Archive for August, 2013

MLS: RSL Can Shoot The Rock, But The Galaxy & Sporting KC Lead In Expected Goal Differential

Statistical difference-maker.

Statistical difference-maker.

Steve Fenn with analysis of who can shoot the rock and who can’t.

What’s more important:

» The “moment of truth” when a striker tries to score and the opposing keeper tries to stop him….

» ….or the contributions and failures of everyone on the pitch that conspired to determine the quality of the striker’s opportunity?

A single match’s shots–and whether they are saved–determines the outcome, but the quality of shots earned and allowed is a more reliable barometer of the team as a whole.

It’s a base paradox of observing this game. Because that final moment is so dramatically important, everyone’s memory clings to strikes and saves, lessening the relative value of myriad brilliances and mistakes which create and allow chances in promising situations.

Right now 14 MLS teams are bunched so closely together in the race for 10 playoff spots that it’s difficult to tell many of them apart if you scale their ranking based on points per game.


As Zach Slaton pointed out this week in Forbes, narrow point leads are unreliable markers of relative team quality, so in the present MLS situation we need a better way to gauge clubs’ strengths.

Thanks to shot location data patiently catalogued by American Soccer Analysis, we can see every 2013 MLS club’s shots and shots allowed broken down into 6 zones.

From the data, it’s not hard to get a scoring expectation (xG) from shots in every zone. This is based on the overall MLS averages and the number of shots-for and shots-against in each zone.

So far this season, players score on 32.6% of shots taken inside the 6-yard box (1 in the diagram below), while those attempting their best Gareth Bale impersonation from 25-plus yards away from goal (5) find the net on a measly 2.23% of such shots.

Attempts from inside the box but wide, and those from a little beyond the box are scoring 6.5% and 5.1% of the time, respectively.

Really wide shots have a low 3.64% strike rate, but this is the most troublesome region since it is often hard for stat keepers to tell a bad cross that got closer than intended to the keeper from an audacious shot. 2011 Brek Shea will take it though. Thankfully, this region features the fewest shots this season, lessening its impact on analysis.

Comparing overall xG to each club’s goals and goals allowed quantifies which clubs are likely hovering above their most likely level, and who’s most likely underrated based on points and goals.

Below we have a visualization of all this, with square sizes based on shots per game. The coloring for MLS averages is pretty straightforward with purpleness indicating likelihood of scoring per shot, but the club-level data can be tricky. On offense, the blueness of a square conveys how much it’s strikers have exceeded the expectation for that zone, while the depth of an orange hue signifying how much worse they’ve been versus the MLS average.

On defense it’s the same for the opposing strikers, so a club whose strikers & keepers have over-performed will have some blue squares on offense and orange on defense. This is usually most striking in zone 2, where the average takes 3.9 shots per match, and 17.81% of them have been goals.







A quick note on the predictive value of xG. Splitting the season between March-May and June-present, expected goal differential (xGD) from the first half correlates to Points Per Game and GD in the second at R² of .2504 and .4316, respectively.

For comparison, PPG predicted at .0131 (PPG) and .0430 (GD) and GD yielded R² of .0332 (PPG) and .0509.

For the math-averse who have made it this far: points and goal differential in the first three months of the season have been almost entirely unrelated to results since, but xGD has been immensely more predictive. Since fans and pundits tend to, consciously or subconsciously, use recent points and goal differential as main drivers of their expectations, this has big implications for how would should be observing the game. But don’t go running to the nearest sport book just yet. This is still a relatively small sample and there are certainly other factors at play, but shot location does gives us a better picture of teams’ levels.

As you can see, LA Galaxy and Sporting Kansas City far and away come out best in xGD.

Their offenses regularly shoot from promising positions (mores so for LA Robbie Keane thank you very much), and both of their defenses prevent the same.

In LA’s case, their scoring is very much in line with xG, but they have allowed far more than shot locations would predict. Galaxy optimists would probably dub this The Cudicini Effect, now that Jaime Penedo has sent the shaky Italian to the bench. (Editor’s note: Love Jaime Penedo. See: June 11, 2011)

On the other end of the spectrum are some of the usual suspects in DC United and Chivas USA, but not far above them lurks a couple surprises. The playoff-contending Vancouver Whitecaps and the much-vaunted Real Salt Lake have been surpassing the expectation of their shot locations for & against.

RSL leads the league in scoring, but this data presents a quandary. Are they excelling in every part of scoring that this model doesn’t capture, or are they due for some harsh regression to the mean?

Because it has to be noted that data on the positioning of the opposing keeper and his defenders isn’t available publicly right now. Obviously, that would be a vital ingredient to shot quality, as would be information on whether the strike comes from a set piece, or is struck with the preferred foot or the head.

Specifically, penalty kicks which have a greater xG than even zone 1 shots haven’t been weeded out yet. Also, if we had more detailed shot locations at our disposal it is almost certain we would see further xG variation within each of these 6 zones.

For now though, the most relevant findings of this study are that Los Angeles and Kansas City have been underperforming and Real Salt Lake & Vancouver are flying higher than they deserve.

Some faults and strengths are certainly beyond the scope of this study, but it seems quite likely that the true level of each club is probably closer their xGD than to their points or raw GD. After all, shot locations are determined in small and large ways by many different players on both sides of the ball, while the resultant “moments of truth” are subject to the fickle skills of finishing and keeping, where chaotic bounces and spins of the ball rule the day.

Jurgen Klinsmann Names 23 For Costa Rica and Mexico WCQ Standoffs

No surprises?


Alligator blood


Goalkeepers – Brad Guzan, Tim Howard, Nick Rimando

Defenders – DaMarcus Beasley, Matt Besler, John Anthony Brooks, Geoff Cameron, Edgar Castillo, Brad Evans, Omar Gonzalez, Michael “The Fiscal” Orozco

Midfielders – Kyle Beckerman, Alejandro Bedoya, Michael Bradley, Mix Diskerud, Fabian Johnson, Jermaine Jones, Graham Zusi

Forwards – Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Aron Johannsson, Eddie Johnson

Caption It: Obama, Down The Middle? Wide Left?

The following pic was tweeted out from an official White House account. President Barack Riquelme Obama take a penalty at Tully High School



Some outstanding questions:

» He’s going left right? 72% of the time he goes left. The other times he dekes it down the middle?

» Who’s the goalkeeper?

» Who fouled him? Or who is he stepping up for?

Editor’s note: We return next week with regular programming.

TSG’s Media Ballot: 2013 MLS 24 Under 24

Big time wattage! Ohlmes Garcia...near the head of the glass

Big time wattage! Olmes Garcia…near the head of the glass

Each year, MLS asks media to vote on the top 24 players under 24 years-old.  They started the tradition back in 1981 when Freddy Adu took the top spot. The jury is still out on that one. Here’s last year’s ratings.

There are four categories to rank the players and it’s an admittedly difficult process as it’s possible to get as few as five observations of a single player–so much can and should be discounted. Further one of the five categories is personality–while the it’s supposed to be judged by things such as “marketability,” it’s again a difficult rating–and one that is weighted equally–because it’s mostly sound bytes and on-field charisma that carries the vote. You can’t go for beers for the players–and some it would be illegal to anyway.

So with best guestimate, here is the ballot that TSG is submitting.  It’s sure to be contentious.

TSG's ballot. Fire away at will. (Reply: Wax on, wax off)

TSG’s ballot. Fire away at will. (Reply: Wax on, wax off)

**Note: Will Bruin appears to be left off the global list emailed by MLS. He’s in the top 25. He turns 24 in season so that could’ve been it. **

Transfer Trash Talk: Are MLS Players Undervalued?


Alex Olshansky is handing out trips across the Atlantic. Amelia Earhart-style, not Titanic.

When a coach or an agent goes to a chairman looking for money, ‘Well, we’ve got this Argentinian and we’ve got this Brazilian, we’ve got this Spaniard, and oh, we’ve got this American.’ That stigma is still there.

The American/MLS soccer community has always had a chip on its collective shoulder when it comes to how outsiders perceive them – or perhaps more accurately— how Americans think outsiders perceive them. The “stigma” narrative makes intuitive sense, and for its believers this “stigma” is at least partially responsible for a wide range of ills to befall American expatriates; everything from Landon Donovan’s failed stints in Germany to Tim Howard’s exit from Manchester United.

But in a game where there is so much money on the line can European teams afford to discriminate against players originating from a certain country or league? And even if there was discrimination towards American players in the past, surely things are changing with the triumvirate at Stoke, Michael Bradley at Roma, and Jozy Altidore recently commanding an American record reported $13M transfer to Sunderland. And it is not just Americans in MLS who have attracted interest from overseas. In the last year, young MLS products Roger Espinoza, Andy Najar, and Fredy Montero were snapped up by Wigan (UK), Anderlecht (BEL), and Sporting Lisbon (POR), respectively. The Sporting Lisbon signing of Montero is already looking like a success as he just went off for a hat trick in his league debut. Are MLS players under-valued and, if so, who should European teams be looking at for the next potential bargain?

Before we look into the future, some critical re-assessing of past moves is in order. Below you will find a listing of the most notable MLS to Europe moves of the past ten years. Some of the transfer fee data is—at best—informed internet guesswork, so it should be taken with a grain of salt. The effort has been made, where enough information is available, to try and grade each move a success or a failure for the team making the purchase (from Villarreal’s perspective the Altidore buy was a failure). For a number of players, most notably Bobby Convey and Mo Edu, imposing this binary choice was very difficult. The methodology for determining a player’s success was a qualitative guess based on a team’s financial investment compared to the value the player created for the team over their tenure. Of course, the proverbial jury is still out on a number of the more recent acquisitions.

Team Pondhopper

Team Pondhopper

Given this data set, it is somewhat hard to argue that MLS players are systematically being under-valued by European teams. What does seem certain is that the appetite for MLS players among European teams has picked up in recent years, with three to four significant moves occurring in each of the past two years (not including loan deals).

When it comes to MLS players, European teams have a predisposition towards youth (average age 23.5) and those with international experience. From a player’s perspective, timing and situation is everything. Some players flounder and come limping back to MLS (Eddie Johnson, Robbie Findley, Kenny Cooper) while others thrive and raise their level (Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley). And then there is Jozy Altidore. He managed to be the most expensive MLS player ever sold, lose most of that value just to see his star rise again, all before the age of 24. Given this, who in MLS is ripe for a move?

Proven Veterans

Omar Gonzalez was originally included on this list, but the Galaxy just locked him up with a DP contract.

Graham Zusi, 26

Zusi’s stock will never be higher than it is right now. The dynamic midfielder can play either on the left or right. He is an international-caliber provider of service and would fit in well on an English team. But, at 26, his European window is already closing.

Landon Donovan, 31

Anyone who saw Donovan do his thing during the Gold Cup knows that he still has what it takes to make an impact in Europe. Perhaps he spends a final year or two at Everton? Or even re-united with David Moyes at Manchester United? Either scenario seems highly improbable, but more absurd things have happened *Cough* Clint Dempsey to Sounders

Young Guns

There are a number of good young MLS players that European scouts are no doubt watching. If recent history is any indication then you would expect at least three or four of these guys to find their way to greener ($) European pastures. But, each of these players must still prove themselves over an extended period of time to warrant a move.

Can you see this kid in the SPL? Kidding...

Can you see this kid in the SPL? Kidding…

Almost Ready?:

Sean Johnson

Bill Hamid

Diego Fagundez

Jack McInerney

Gyasi Zardes

DeAndre Yedlin

Andrew Farrell

Russell Teibert

Darlington Nagbe

Dillon Powers

Jose Villarreal

There is one player who, despite being unproven over multiple seasons, deserves a hard look from a European team.

Chris Klute, 23

Yes, this is the first year Klute has really shown anything. But he has been an absolute beast for the Rapids this year. On top of his stellar on ball defense and beyond-his-years soccer intelligence, check out who is among the top 10 MLS assist men.

Professor Klute....

Professor Klute….

Most European teams would wait to see if Klute gets a national team call-up before pouncing, but a savvy—perhaps Scandinavian—team would do well to acquire him before any USMNT price inflation hits.

A Special One: TSG’s 2013 Premiership Preview

Sir Specialist is back.

Sir Specialist is back.

Welcome to The Shin Guardian 2013/14 Premier League Preview.

I’m Zack Goldman, and I’m here to introduce you to this year’s teams.

Piggybacking on NBC Sports’ excellent Coach Lasso segment, we’re here to offer our friends who haven’t gotten around to following the Premier League a bit of insight on each team—first with a nifty pop culture reference to describe the club’s current (and maybe historical) state of affairs and then a more detailed analysis of their current upcoming season.


Pop Culture Comparison: The TV series Suits. No Emmy to show for the past few years, but a great programme that will rarely disappoint if you decide to flick on an episode. You know where you stand with Suits much like you know where you stand with Arsenal: Bad summer transfer window, out of the title race by Christmas, rabid winter window, poor form away in the cup sends them out before the competitions hit Wembley, a disastrous first-leg in an early Champions League knockout round gives way to a tremendous near-escape in the second, and a heart-pumping finish for 4th on St. Totteringham’s Day to end the season. A lot of drama and disappointment for the Gunners–– but they’ll play some damn good stuff in between, giving you more entertainment in their pressers than some clubs give you the entire season on the pitch. Arsenal make Europe, Suits make Thursdays 10/9 central.

Chin up. It hasn't started yet.

Chin up. It hasn’t started yet.

Season Outlook: With no marquee summer signing, the agitation and anxiety from Gooners across the land is palpable as ever this August. In reality, though, there is no reason—despite what the English dailies contend every year—that Arsenal won’t finish fourth again. Unfortunately for the Gunners, their fanbase won’t stand for that league status much longer—and there’s little indication that they will realistically challenge for the Prem this campaign. Domestic cup success is about as likely as silverware will be this season, but it will be important to start the league campaign well early to get some momentum and stay in the hunt as long as possible. With the way this team plays when the spring thaw rolls around, you never know what will happen if they remain competitive past New Years.

One to Watch: Theo Walcott.

Prediction: 4th. They got nothing this summer (other than Yaya Sanogo), but didn’t lose that much of consequence either. They should be better than last year if they can keep a relatively clean bill of health, but not enough to trouble this year’s Big 3.


Aston Villa


Pop Culture Comparison: Slip N Slide. Villa is a wild ride that can get ugly and even dangerous— particularly if the road gets a little bumpy—but they are always good value for entertainment. Manager Paul Lambert has unapologetically pushed a high-octane brand of football with his high wingbacks and inexperienced backlines—but it is one that can often get hopelessly out of control.

Season Outlook: Villa were a defensive shambles for most of the campaign, torn apart time and time again, even by the likes of Bradford City in the League Cup semifinals. They came alive in the spring, rounding into form and avoiding the drop with a few matches to spare after finding their scoring touch and playing with a much-needed sense of defensive steel. Owner Randy Lerner has, perhaps rather surprisingly, kept his faith in Lambert for another season (the first time Villa haven’t replaced their manager over the summer since 2009) and has rewarded his two best players of the last campaign—goal-scoring dynamo and Belgian international Christian Benteke and American ‘keeper/jungle cat Brad Guzan—with new, well-deserved four-year contracts. The squad’s core is intact and the key to success this year will be a focus on being defensively sound from the get-go, which should be helped by the arrival of Ivorian-born Danish international Jores Okore, a steely centre-back who supposedly drew the attention of Chelsea scouts last season, and dynamic left-back Antonio Luna, who joins from Sevilla. Also keep an eye out for promotion from within, as Villa are the reigning UEFA NextGen Championship—yes, the little academy from Brum that took out the likes of Ajax, Sporting Lisbon, and Chelsea.

The Guz!

The Guz!

One to Watch: Brad Guzan. Sure, any Aston Villa success is going to require the sensational form of Christian Benteke to continue on the other end of the pitch—and it will be fascinating to see if the Belgian Midas can pick up where he left off last season—but it cannot be understated just how crucial Guzan was to Villa’s success last year and how much of a breakout season it was (it says a lot when your team gets hammered 8-0 by Chelsea and the press writes relatively complimentary things about your form). Plus, this is TSG, so you knew we were going to talk about the Yank.

Prediction: 14th. The club kept a struggling core together in hopes that much of last year’s late season verve would carry on to this campaign, while also sealing the largest cracks in the squad.


Cardiff City

Pop Culture Comparison: Amanda Bynes. I don’t even know who you are anymore, and it scares the crap out of me. You’re making headlines for all the wrong reasons, but at the end of the day, you’re right where you wanted to be—a household name.

Season Outlook: Last year saw the club trade the Bluebird—its treasured symbol for over a century—for the Red Dragon, at the wishes of its Malaysian owner Vincent Tan, who was only willing to clear the club’s large debts if they changed the badge and kit color to a hue that he felt had greater popularity in the Asian market, resonance with the Welsh national character, and a connection to the “fire and passion” that makes up their new motto. When the fans rebelled, he basically called them ingrates, and a civil war broke out on the terraces between “red-shirts” and “blue-shirts,” so to speak. Despite the divisive nature of the club’s support, though, the squad was anything but—storming through the Championship and arriving in the English top flight for the first time in a half-century with relatively little suspense. The main question for the club will be if they can replicate anything close to their excellent defensive record from the league below against more accomplished and composed attacking threats. Tan has added excellent top-flight veterans in Steven Caulker (though only 21) and Gary Medel, who arrives from Sevilla, in hopes of bolstering the rearguard—and has shown he has deep enough pockets to dip into in January if problems should surface.

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EPL Primer: Prem’s Entertainment Best XI

What really counts is ridiculousness.

Welcome back to the Prem, Tiger Wales ... not the mug, but the fans have missed ya...

Welcome back to the Prem, Tiger Wales … not the mug, but the fans have missed ya…

Here’s the question: On field or off, which SOBs are the craziest and most entertaining motherf*ck*s to have played some Premiership ball?

Rules: There are none. It can be due to a single event or it can be the whole body of work.

Workshopping the following:

G: Jens Lehmann

– Once pissed on the field. Urine, buddy!

DEF: John Paintsil

– Allegedly stabbed wife in the eye

DEF: Alex Cole

– Shot an intern with a BB gun.

DEF: John Terry

– Screwed a teammate’s wife among an incredible body of work…

DEF: Titus Bramble

– Just Google him.

MF: Vinnie Jones

Among other things. Like this.

MF: Joey Barton

– No explanation necessary

MF: Craig Bellamy

– Went golfclub on a teammate

FW: Mario Balotelli

This is on Balotelli’s home grounds

CF: Nicklas Bendtner

Just one episode.

FW: Cantona

Manager: Ian Holloway

Honorable Mentions: Luis Boa Morte, Stan Collymore, Jay Jay Okocha, Paul Scholes, Manuel Almunia, Wayne Rooney, Luis Saurez…