Carlos Vela’s decline, American strikers are thriving, and more midseason MLS trends

Quick
Hits
  • We’re almost halfway through the 2022 MLS season, which means we have more than enough data to draw some conclusions about teams, players, and the season itself 
  • Carlos Vela may be on the decline for LAFC, while American strikers and CF Montreal are having real success
Apr 9, 2022; Carson, California, USA; Los Angeles FC forward Carlos Vela (10) in the second half of their Major League Soccer match against the Los Angeles Galaxy at the StubHub Center. Los Angeles Galaxy won, 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into July and into a new transfer window, we’re just about halfway through the MLS season.

Sure, at this point in the year we know that LAFC and defending champions NYCFC are good (even if Ronny Deila packed up his tighty-whities and moved to Belgium) and that a number of teams are, uh, not so good. But let’s look a little deeper at the league, shall we? 

Today, we’re diving into some of the most interesting data storylines from the first half of the season.

Unless otherwise specified here, all data is from the wonderful folks over at American Soccer Analysis, if you enjoy this piece check them out! All stats accurate as of June 24, 2022.

Should we be concerned about Carlos Vela?

As of this weekend, it looks like Carlos Vela has extended his contract with LAFC. Vela was injured for most of the last two seasons, but was still putting up some fantastic numbers. He’s basically been MLS Messi for the entire duration of his stay in southern California… until now. 

Hiding in the background of Vela’s MLS career are his rapidly declining goals added (g+) numbers, specifically in areas that might indicate physical decline. 

Vela’s g+ receiving, a measure of how often he receives passes in high value locations, dropped from “a good chunk above your average MLS winger” in 2019 to “just barely above average” in 2020 and 2021 to “am I bad at this now?” this year. For attacking players, this receiving statistic can be indicative of how often they’re running in behind and moving into the box. If Vela is physically unable to get into the box, well, yikes. At the same time, his g+ dribbling (the value gained from taking someone on) is now below average compared to the average MLS winger on a per game basis.

The passing and shooting is still there, but Vela simply doesn’t move the way he used to. 

Maybe Vela just needs a bit more time on the field this year to truly find his rhythm. Or maybe he needs a new global superstar teammate. Either way, his decline is something that LAFC’s coaching staff and front office should be concerned about. Are they actually concerned about it? Probably not, given Vela’s nice new DP contract.

The xG Bell Doth Toll for Austin (and Orlando)

Let’s get it out of the way: the power rankings are right. Austin FC are not as good as the table says they are. Currently hanging out in third in the West on 28 points with a +11 goal difference, Austin are respectable, they have a clear identity and Sebastian Driussi is a real baller. Josh Wolff has done a good job turning them from “actually bad” last year to “decent” this year. 

But a top five team in the league and Supporters’ Shield contender, they are not.

Austin’s +11 goal difference is built upon an expected goal difference of -1.7 (almost twice the next largest GD-xGD discrepancy), to which Los Verdes reply “but a lot of that is game state driven, when we’re up big or losing big”. So let’s go to the expected points (xPts) metric, which simulates the same sample of shots 1000 times for each match. It also recognizes that a 0.5 xG chance at 0-0 is much more valuable than one at 5-0. That means we can look at how good Austin should be at winning soccer games while taking the game state argument into account. 

Using that metric, Austin have 28 points from an xPts of just about 21, which is the largest discrepancy in the league. Sometimes it really is better to be lucky than good.

On the bright side, the points Austin FC have earned are real. If they continue at the same pace for the remainder of the season, on average Austin would finish with something like 50 points. That’s a solid playoff team. Enjoy the improvement! 

As an aside, Orlando City are sneakily on 25 points with a -3GD and -4 xGD. That sort of thing generally doesn’t happen: in past seasons, a zero goal difference has been worth something like 46 points at the end of the year. From zero, every goal in either direction has been worth about two-thirds of a point. So yeah, Orlando are outperforming their numbers by a decent margin. Keep an eye on them to see if they start sliding.

MLS from 2019-2021, goal difference is good IMO.

Jesus Ferreira and Jeremy Ebobisse: TWo Birds of a Feather

Jesus Ferreira and Jeremy Ebobisse have been very, very good so far in 2022. After both players were shunted out to the wing in the past because they could do “non-striker stuff”, the two are now full-time, high-performing, strikers. Ferreira and Ebobisse are 5th and 6th in xG+xA – that’s a category led by a host of dudes who could be sold for $10 million or more in the near future.

What strikes me as a fun narrative, here, is that both of these guys have been labeled as “poor” finishers who aren’t good enough for the national team. 

Ferreira is three goals ahead of his xG on nine goals this year. In itself, that doesn’t tell us much. Players go on 15 game heaters all the time, but Ferreira has never finished more than a goal behind his xG in a season for his entire career. 

Ebobisse is very much a positive career finisher, too.

Maybe the most fun thing about these two strikers in 2022 is what they both unlock for the wingers who play around them. Paul Arriola is having a career season with the ability to dovetail runs in behind while Ferreira pins defenders or makes his own runs into the box. Ebobisse provides similar opportunities for his attacking teammates and also challenges opposing defenders in the air.

Keep an eye on where these two end up, but don’t be shocked when Ferreira is leading the line for the USMNT in Qatar off the back of his best MLS season yet.

Oh, Canada?

It has, unfortunately, been some time since a Canadian team was a legitimate threat in MLS. With the arrival of mega money man Lorenzo Insigne, you would be forgiven for assuming that Toronto FC would be Canada’s flag bearer this season. And yet, here are Wilfried Nancy and the organized, super disciplined, and ever-so-interesting CF Montreal. 

Montreal are third in the East and they quietly have the sixth-best expected goals difference and the third best expected goals conceded rate in MLS. If we look at ASA’s goals added metric, which values every event on how much more or less likely a team is to score on that possession and concede on the next one, Montreal don’t stick out as a god squad at any one thing. But they are top 10 in just about everything.

If there’s one thing we know about MLS, it’s that solid teams with defensive identities can make a lot of trouble in the playoffs. 

Close your legs: Megs are on the Rise!

MLS is chaotic and whacky and sometimes I wish everyone would lean into those things just a little more. So far in 2022, it seems the players have decided to do just that. According to StatsBomb via FBref, we’re seeing approximately 2.1 nutmegs per game in 2022. That might seem like a small number, but we only had 1.45 per nutmegs per game in 2021 and1.2 in 2020. 

Don Garber-inho has a nice sound to it, doesn’t it?