The good, the bad, and the Sounders: expected goals trends from around MLS

Quick
Hits
  • Using expected goals, we can learn about which MLS teams are good, which ones are bad, and which ones are in for a wild summer
  • A few teams, including Western Conference leaders LAFC and Eastern Conference leaders Philadelphia Union, stand out above the rest
  • Seattle’s numbers don’t look good, but they clearly have the talent to make a push
Apr 30, 2022; Chicago, Illinois, USA;  New York Red Bulls forward Patryk Klimala (9), left, and New York Red Bulls defender John Tolkin (47) after Klimala scored a goal during the second half against the Chicago Fire at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Expected Goals (xG) give us some terrific insight into our sport. If you wait a bit after the start of the season, about 10 games will do, they work pretty darn well as a team performance metric.

We learn something powerful about a team when the analytics line up with what we see on the field and in the standings. And when the analytics don’t line up with results, we get some very interesting questions. At this point in the MLS season, we’ve entered the sweet spot for xG’s usefulness. Outside of a couple outliers, most MLS teams have played at least 10 games.

So with that in mind, let’s dive into some xG-based team groupings, shall we?

The Henry Cavils

Why, you might ask, is our first group named after Henry Cavil? Because Henry Cavil is the total package. He’s an objectively beautiful man, but he’s also a total nerd who builds his own gaming PCs

In soccer terms, the teams in this category are the top contenders. Loved by both the underlying data and the standings, they’re proverbially good and actually good.

Los Angeles FC

An analytical darling last year, LAFC shockingly missed the playoffs in 2021. Despite allowing the 5th lowest xG total (36.5) in the league, LAFC gave up a whooping 51 goals.

Over the offseason, LAFC attempted to shore up their defending by upgrading in goal with Maxime Crepeau. Crepeau currently ranks 5th in ASA’s Goals Added goalkeeping metric, which has helped bring LAFC’s 2022 goals allowed (9) more in line with their expected goals allowed (9.65). With that simple fix, LAFC may be chasing silverware this year.

Philadelphia Union

No playoff team had a more disappointing end to their 2021 season than the Philadelphia Union, who had 11 players enter the COVID-19 protocols before their Eastern Conference Final loss to NYCFC. This year, the Union are clearly hungry for redemption. They’re first in the East right now.

Historically, the big drawback to Philadelphia’s noted focus on building through their academy has been the lack of big spending on Designated Players. While they moved on from Jamiro Monteiro and Kacper Przybylko over the offseason, the Union did pull the strings on two DP strikers for their 4-4-2 diamond. They payed a club record transfer fee for Mikahel Uhre and signed Julian Carranza as a young DP on loan from Inter Miami

While it’s a little too early to draw any serious conclusions about those two strikers, the Union’s third DP, Daniel Gazdag, is playing like a mad man at the No. 10 spot. He’s already scored five goals and collected two assists to go with some lovely underlying numbers.

If Uhre and Carranza can pull their weight up top, the Union could be a scary good team.

New York Red Bulls

I’m going to be totally honest with you: the Red Bulls might be the weirdest team in MLS right now. Gerhard Struber’s squad is just behind Philadelphia in the East, but they’re up in second because of their undefeated away record. They’ve picked up 15 points in five away games but only three points in three home games.

That’s not the kind of thing you see in MLS very often.

If we look at a home vs. away statistical breakdown, the analytics point more towards New York being unlucky at home, rather than them being lucky on the road. With only five games in each dataset, though, it will be interesting to see how this breakdown looks in a month or two.

Patryk Klimala is another reason why the Red Bulls may get even better as the season progresses. Per ASA, the Polish international is leading the league in xG per 96 minutes (0.77) and xG+xA per 96 (1.06) among players with over 200 minutes. What’s probably triggering for Red Bulls fans is that Klimala is underperforming his xG again this year. He has just three goals in 2022 and sported a league-worst -4.62 goals minus expected goals (G-xG) total in 2021. 

Many people use G-xG to evaluate a player’s finishing ability. In reality, though, you need a much bigger sample size to draw a conclusion about a player’s finishing. Even then, finishing doesn’t really matter in MLS. 

What does matter is that Klimala makes incredible runs that consistently generate scoring opportunities for the Red Bulls. The negative G-xG is probably just noise and when Klimala starts scoring at a rate to match his xG, Taty Castellanos won’t be the only elite No. 9 in New York.

Maybe Soccer Should be Played on a Spreadsheet

The teams in this group seem to have better analytical performances than actual results. They’re likely better than their records indicate, but it’s still important to assess what’s behind the discrepancies.

Of the five teams in this group, NYCFC is probably the most likely to move up to the Fighting Henry Cavils. Their early season woes are easy to attribute to a rough road schedule and juggling games in the Concacaf Champions League. In the four games since their CCL exit, no team has been better on paper or in reality than NYCFC.

NYCFC have a younger, and arguably even more talented team than last season, but they do need to prove that their recent glow-up isn’t just a four-game hot-streak.

Chris Albright and Pat Noonan look like they have FC Cincinnati on track, which is oh-so-impressive. Still, the team has questions to answer. Is Brandon Vazquez, with his 6th highest xG total in the league, for real? Can Luciano Acosta, with his league leading 10.05 xG+xA, maintain his production? Can Noonan implement his direct style and finally unleash Brenner? Time will tell.

The Columbus Crew, Colorado Rapids, and New England Revolution are all under-performing, but are each within three points of a playoff spot. The Crew have looked good since Caleb Porter ran Gyasi Zardes out of town but are down in the table because of all their draws.

While they haven’t had the same type of talent since Cole Bassett and Kellyn Acosta left, Colorado is still well-coached. Still, they really should have enough talent to get into the playoffs, especially if Diego Rubio (5 goals on 4.52 xG) continues his play.

New England is in a similar position in the East as Colorado is in the West. At least some of their early-season issues boiled down to the fact that Matt Turner was sidelined with not-frostbite. Turner is the best shotstopper in MLS history, while his backups Earl Edwards Jr. and Brad Knighton are decidedly not.

We Have a Very Important Analytic: the Score.

Even though he’s not in it, this one is Bruce Arena’s favorite group. Here we have the teams that are over-performing their analytics. They’ll probably be mid-tier playoff teams when the dust settles.

That said, CF Montreal is the one team here that has a bit more potential. After losing three games to start the season, Wilfried Nancy’s group is unbeaten in seven. They might belong up with Cincinnati in that second Eastern Conference tier (that was a weird sentence to type), but we’ll have to wait and see.

In the Western Conference, no one is really challenging LAFC’s elite status. Austin FC had the chance to run ragged over some really poor teams to start the year. But how will they perform against good teams? That’s up for debate. FC Dallas’ home/away split is the inverse of the Red Bulls: all five of their wins have come at home. Still, the analytics point out that they’re over-performing their xGD by nearly an entire goal and will likely regress. The LA Galaxy have six wins thanks to their defense, but major questions remain about their offensive production outside of Chicharito. DPs Kevin Cabral and Douglas Costa have looked underwhelming to say the least.

Right now, we are screwed, but…

In the last group, we’re sifting through the leftovers to see if there’s anything good in the fridge. Most, though certainly not all, of the teams that we haven’t covered yet are the ones that are analytically bad and bad on the field. Still, there may be hope for a few of them after another few months and another transfer window.

Out of all of the remaining teams, one truly stands out…

If you just look at the stats, the Seattle Sounders are one of the worst teams in MLS. However, Seattle decided to become one of the worst teams in MLS on purpose so that they could become the first MLS team to win the Concacaf Champions League.

With CCL behind them, there’s no reason to believe that they’ll stay down for long. It’s worth mentioning that Seattle’s continental glory cost them João Paulo’s ACL. They’ll have to find some quality minutes from Obed Vargas and others to fill that Pauo-sized gap.

Expected goals aren’t gospel, but they do give us some terrific insight into who’s good, who can improve, and who might regress as we head towards the summer. And they also gave us these fun groups. That should be worth something too.