39 xG per 90 minutes

Flipping back over to the attack, LAFC have one of the best No. 9s in all of MLS. Arango’s goal-scoring ability will be a huge part of his team’s MLS Cup campaign.

According to Second Spectrum, Arango is in the 99th percentile in MLS this year in open-play xG per 90 among players with at least 1,000 minutes. He moves into good spots in the box, takes a ton of shots, and, crucially, forces defenders to take their eyes off of Vela, Gareth Bale, Denis Bouanga, Cristian Tello and the rest of LAFC’s offensive core.

When you look back through the last five MLS Cup winners, all five of them had at least one double-digit goalscorer in the regular season. Arango, with his 16 goals in MLS this year, along with Vela’s 12 goals, checks the scoring box for LAFC.

Arango and LAFC’s attack help the team control games – and get back into them. They have dropped the fewest points in MLS from winning positions this year (just three) and have gained the seventh-most points in the league from losing positions (16). With a lethal striker and other extremely creative wingers, you can’t count out LAFC. Having the best No. 8 in the league certainly doesn’t hurt, either…

Jose Cifuentes 4.37 goals added

Before I get into how incredibly good Jose Cifuentes has been for LAFC in 2022, I should define “goals added”. Developed by the wonderful folks over at American Soccer Analysis, goals added (g+) measures a player’s total contribution to a game or a season by calculating how each of their touches changes their team’s chances of scoring and conceding.

So, if you’re helping your team create chances in the attack and limit chances at the other end, you’re going to be pretty high up on the g+ rankings.

Cifuentes, LAFC’s Ecuadorian international midfielder, is third in all of MLS this year in g+ with 4.37. The two players ahead of him? 2022 Landon Donovan MLS MVP favorite Hany Mukhtar (5.55) and last year’s MVP Carles Gil (4.55). Cifuentes doesn’t spend as much time pulling the strings in the attack as Mukhtar or Gil, but he does a fantastic job of progressing the ball and making game-changing runs into the box.

Per FBref, Cifuentes is in the 88th percentile among midfielders in MLS this year in progressive carries and the 94th for successful dribbles. He gets the ball from Point A to Point B quickly and reliably. Defensively, he’s in the 87th percentile in dribblers tackled and in the 88th for pressures.

Cifuentes does so much of the dirty work for LAFC. With his mobility and Ilie’s distribution, it’s going to be very difficult for teams to stop LAFC in the playoffs.