Cyle Larin took the top spot in this year's edition of 24 Under 24. This is as it should be, since in the six years we've been running the series, no one player -- not Fabian Castillo, not DeAndre Yedlin, not Fredy Montero -- has ever matched production to potential in the way that Larin has.
He scored 17 goals last year which, as you probably remember, was and is and will be for a while longer a rookie record. It's also the league's single-season record for goals scored by a 20-year-old, just as his 14 goals so far in 2016 mark the single-season record for goals scored by a 21-year-old. If he's still in MLS next year (and given the reports of European interest, that's very much an open question), he'll have a shot at catching Taylor Twellman's record haul of 23 goals as a 22-year-old.
He has managed this by being almost shockingly clinical. Some would even say "unsustainably" clinical, given his underlying expected goals numbers:
In regards to Larin v Morris and the fact that Morris is all "hype" at this stage. Consider the following: pic.twitter.com/3sJM1qU6Ed— Harrison Crow (@Harrison_Crow) September 22, 2016
Larin compares well to Jordan Morris, another striker on this year's list who's wearing a big, blinking "The Future!!!!" sign. By some underlying metrics Morris even outperforms the Orlando City man -- they both get out into the open field, they're both learning to combine more dangerously around the goal, and they both make good runs into the six-yard-box for one-touch finishes.
Each is really good and getting better at the above, which is the bedrock foundation of a striker's job.
But here's the thing that I think separates Larin: He breaks expected goals models because he gets his shots off more quickly, and with more power and bend than any of his contemporaries. He is waaaaay better than he should be because he takes bad chances and makes them good, as he did last week:
And here he is last year, lest you think that's a one-off strike:
And here he is torturing the Fire again, just for fun:
This one's maybe the most impressive. There's no backswing, which means there's no time for defenders to close him down or for Bill Hamid to get a read on his shot:
Larin takes something that's not supposed to be repeatable and makes it routine. Morris doesn't score those goals, and neither does anyone else in MLS, really. Compare Larin's backswing to that of Portland's Fanendo Adi, a similar player who plays a similar role:
Other target forwards in MLS, like Morris, take a slightly smaller backswing than Adi's. Others, like Kei Kamara, have an even larger backswing. None are able to get theirs shots off with anything approaching the pace, power and bend that Larin generates, and thus none are close to him when it comes to overperforming their expected goals numbers.
There is another point to make about Larin, though: He has improved and adjusted as the league has adjusted to him. When he first started scoring goals last season it was either via those rockets embedded above, or with the one-touch finishes you'd expect to see from a No. 9. What he didn't do was defend, or help much in possession, or playmake.
He can wear those caps now if he's called upon to do so:
Once a guy's shown he can improve, you expect him to keep improving. That in and of itself is a repeatable skill even if the goals he scores aren't supposed to be.
Two years into the Cyle Larin era, I'm pretty sure both Orlando City and Canada can bank on that. He's broken the mold and continues to break the models, and -- thus far at least -- there are zero signs that he'll be slowing down any time soon.
I'll also be watching: Lloyd Sam has been hit-and-miss since his move to D.C. from RBNY. This game, with Orlando City's propensity for allowing space in midfield, should present him with an opportunity to put his stamp on the game via his ability to hit the final ball.
Whether D.C.'s other attackers finish the chances Sam will create, however, remains an open question.
None of the above is meant to take any of the shine away from Morris, who's currently in the midst of the second-best rookie season of any forward in league history. He's been thrust into the spotlight and while there have certainly been lows -- his spate of missed chances thanks to the lack of a left foot -- there have been more than a few high points as well. Most recent was last weekend's game-winner against Vancouver off a clever bit of movement in the box and a well-placed header.
The question I have heading into Sunday's game at LA (4 pm ET; ESPN in the US | MLS LIVE in Canada) is how much of that type of service the Sounders will be able to generate for him. They've struggled since Clint Dempsey has been out, as without Deuce opposing defenses are free to concentrate entirely on Nicolas Lodeiro. Lodeiro's great enough to put up some numbers anyway, but Seattle certainly aren't clicking like they were a month ago.
The Galaxy, for what it's worth, are generally very good at coaxing you into using your least-good option as a focal point in possession and distribution. Last weekend, for example, they repeatedly invited Sporting center back Kevin Ellis into the midfield:
That is very high up the field for a center back, and subsequently a lot of red (incomplete passes) as he tried and mostly failed to unlock LA. If Brad Evans was healthy this would be a risky tack for LA, but A) he's not, and B) even if he was, I don't think he's about to dislodge either Roman Torres or Chad Marshall. And neither of those guys is the type of passing threat that Evans presents.
That means those through-balls that Lodeiro found so easily in August, and upon which Morris feasted, will be few and far between. It's the playoff race now and every chance will come after three yards and a cloud of dust.
So here Morris is, with the chance to write his own ending to a stellar rookie season that's nontheless been outshined by both the fanbase's expectations for him, as well as what Larin did last year. He's stepped up repeatedly in 2016. If he manages it in Carson this weekend, it'll be time for the Sounders to talk playoffs.
I'll also be watching: Bruce Arena made a very smart switch with about 20 minutes to go last weekend at Sporting, shifting from a 4-4-2 to a 4-5-1. Not only did LA win the possession battle from there on out, they also stopped the deluge of shots KC had rained down upon them to that point -- 20 of Sporting's 21 shots came before the adjustment.
I'd expect LA to come out in the 4-4-2 once again, but I also expect Arena to be quicker on the trigger if his team is giving up so many chances.
Fell On Black Days
This isn't how 2016 was supposed to go for Columbus Crew SC on the heels of their MLS Cup appearance last season. They returned their entire starting lineup, most of whom were in or entering their prime. They had balance and three straight years of improvement. They had every reason to think they'd be at the top of the table.
What's gone wrong? It's a long list:
- The Kamara/Federico Higuain PK Spectacular
- Higuain is having his least durable and least productive season
- Michael Parkhurst has quietly had a nightmare season, as have most of his fellow defenders
- Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani didn't improve
In and of itself that's a murderous list going basically right up the spine of the field. Ola Kamara's productivity has helped mitigate the issues somewhat, but he's just one dude.
The truth is that if the Columbus defense was going to collapse all at once, and if Higuain was going to start showing signs of his age, then both Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay were going to have to step up and be Best XI caliber players. For most of the year they did not, but things started to change at the end of July. In the nine games since then they've combined for seven goals and six assists; in the 20 games previous, they'd gone for three goals and 11 assists.
I'm a big believer in the type of analytics you saw at the top of this column, an examination of expected goals and assists and every other indicator quants like Harrison are trying to put together. But this game is still about who finishes those plays off, and for whatever reason, for most of the year the answer was "not the Crew."
Even with a win it's probably too late to preserve their playoff hopes for this season. But the studying to figure out what went wrong -- and how to avoid it next year -- starts now.
I'll also be watching: Kei's return to Columbus, obviously. I kinda hope the Revs earn a PK so we can see whether he takes it, or whether the honor goes to regular PK taker Lee Nguyen (who's money from the spot).
One more thing:
Happy weekending, everybody.