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A Portland Double, an Expansion Duel & Other MLS Cup Playoff Stories

 

The race to the 25th MLS Cup Final starts today, with four teams battling it out for the final first round places. Ahead of three weeks of intense competition, Stats Perform profiles three standout playoff ties.

 

By: Andy Cooper

Following the conclusion of a dramatic Decision Day, the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs get underway this weekend featuring a number of eye-catching matchups.

While the Philadelphia Union finished the regular season with their first Supporters’ Shield wrapped under their arm, securing Champions League football in the process, Decision Day saw the playoff hopes come to an end for three previous MLS Cup winners. DC United, Atlanta United and the Chicago Fire will all sit out the end-of-season action following final day defeats, with Raphaël Wicky’s side succumbing to a late winner from New York City’s Valentín Castellanos in a seven-goal thriller at Soldier Field.

Chicago’s spot in tonight’s play-in round was taken by Inter Miami, who set up a clash with fellow newcomers Nashville following a 2-1 win over Cincinnati. The expansion duo join sixteen other teams, including seven previous winners, who over the next three weeks will all be vying for a place in the final on Dec. 12.

Tonight’s game at the Nissan Stadium is one of three ties to go under the microscope of Stats Perform’s playoff data dive, as we look into the key performance factors which could determine each outcome.

The All-Expansion Clash: A Battle of the Set-Piece Specialists

As highlighted in Stats Perform’s interactive review of the regular season, Nashville and Inter Miami generated over a third of their total expected goals output from set-piece scenarios, a fitting stat when taking into account the dead-ball prowess of the latter’s illustrious co-owner.

While Gonzalo Higuaín scored Miami’s only direct free kick during the campaign – a crucial winning goal against the New York Red Bulls in October with a strike which would make David Beckham proud – it was another British player who was responsible for a significant chunk of The Herons’ goal threat.

In his debut MLS campaign, Lewis Morgan generated a combined 3.1 expected assists (xA) from set piece situations, the highest total of any MLS player. The 24-year-old Scot, who demonstrated an ability to deliver the ball with his right foot as well as his dominant left foot, created 39 chances from set pieces during 2020, resulting in three assists.

Including set pieces and open play, Morgan contributed eight assists during the regular season and ranked second overall in MLS for chances created (65). He also provided Miami with a direct threat running with the ball down the right, averaging 16 carries per 90. Over the course of the season, these carries resulted in 17 shots and 14 key passes, demonstrating the end product of his runs inside from wide areas.

Despite the quality of chances Inter created from set pieces, it is important to note that they were unable to match their expected goals output in terms of goals scored, only scoring six times from an xG of 10.1. Nonetheless, Nashville will want to avoid giving away free kicks in the attacking third to give Morgan the opportunity to deliver the ball into the box. Rodolfo Pizarro has proven to be a particularly adept at drawing fouls in advanced areas – no player has been fouled more in the final third than the Mexican in MLS this year (21).

Unsurprisingly, Miami’s goal threat from corners and free kicks has come from Brek Shea and centre back Leandro González Pírez – together they have been responsible for over a third of their team’s xG from such situations. Similarly, 25% of Nashville’s set-piece goals have come from Walker Zimmerman, who like Shea stands at 6-foot-3.

Over the course of 2020, Nashville generated a lower volume of xG from set pieces (8.1) than Miami, but they scored double the number of goals, netting 12 times. This accounted for 50% of their entire season goal total, with two coming on Decision Day, including Jhonder Cádiz’s late stoppage time winner against Orlando.

While attacking set pieces clearly helped them secure a playoff place, Nashville’s strength at the other end of the field as been just as important, having conceded the third lowest number of goals across both conferences in 2020 (22).

Defensive solidity has been a notable feature of their play. Their PPDA of 14.7 is the third highest in MLS this year, indicating they were happy to stay in shape and allow their opposition the ball instead of pressing. Their average possession share of 44.6%, the second lowest share in the competition, backs this up.

The solidity resulted in over 43% of their opponents shots occurring outside of the box, the third highest ratio in MLS.

Perhaps crucially in the context of tonight’s game, only 13% of the shots Nashville conceded came from headers and their xG conceded from set pieces, 5.1, was bettered only by Seattle (4.7) and Sporting Kansas City (5).

In the two matches they played against Miami during the regular season, Nashville kept two clean sheets but conceded a marginally higher volume of set-piece xG compared to their opponents. Only one goal was scored across both matches, Aníbal Godoy’s winner at the Nissan Stadium back in August, so if we are faced with another tight encounter this evening, both team’s set-piece threat, and their ability to defend balls into the box, could be the difference between winning and losing.

NYRB Look to Maintain Form Against Stuttering Crew

NYRB proceeded directly to the playoff first round at the expense of the New England Revolution after ending the Supporters’ Shield hopes of Toronto FC on Decision Day.

After overseeing three wins and four losses in his first seven games in interim charge following the departure of Chris Armas, NYRB only suffered one defeat in their final seven league matches under interim coach Bradley Carnell.

Prior to Armas’ departure, the side struggled to generate a high volume of goal scoring opportunities from high-quality locations, averaging 1.1 xG per 90, ranking them 22nd in MLS. This resulted in NYRB scoring fewer than one goal per game.

Since Carnell took over, the side are now creating fewer chances per 90 but crucially have increased their xG output by 0.4 and doubled their goal return. However, they are conceding more goals, including five in one game against their City rivals earlier this month, but on the whole their xG against has improved of late.

One thing which hasn’t changed since the South African took charge is NYRB’s direct playing style, which remains a major outlier amongst MLS teams. According to the Stats Perform sequence framework, the team averaged 2.5 passes per sequence during the regular season, with average ball progression upfield of 1.8 metres per second. Interestingly, their direct speed and average sequence time, 6.1, are very similar to those recorded by Barnsley in the English Championship when they played under new coach Gerhard Struber, which suggests this style may continue for the foreseeable future.

A key feature of the Red Bulls’ attacking play is their high press, with Crew coach Caleb Porter stating that the New York side are at their most dangerous when they don’t have possession.

This threat is backed up by their high turnover numbers – during the regular season they forced 169 turnovers within 40 metres of the opposition goal (the second highest output in MLS), with 30 turnovers ending in a shot. As shown by the graphic below, they were very adept at winning the ball back in wide areas in the opposition half.

In New York City’s 5-2 win over NYRB earlier this month, it is noteworthy that City adapted their approach which may have been influenced by their opponent’s aggressive pressing. They completed fewer passes per 90 (309) compared to their season average (395.2), while increasing their volume of attempted long passes from 51.6 passes per 90 to 73. The Playing Styles framework further illustrates this change – with the team engaging in a more direct approach compared to their league average.

This change in approach, in response to the unique challenges posed by NYRB, will be of particular interest to the Crew, who typically adopt a more patient approach in possession and will be looking to regain their early-season form after a patchy second half of the season.

Twelve games into the campaign, Porter’s team had conceded only four goals, the second best defensive return in MLS history at that stage of the season. This defensive solidity resulted in 2.25 points won per game, however in their remaining eleven games they only secured 1.27 points per game, shipping in 17 goals.

One reason for the levelling out can be explained by expected goals. Although only conceding four times, the total xG generated by the Crew’s opponents totalled 11.5, so opposition teams were massively underperforming in front of goal. Therefore it could be argued that the Crew’s defensive performance simply reverted back to the mean during the second half of the season.

However, it is also worth noting that in those final 11 games there was a noticeable drop in the Crew’s control of possession, which will in part will have been influenced by the game state, with the side spending less time leading matches. In the first 12 games, Columbus were completing 411.8 passes per 90, which dropped to 355.8 in the final 11 games.

One man with a big part of play in the final outcome will be Gyasi Zardes, who posted 10 or more goals for a third successive regular season. The 29-year-old showed strong form in front of goal, netting 12 times from only 39 attempts on goal. His ability to determine when to pass and when to shoot in advanced areas is reflected in his xG per shot output of 0.28, and by his season shot map, which does not include a single attempt outside the box.

One potential weakness of the Crew going into the playoffs though is their season record from the penalty spot. During the regular season and in the latter stages of the MLS Is Back Tournament, they only scored one out of the five penalties awarded to them, with Zardes missing three times. This adds another level of intrigue if the scores finish level on Saturday, which would leave the Crew with the challenge of turning over the form book to progress into the latter stages of the competition.

The Veterans Looking to Secure a Unique Double for Portland

Back in August, the Portland Timbers emerged victorious at the MLS Is Back Tournament held in Florida, as elite soccer returned in the US following a four-month absence.

That success has guaranteed the Timbers a place in next season’s Champions League, so now their attention is turned firmly towards securing a second MLS Cup title when they face up against FC Dallas on Tuesday night.

Portland have benefited from age and wisdom during 2020. Of the nine outfield players to have featured in at least 50% of all available on-field minutes across the regular season, only three are under the age of 28.

Their creative spark is being provided by veteran Diego Valeri, with the 34-year-old responsible for over 30% of their total chances created in all competitions this season, with a total xA per 90 of 0.42. The next highest xA contributors, Sebastián Blanco (0.31) and Yimmi Chara (0.21), are relative spring chickens at 32 and 29 respectively.

Blanco and Chara’s influence in improving Portland’s overall chances of scoring is reflected in their Possession Value (PV) outputs for the season, where they have amassed a net PV of 0.27 per 90 apiece. Possession Value assigns credit to players based on their positive and negative contributions in possession, covering key on-the-ball events including passing, dribbling and crossing, and how they increase a team’s probability of scoring during the next 10 seconds of play.

As highlighted below, Blanco has generated the highest progressive PV of any player on the Portland roster, however his overall net PV is impacted by the fact he has also given the ball away more than any other player. The player with the highest net PV is Marvin Loría, however for context it is worth remembering that the Costa Rican has made a number of his on-field contributions from the bench and has not played a full 90 all season.

One area where Portland have particularly excelled has been in their aerial goal threat, with 13 of their 46 regular-season goals coming from headers, despite ranking only 21st in MLS for crosses per 90 (16). Four of these goals were assisted by Valeri, with a further three assisted by Jorge Villafaña from left back.

With the absence of Jarosław Niezgoda, out with an ACL injury, Giovanni Savarese will be hoping that Jeremy Ebobisse recovers fully from concussion suffered in a game last month to lead the line on Tuesday. Niezgoda was responsible for four of Portland’s headed goals, whilst Ebobisse scored two regular-season headers and a headed brace during the latter stages of the Florida tournament.

Although Portland scored 18 more goals in the regular season than Dallas, it is worth noting that the Texan side outperformed their opponents on xG, both going forward and defensively. While Dallas underperformed on their attacking xG by seven (32 xG vs 25 non-penalty goals), Portland exceeded their output by 10. At the other end of the pitch, Portland recorded the second highest xG conceded in MLS, 39.7. Only Vancouver conceded chances worth a higher collective xG.

Given their ability to score goals from headers, it may be surprising to note that Portland had the worst record in MLS for xG conceded from set pieces (11.1 from 99 shots). Although Dallas only scored six set-piece goals during the campaign, including four from corners, the quality of their crossing during the regular season from both set pieces and open play was strong. Their 26.3% successful crossing output ranked third in MLS, as did their total of 4.9 completed crosses per 90.

Dallas’ top scorer, Franco Jara, has scored two of his seven goals this season with his head, so if Andrés Ricaurte can successfully hit his aerial targets from dead-ball situations, that could expose a key weakness in the Portland defence as both teams look to progress and face either defending champions Seattle or LAFC in the Western semifinals.