In normal times, Bay Lake would currently be awash with tourists looking to enjoy their summer vacation in the Florida sunshine.
However these are not normal times and as various sports look for bio-secure environments, where competition can restart safely, July will see Bay Lake’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex become the hub where the NBA and MLS’ leading protagonists return to action following an unwanted season pause.
After coming to an abrupt halt following just two matchdays, MLS soccer resumes this week but not in the format we know. Following the late drop-out of FC Dallas, 25 teams will spend the next five weeks in Florida competing behind closed doors in the MLS is Back Tournament, where they will be split into groups, with the results of the 36 group matches also counting towards the final regular season league table.
Following the group stage, 16 teams will then progress to the knockout-stage which will culminate in a final on 11th August, with the winners securing the place in next season’s CONCACAF Champions League normally reserved for the winners of the Supporters’ Shield.
As the players prepare for the return to action, we have run the numbers on a selection of teams across each of the six groups who will have hopes of glory as the competition reaches its latter stages.
The New Boys – Nashville SC
MLS newcomers Nashville SC may not have collected any points from their first two matches in the regular season, but they fared pretty well considering the competition.
The Music City outfit lost by just a single goal against two of the top teams in MLS, Atlanta United and Portland, while showing signs that they will be a tough team to beat, especially defensively.
Nashville conceded just nine shots in their first two matches, worth a total expected goals against (xGA) of 0.5. These were the lowest aggregated outputs in MLS, though some of that may be due to the fact that they were trailing for 149 of their 180 minutes of play. However, the three shots that were scored against them had a combined xGA of just 0.17, including two with a 5% chance or less of finding the net.
Nashville have done well keeping their opponents out of their penalty area as well, with just 2.1% of opposition touches coming inside the box, the third-lowest in MLS. Plus, 56% of the shots Nashville have faced this season have come from outside the area, fourth-best in the league, and none of the shots they’ve conceded have had more than an 8% chance of going in.
If NSC continue to defend the way they have, clean sheets will come, but to turn that into wins they’ll need to create better chances at the other end of the field as well.
While only five teams attempted more than the 28 shots Nashville attempted in the opening two weeks of the season, only two of their 28 attempts had a better than 10% chance of going in, according to expected goals, as their 0.07 xG per shot ranked them 22nd out of 26 teams in the league.
The Leading Lights – Seattle and Toronto
Last year’s MLS Cup finalists, Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC, are the favourites in Groups B and C respectively, and with good reason. While the Sounders and Reds have faced each other in the MLS Cup in three of the last four seasons, the other teams in their respective groups haven’t even won a play-off match in the last two campaigns.
Despite dominating the MLS Cup Playoffs in recent times, Seattle and Toronto only sit fifth and seventh respectively in terms of average points per match over the last four seasons, behind LAFC (2 seasons), Atlanta United (3 seasons) and the two New York teams.
MLS Regular Season Points Per Match: 2016-2019
|Team||Games Played||Points per Match|
|Los Angeles Football Club||68||1.90|
|Atlanta United FC||102||1.78|
|New York City FC||136||1.70|
|New York Red Bulls||136||1.66|
|Seattle Sounders FC||136||1.59|
One reason for Seattle and Toronto’s knockout success is shot quality – at both ends of the field. During the past four MLS play-off campaigns, Seattle have conceded the second-lowest average xG per shot (0.08), and Toronto have conceded the fourth-lowest (0.09). At the attacking end, Seattle have generated the second-highest xG per open-play shots (0.12), and Toronto is fractionally behind in fourth (0.11).
Tightening up Defensively – Minnesota United
Led by Defender of the Year Ike Opara (who will miss the group stages as a result of injury), Minnesota United saw one of the great defensive improvements in MLS history last season, conceding 43 goals after shipping 71 in the 2018 campaign, a 28-goal improvement.
In the history of the league, only two teams have had a better goals conceded improvement from one season to the next.
Improving Goals Conceded Performance
|Team||Season||Goals Conceded||Season||Goals Conceded||Goals Conceded Improvement|
The Loons’ expected goals on target (xGOT) dropped considerably too: from 61.4 in 2018 (excluding penalties and own goals) down to 45.4 last season. Their new goalkeeper, Vito Mannone, also performed above expectations, with the Italian featuring in every game and conceding three goals fewer than his team’s projection. This was in contrast to the two custodians who featured for Minnesota in 2018. Based on the quality of shots faced, both keepers conceded more goals than an average MLS goalkeeper would be expected to prevent.
Early returns from the 2020 season are mixed, as Minnesota have conceded three times from their first two matches, while conceding 34 shots, the joint-second highest total in the league. However, that hasn’t mattered as the Loons have scored a league-best eight goals in the first two matches, beating both Portland and San Jose away from home.
Led by on-loan forward Luis Amarilla, the Minnesota attack have also been more direct. According to the Stats Perform sequence framework, they have been progressing the ball forward at an average speed of 2.4 yards per second. That ranks them fifth in the league this season, and it would have been second over the entire 2019 season, behind only the Red Bulls.
This appears to be a trend for the Loons, as they’ve steadily increased their direct speed during their four MLS seasons, since ranking 17th at 1.7 yards per second in 2017.
Coping with Martinez’s Absence – Atlanta United
The ACL injury sustained by Josef Martinez in Atlanta United’s MLS season opener against Nashville SC, ruling him out for the rest of 2020, was a major blow to the 2018 MLS Cup Champions. Martinez has scored 82 goals since joining MLS in 2017 (including playoffs), accounting for 29 more than any other player in the league during that period, and has accounted for 38% of Atlanta United’s scoring in that time.
There was already some concern heading into the season as Atlanta had lost Martinez’s favorite set up man, Julian Gressel to D.C. United. Last season Gressel’s connection with Martinez was the best in MLS, as the German set up 34 shots for the striker, nine of which resulted in goals, which was the most prolific passer-shooter combination in the league in 2019.
Martinez (28 goals) and Gressel (8 goals) were Atlanta United’s top scorers last season, with no other player on the team scoring more than five times. Although they won their opening two MLS games in 2020, these victories came against expansion franchise Nashville SC and wooden spoon holders FC Cincinnati and saw their xG per 90 output drop from 1.9 in 2019, down to 1.1.
Atlanta were also outshot 28-14 across these two matches, though part of that is down to the fact that they’ve led for 141 of the 180 total minutes of play. Still, Atlanta averaged 7.4 shots per 90 minutes when leading last season, while attempting just 3 per 90 during their 141 minutes in the lead this campaign.
Life After Zlatan – LA Galaxy
The Galaxy started off the truncated 2020 season in disappointing fashion, taking just one point from their first two matches. Part of their struggles had to do with Chicharito Hernandez, signed from West Ham to replace the goals scored by the departed Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Chicharito’s strengths seem to match up nicely with the Galaxy’s style of play, but so far it has not yielded any positive results.
Of the 89 league goals Chicharito scored during his stays in England, Germany and Spain, 85 of them (95.5%) were scored in the box, including the last 30.
No team attempted a higher percentage of their shots in the box than the Galaxy last season (70%) and delivery played a big part, with a league-high 58 shots coming from open play crosses. LA Galaxy scored with eight of those 58 shots from open play crosses, with six of those being scored by the now departed Ibrahimovic.
The player who created the most chances from open play crosses, Uriel Antuna, also departed in the winter following the end of his loan. The wide midfielder created 14 chances from open play crosses worth a total of 1.8 expected assists, the fifth highest output in MLS during 2019.
So far the Galaxy have picked up where they left off in terms of crossing, leading MLS with 45 open play crosses through two matches after leading the competition with 16.1 per 90 last year. The Galaxy aren’t connecting with those crosses however, completing just 17% of them, putting them below the league average of 21% and well behind the 25.4% completion rate they had last season.
Part of replacing Zlatan Ibrahimovic is being able to get the ball to his replacement, and that’s where the Galaxy have fallen well short, at least in the opening two matches. During his time in MLS, Ibrahimovic received an average of 32.9 passes per 90 minutes while averaging 7.9 touches in the box per 90. Chicharito is well below those numbers, receiving just 19 passes per 90 minutes and making a total of nine touches in the box through two games.
Chicharito hasn’t really had a chance to score yet, as he’s managed just two shots so far, one blocked header and a 31-yard speculative effort. For the Galaxy to compete in the toughest group in the MLS is Back Tournament (53 points per team last season) they’ll need to get their star forward going quickly, and that begins with getting him the ball on a more regular basis.
Paul Carr is Director of Content at TruMedia, which partners with Stats Perform on the ProVision research platform for clubs and media.
All information is correct based on confirmed MLS is Back Tournament participants as of 7/7/2020.