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A way-too-early look at MLS by some numbers

Smart folks will typically caution you to avoid putting too much stock in underlying numbers until about eight to 10 games in. You want your sample size to be large enough to matter, right?

Those wonderful nerds are correct, but we compile more than 300 newsletters a year and we are impatient. So we’re going to jump the gun a bit for the sake of content and look at a few numbers that might at least tell us where some teams and players might be heading as the year goes on, even if most teams are just five games in.

Inter Miami are on a 1.28 expected points per game pace

Webster’s Dictionary American Soccer Analysis defines expected points as “the amount of points a team will earn given the same sample of shots over 1,000 simulations.” Basically, it gives you an idea of how many points you can expect to earn on average based on the chances you’re creating and allowing. In my experience, it’s typically a slightly sharper metric than expected goal differential for understanding a team’s quality.

Through six games, Inter Miami are averaging 1.28 expected points per game. You don’t really need the quants to do the math for you beyond that. The Herons’ underlying numbers have them on a projected pace for a 44-point season. 1.28 expected points per game is the same rate last year’s Sporting Kansas City team had over 34 games when they finished eighth in the Western Conference on… 44 points.

So, are they doomed? Well, with Lionel Messi injured, a work-in-progress back line and more Concacaf Champions Cup games on the horizon, it’s not like the season is about to get easier for the Herons. But, no, they’re probably going to be a little more than fine. The talent, young and old, is ridiculous. And remember, we’re dealing with small sample sizes and we’re dealing with a metric that doesn’t actually count in the standings.

For example, last year’s New England side finished with 1.31 expected points per game and 1.62 actual points per game. St. Louis finished with 1.32 expected points per game and 1.65 actual points per game. Variance is going to happen. And, most importantly, Inter Miami’s future isn’t set in stone based on six games.

But it does feel notable that their underlying numbers have been decidedly below average to start the year. Their expected points per game rate is 20th out of 29 teams in MLS. You can’t bank too much on overperformance to save the day, even for a team with Messi and Luis Suárez. That’s especially true if injuries and rotation are going to continue to play a big role in Miami’s season. If you were expecting a CCC title, MLS Cup and the Supporters’ Shield to end up in the Herons’ cabinet this year, there’s cause for pause.

And that’s not even getting into their Goals Added numbers. They’re 26th in the league in G+ differential. We don’t have the time to explain G+ (sorry, ASA), but just know that being slightly better than Austin, Nashville and New England this year in an all-encompassing metric with a good amount of predictive power by MLS standards isn’t a great sign.

CF Montréal are on a 1.8 points per game pace

If Inter Miami are down near the bottom in expected points per game and G+ per game, you might be wondering who’s at the top. Well, folks, I triple-checked and Montréal are doing the dang thing. Through four road games, the numbers love what they’re seeing from Laurent Courtois’ side.

That’s surprising, but then again, Montréal were an honest-to-good miracle in Chicago away from earning 10 points through the first four games of a six-game, season-opening road trip. Four games is nowhere near enough of a sample size to really start buying in on a team, but those kinds of numbers are enough to make you consider a world where Montréal are in the mix for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. I’m not sure anyone truly expected that in year one under Courtois.

And other team notes

Just a few more small sample size notes for you to keep an eye on:

• FC Cincinnati are on virtually the exact same expected points per game pace as last year’s Shield-winning side. That’s largely because of their league-best defense through five games. They have the best expected goals allowed rate in the league so far.

• Cincy’s defensive numbers are just slightly better than Charlotte FC, who have been quietly impressive through five games despite playing without multiple DPs. Once new DP winger Liel Abada and DP To Be Named Later get into the team, the Crown could be a side to watch.

• The Galaxy are creating a hilarious 2.4 xG per game. Somehow this would only barely be a record if they kept it up, because 2019 LAFC averaged 2.39 xG per game. The next closest team is 2018 Atlanta at 2.04.

• Austin FC are currently on a 0.42 expected points per game pace. That’s well beyond what the worst teams in MLS history have put together. Even 2013 Chivas USA earned 0.8 expected points per game. Obviously, Austin aren’t going to be their current level of historically bad the rest of the way, but they aren’t keeping good company right now.

• D.C. United, New York Red Bulls, Atlanta United, LAFC and Minnesota: All near the top in G+ differential and probably going to keep being decent to great on some level.

• Seattle aren’t nearly as bad as the two points they’ve earned through four games might suggest.

• All of this could change significantly by the end of next week. Make sure to cherry pick the data to fit your own narratives while you can.

Other things

New York’s Morgan named Player of the Matchday: After scoring a hat trick to fuel the New York Red Bulls' 4-0 win over Inter Miami CF, Lewis Morgan has garnered Player of the Matchday honors for Matchday 6.

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