Daily KO - Evander

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MLS' premier chance creators

We took a look the other week at the fascinating Golden Boot race developing over the first few weeks of the season. But those guys get too much love. What about the folks creating the chances for the goalscorers? Well, we’re giving them their due this morning.

But first, let’s have a brief and simplified discussion on how we assess chance creators. The most obvious way to do it is to look at assists. Even that gets complicated, though. Keep in mind, MLS is one of the few leagues in the world that counts “secondary assists.” At a base level, that’s a good thing. If you make the pass before the pass that leads to a goal, you get credit for it. You should! You played a key part in creating a goal.

However, it means we group primary assists together with a stat that tells you something a little different. It’s not the same as giving the primary assister statistical credit for scoring a goal, but you can see the thin line we’re walking. So for our purposes today – evaluating direct chance creation – we’re going to be looking solely at primary assists.

But primary assists don’t tell the full story, either. What if you’re an elite chance creator, but your teammates are having a string of bad luck putting the ball in the back of the net when the opportunity comes? You’d want credit for creating so many chances despite your terrible teammates. That’s where a stat like key passes AKA “passes leading directly to a shot” comes in.

But key passes are also far from the best metric to use. If you slide the ball to your teammate 30 yards out, and they take a pot shot from distance that has no real chance of going in, you technically get credit for creating a shot. That’s where “expected assists” come in. Expected assists (xA) measures how good the shot you created is. That 30-yard pot shot will have a low xA. The surgical through ball that lets your teammate shoot directly in front of goal will have a high xA.

But let’s dive deeper. What if your teammate gets that surgical through ball in front of goal and decides to lay it off to another teammate instead of taking a shot? You don’t get any xA then. All because your teammate decided to feel democratic. That’s where a stat like “expected threat” comes in. At its core, expected threat (xT) measures where a player is completing passes. If you divide the pitch into a grid of 160 squares, you’d be able to point out the squares you’re more likely to score from. The players who work the ball into those squares create a higher xT.

Unfortunately, xT is a little harder to come by. And, like any stat, it also has its flaws. Fortunately, some enterprising folks on the internet will calculate it themselves from time to time. Last week, the Twitter account @MLSStat put together a list of xT leaders. Philadelphia fullback Kai Wagner led the way with Atlanta United fullback Brooks Lennon and reigning MVP Lucho Acosta not too far behind. Take that for what you will.

And take all of these stats individually with a grain of salt. You don’t get the full picture without taking in multiple data points. That includes seeing the player with your own eyes.

Anyway, apologies for the early morning amateur stat class lesson. Let’s look at a few of the most productive chance creators so far.

Lucho Acosta - FC Cincinnati

You won’t be surprised to learn, per FBref, Lucho Acosta is leading the league in expected assists. Through seven starts, he’s created 2.8 xA and delivered four primary assists. Even with FC Cincinnati’s struggles in attack, he’s still finding a way to make things happen. Now he just needs the rest of the group to step up.

Dante Vanzeir - New York Red Bulls

A perfect example of how stats can be misleading at times. Vanzeir is your current leader in assists with six on the season. That’s six primary assists too. The next closest player has four. He’s directly contributing to the goals. But how much credit should we really be giving him?

Vanzeir has created a grand total of 1.3 xA. He’s been unsustainably lucky in finding teammates at the exact moment they’re set to score a goal-of-the-week contender. Don’t put any bets on the Red Bulls striker leading the way in assists at the end of the season.

​​Andrés Gómez - Real Salt Lake

Gómez is quietly putting up impressive numbers. In six starts, he’s generated 2.6 xA and created three assists. Frankly, he’s the most surprising player on the list. But the U22 Initiative winger (and one of RSL’s most expensive-ever transfers) is finding his way in his second year in the league. He has two goals to go along with those assists. Oh, and did we mention he leads the league in xA per 90 minutes?

Evander - Portland Timbers

Speaking of finding yourself in year two, Evander has been on a tear to start 2024. He’s third in xA and has two assists and four goals on the season. It feels like his assist total may start to rise as Portland integrate new DP Jonathan Rodríguez and maybe even bring in a third attacking DP sometime soon. Oh, and did we mention he’s second in the league in xA per 90 minutes?

Cristian Espinoza - San Jose Earthquakes

It’s totally unsurprising to see Espinoza second in the league in expected assists, even with the Quakes struggles so far. He’s been one of the most underrated players in the league for a while now, and he’s basically the only attacking option the Quakes seem to have. Everything flows through him, and that’s led to four primary assists to start the season. He’ll be here at the end of the year, too. San Jose’s struggles are not his fault.

Chicho Arango - Real Salt Lake

Unlike Vanzeir, Arango is a striker whose underlying numbers back up his early season assist total. Arango has one primary assist on the year and has created 2.6 xA in eight starts. It’s impressive to see him up there with 10s and wingers like Acosta and Espinoza while still posting excellent goalscoring numbers. Arango is third in the league in expected goals plus expected assists and has six goals on the season.

Luis Suárez - Inter Miami

Take everything we just said about Arango and apply it to Suárez with very minor tweaks. Suárez has six goals and three primary assists on the season with 2.1 xA created. He’s right behind Arango in xG+xA.

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