Ranking every team in MLS based on entertainment value

Quick
Hits
  • There’s no better way to rank the most entertaining teams in MLS than by creating a brand new, totally mathematically sound metric
  • Among others, the Chicago Fire, D.C. United, and the Portland Timbers need to up their entertainment game
  • NYCFC, the San Jose Earthquakes, and FC Cincinnati are some of the most entertaining teams in the league

When Joe asked me to do a piece on the “Most Entertaining Teams in MLS”, I realized I had a couple of opportunities here. First, I could eschew the typical sports blogger crutch of assessing a team’s entertainment based on nothing but sweet, sweet vibes. Second, I could really enhance my Excel skills for when I have to grow up and get a real boy job assessing risks to DOW-Jones shareholders every time the cost of printer ink goes up a half a cent or whatever. 

I chose the second option. You’re welcome future me.

Let’s be clear here: this is probably some heinous math. I went to journalism school (twice) because there was no math. There are going to be very smart people who are probably upset with me. In fact, I’m kind of banking on you not being one of those very smart people. But I’ve done my best here to calculate what I call a team’s “Expected Entertainment Value” or xEnt. 

So before we get into the definitive, top-to-bottom MLS entertainment rankings, here’s how I did it.

Methodology (sorry)

First and foremost, I had to decide what’s important when it comes to the entertainment value of a soccer game. And, well, duh, it’s goals. 

The biggest factor in xEnt is total expected goals per game. Not expected goals for, or against, or expected goal differential. Total expected goals per game. Because if you’re scoring goals while being wholly oppressive to the opposing team, the game isn’t going to be quite as fun, is it? Pretty much every factor in xEnt takes into account how good you are at scoring and how good you are at letting the other team score.  Remember, we’re not assessing how good each team is. We’re assessing whether or not we’re going to turn on the TV and see something special.

Just for reference, here are the top three teams in the league in total expected goals per game, according to Second Spectrum.

  • FC Cincinnati, 3.29
  • San Jose, 3.20
  • NYCFC, 3.07

Checks out, right? Those are three teams we know from the eye test that either score a bunch on their own or let everyone in on the fun. 

Now, a lesser person with less time on their hands to watch “How learning the basics of Excel can take you to a more lucrative career” videos on YouTube would have stopped there. But you and I both know there’s more to the entertainment value of a game than the quality of chances created. So I incorporated a few more elements into the equation.

Expected Bangers

Our first element tries to capture your chances of turning on the TV and seeing a goal of the week contender. If every goal a team scores is a cluster goal inside the six-yard-box that pinballs off ten people, it’s just not as entertaining as Lucas Zelarayan pulling up from distance for a Steph Curry heat check. 

There’s no perfect way to do this of course. Some goals inside the box are spectacular in their own right. But while we can’t assume each goal inside the box is a great goal, we can generally assume that every goal from beyond 18 yards is aesthetically impressive. So, I took the number of on-target shots from outside the 18-yard-box that each team takes and allows per game and multiplied it by the average percentage of those shots that have turned into goals this season (12%). I used that number to create a measure of expected bangers per game or xBang/gm

Your leaders in xBang/gm so far are: San Jose (3.78 deep shots on target per game and an xBang/gm of 0.45), Charlotte (3.45, 0.41), and RSL (3.09, 0.37). Columbus (Zelarayan) is your leader in shots from outside the box scored this year with six and CF Montreal have allowed five. 

Expected Style

Our next factor is “expected style”. This one…you’re going to have to trust me a bit more on this one. 

For expected style, I looked at the types of chances each team creates and allows by finding the average time of possession and the average number of passes per possession. Essentially, I tried to figure out whether a team creates/allows more direct chances or if they create/allow the kind of chances where you can say “wow, what a great team goal” when one finds the back of the net. 

One of the cardinal sins of entertainment value for me when watching a team play is for them to exist in tactical purgatory. We want extremes here, people. So I rewarded teams for being on either end of the spectrum with their chances. I put each team’s level of directness in a bell curve and gave them half a point for being two standard deviations from the mean level of directness and a quarter of a point for being beyond one standard deviation. Everyone else in the middle got nothing. The hyper-direct Union and Red Bulls were rewarded. Team goal aficionados like New England got a boost. So did teams like NYCFC who give up the most direct chances in the league and Inter Miami who chase the ball for actual years before allowing chances. 

Time in the final third

Lastly, I looked at the amount of time each team spends playing in their or the opponent’s final third. There’s a reason the middle third of the field is called The Valley of Meh. All the good stuff happens on either end. To do that, I looked at the total number of possessions in the final third (PIFT) each team experiences per game. Your top three teams so far this year are Minnesota United (97.7 per game), LAFC (95.5) and FC Cincinnati (94). 

I normalized that number and then took American Soccer Analysis’ all-encompassing goals added metric, which assesses a lot of what I tried to do but much better. I then took each team’s total goals added per game and added it to a formula that gives us what I decided to call “Game Factor” for literally no reason. 

Game Factor is essentially my attempt to measure everything that isn’t xG in a game and understand it within the context of entertainment.

Final formula

In the end what we have is…

xBang/gm + xStyleFor + xStyleAgainst + PIFT + total g+/gm = Game Factor

Game Factor x Total xG/gm = raw xEnt

Raw xEnt / 3.5 = A nice tidy soccer number somewhere generally between 0 and 4 that’s a little easier to understand.

For example, here’s Houston: 

0.36 xBang + 0.25 xStyleFor + 0.25 xStyleAgainst + 0.848 PIFT + 2.09 total g+/gm = 3.7985 

3.798501239 x 2.376 total xG/gm = 9.025238944

9.025238944 / 3.5 = 2.58 xEnt

Got it?

Actual rankings that you probably skipped to anyway

28. Chicago Fire FC 

xEnt: 0.56

There’s a thing in the soccer analytics community that I sit on the fringes of until I can steal something useful called “The Messi Test”. Essentially, when making any kind of metric over the last decade or so, if Lionel Messi wasn’t at the top of it, you messed up. Chicago being last in this ranking was my Messi test. They are tough to watch right now, even when they’re losing 4-1 like they did to Atlanta United on Saturday.

27. FC Dallas

xEnt: 0.71

I’m a bit surprised to see FC Dallas so low, considering how good they’ve been this season with Jesus Ferreira, Paul Arriola, and Alan Velasco forming one of the more enjoyable front threes in the league. But they’re stuck in the middle of about every possible category here. That’s enough to pile up a decent amount of points early in the season, but not enough to move up the xEnt rankings. If only we were quantifying team Twitter accounts.

To their credit though, they have done some things that have caught everyone’s attention…

26.Vancouver Whitecaps FC

xEnt: 0.73

I’m old enough to remember when we all thought Vancouver had turned into a fun team…[checking]…seven months ago. 

25. Charlotte FC

xEnt: 0.77

There’s only so many times you can watch Charlotte almost get the ball to Karol Swiderski in a good position before you get as frustrated with the rest of the team as…well, Karol Swiderski.

24. D.C. United

xEnt: 0.78

Last year’s group would have been way up the list for their xStyle bonus. However, this year’s group isn’t putting up nearly the same numbers. Even if Taxi Fountas has put on a show a couple of times, his underlying numbers suggest that show probably isn’t so sustainable. Ask me again in a couple of months, though.

23. Sporting Kansas City

xEnt: 0.82

You’d think an old team that’s generally terrible in defensive transition that plays a high possession, shot-happy attacking style would be higher up the list. Turns out you have to actually create quality chances, otherwise it just gets kind of slow. Actually, “slow” is a good way to describe SKC games: they spend the fewest total possessions per game in the final third.

22. Portland Timbers

xEnt: 0.85

Personally, I would have put the Timbers right above Chicago if we were basing these rankings on pure vibes. They do have the occasional chaotic neutral game though. And their defense is just bad enough to move them ahead of some other teams on the list.

21. Orlando City SC

xEnt: 0.88

In their two recent games against the Red Bulls and CF Montreal, Orlando put up 0.5 xG on five shots. Not in each game. Total. Their only saving grace is that they gave up 5.5 xG. If you’re going to be stupefying in the attack at times, you might as well let the other team have some fun.

20. Atlanta United FC

xEnt: 0.94

Atlanta’s score was hurt due to their home in tactical purgatory, but don’t be surprised to see the Five Stripes creep up the list as the year continues. Not only is their attack improving, but they haven’t been all that good defensively and they just lost their best center back. Plus they lead the league in xBangFor.

19. Nashville SC

xEnt: 0.95

Folks are going to bristle at Nashville being above literally anyone, but the Coyotes got xStyleFor points for at least having an ethos. When they score, it’s relatively direct and relatively Hany Mukhtar related. That’s enough to help them finish three spots better than their total xG per game ranking. 

18. Colorado Rapids

xEnt: 1.03

Maybe Gyasi will help? I mean, probably not, but maybe? Look, I would just never describe MLS’s set-pieciest team as “high-flying”.

18. Real Salt Lake

xEnt: 1.29

No idea how xEnt correlates to xHeart but maybe someone can figure that out for me. I guess they should get points for somehow figuring out how to play the most entertaining game of the 2021 playoffs without taking a single shot.

16. Minnesota United FC

xEnt: 1.33

Minnesota has one of the most volatile xEnt scores in the league on a game-by-game basis. It all depends on whether Bebelo Reynoso is creating chances with ease. When he’s not, Minnesota looks a bit lost. At the very least, the game won’t spend a lot of time in midfield: Minnesota leads the league in total possession spent in the final third per game.

15. Columbus Crew

xEnt: 1.51

Zelerayan bangers aside, Crew games can feel a bit slow at times. They even got half a point in xStyleFor and xStyleAgainst, but they’re still 15th because they didn’t score for nearly four hours of soccer last month. And also, I guess, because they have a pretty good defense. But mostly because of the not scoring for four hours thing.

14. CF Montreal

xEnt: 2.04

I’m not putting in the work to see how much this has gone up or done since their seven-game unbeaten streak started, but I’d be fascinated to find out. Because as good as they’ve been, they’ve also felt more in control. Let’s not forget, we’re looking for this runaway mine cart to go completely off the rails here. Not calmly roll to a stop. I’d say that, generally, a team with Djordje Mihailovic, Romell Quioto and Joaquin Torres is worth watching no matter what Excel says.

13. Inter Miami CF

xEnt: 2.49

Will the soccer be “good”? That’s debatable. Will something interesting probably happen while Inter Miami lets their opponent into the final third over and over again? Almost definitely. Throw in the Leo Campana Factor that our formula can’t really see and Inter Miami games get pretty fun.

12. Philadelphia Union

xEnt: 2.49

Another one that’s going to get some pushback. But even in all the clutter of a Union game, I’ve always found plenty of enjoyment in watching their midfield bully teams off the ball and quickly work their way from Point A to Point B once they have it. This year, they’re moving it from point to point quicker than any other team in the league. That means the Union spend a lot of possessions in the final third, even if they don’t necessarily create or allow a ton of chances.

11. LA Galaxy

xEnt: 2.55

The Los Angeles Galaxy got xStyleFor points for creating chances as a team and xStyleAgainst points for letting other teams earn their chances relatively directly. The Galaxy are held back, though, by the fact that their defense is too dang good. They have the best defense by xG in MLS right now. It’s not really on brand for LA, but it is getting them results. At least the chances that are created in their games are interesting.

10. Houston Dynamo FC

xEnt: 2.57

Personally, Darwin Quintero and Coco Caraquilla would have been enough here for me, but the spreadsheets see that the Dynamo do a little more than just let Quintero cook. They both score and allow goals that we could file under the “team goal” category. On top of that, their numbers are solid in most entertainment categories. They aren’t going to consistently blow you away, but they are a safe bet. I expect this to change completely when Hector Herrera comes and shares every secret Diego Simeone ever taught him, but for now they’re worth watching.

9. Los Angeles Football Club

xEnt: 2.71

I’m honestly surprised LAFC are this high considering their defense is among the best in the league. The good news is that their attack is more than enough to pull them up the list: they average the second most xG per game in MLS. If you need to watch an opponent get demoralized, an LAFC game is a great way to go. 

8. New England Revolution

xEnt: 2.82

The sneaky thing about the Rev’s slow start and their outright refusal to give Matt Polster any cover in midfield up until about two weeks ago (and their “Having Omar Gonzalez”-ness) is that New England games have been chaotic this year. Throw Carles Gil, Adam Buksa and DeJuan Jones into the equation and you have a team that scores excellent goals while spending a ton of time on both ends of the field. 

7. Austin FC

xEnt: 2.98

For a team that’s scored a ton of goals this year, Austin’s xBang is disappointingly low. Get it together Austin. At least they’re creating plenty of chances and giving up plenty of chances to keep us engaged. They’re sixth in the league in total xG/gm.

6. New York Red Bulls

xEnt: 3.24

The Red Bulls obviously got bonus points for directness, but they’re also involved in plenty of chances on both sides of the ball. I didn’t include this in the formula, but the Red Bulls give up the highest average xG per shot by a notable amount, even if they don’t give up a ton of shots. That means any time a team breaks through the Red Bull press, they have a good-to-great chance of finding the back of the net. When New York is playing well, it can be brutal. Still, it rarely turns into a slog. They’re the kid on Mortal Kombat who lives to do fatalities and nothing else. You have to respect it. Especially when they keep hitting. 

5. FC Cincinnati

xEnt: 3.32

WELL HELLO MY BEAUTIFUL AND FUN NEW CINCY TEAM.

Pat Noonan’s FC Cincinnati have the highest total xG per game in the league and it’s not just because their defense is bad. It definitely still is, but they’re also creating chances of their own now. Plus, Cincy games are played in the final third more than all but two teams in the league. Lucho Acosta and Brandon Vazquez have turned this group into a blast to watch in the attack and everyone else helps turn it into a potential train wreck waiting to happen in defense. 

Even if we weren’t looking at numbers here, the fact that they’ve turned into what looks to be a playoff team after three years of Wooden Spoondom would make them one of the most entertaining teams in the league.

4. Toronto FC

xEnt: 3.46

Toronto heard us say train wreck and showed up on cue. This is the very, very, absolute worst defensive team in the league. They counterpress ineffectively over and over again until they’re allowing an average xG per shot similar to the Red Bulls, while giving up twice as many shots. It’s spectacular. And then you turn around and Jesus Jimenez and Alejandro Pozuelo have suddenly done something spectacular, but in a good way. Toronto games are never quiet.

3. San Jose Earthquakes

xEnt: 3.65

Do I really even need to explain this? My only worry is that this is the last time we see the Quakes near the top of this pile. They’ve settled down, opened a Roth IRA, bought socks that don’t have holes in them, and are trying to do the whole normie thing right now. It’s great for everyone who had to deal with them on a daily basis, but for those of us who just invited the Earthquakes to parties where we wanted to get weird, it’s a major letdown. 

2. Seattle Sounders FC

xEnt: 3.66

So…I’ve got to explain a bit here. The spreadsheet obviously has no idea that CCL exists or that Seattle have been playing a U-16 team for large chunks of the year. That means that good ole’ pragmatic Seattle has actually been playing end-to-end soccer while allowing the fourth-most total xG per game in the league. 

It’s totally understandable that they would be allowing far more xG than normal, but you have to give them credit for still creating chances of their own while heavily rotating their lineup nearly every weekend. They’re definitely going to get better throughout the year. And as they get better, they’ll probably drop down our list. This was fun while it lasted though.

1. New York City FC

xEnt: 3.69

Perfect. No notes here for xEnt. 

NYCFC are a heat-seeking missile with medieval flails attached to it. They’re indiscriminately destructive and it’s a blast to watch them jump all over some helpless team fully unprepared for the explosive ambush coming toward them on a baseball field. NYCFC lead the league xGFor and are also allowing a little over a goal of xG per game. And when they do allow chances, they’re extremely direct chances from whatever team I imagine is panicking and just booting the ball as far as they can before Taty Castellanos presses them into submission. 

Like with Chicago in last place, this list would have felt off if NYCFC weren’t in first. The team that gave us a 5-4 win over Toronto just a few weeks ago deserved this.