Sounders Weekly — Don’t Worry, There Is Another

The Obafemi Martins saga continues to take new twists and turns — where he’ll end up next year, no one knows.

ATTENTION: WE ARE ABOUT TO ENTER OFFICIAL FREAKOUT MODE.

If for some reason you’ve not heard — it’s being reported, for perhaps the billionth time in the last month, that Obafemi Martins is potentially headed to Turkey in the winter transfer window. Who knows if there is any truth to that rumor, but there has been plenty of noise surrounding the striker since October that includes him returning to English Premier League on a loan to the referenced reunion with former Boss Roberto Mancini at Galatasaray. Whatever the truth really is surrounding Martins I’m not yet convinced he’ll be a fixture in the 2014 Sounders roster, and I don’t think I’m alone in that opinion.

Looking toward 2014, a lot of what I’ve talked about in the last month of writing these weekly pieces is the idea of putting together a group of strikers who are able to create shots. The elite tier of players are able to create roughly 4.5 to 5 shots a match for their team. The idea of acquiring Martins was that he would be there to help create goals — unfortunately his total of 3.38 shots created by performance was rather disappointing and earned him a 6.68 season grading by WhoScored and took home a meager average of 16.3 points a match per Squawka. These are not high-caliber stats, and it’s definitely not the production one would expect from a player of his class.

I’m not saying this to be a downer — really, it’s not — but Martins could be on the Fredrik Ljungberg highway headed for another unsuccessful designated player acquisition by the Sounders’ front office. Some of this is partially due to the various health related encumbrances that slowed his opportunities to make the starting XI. Those health issues could also be a product of mismanaging the amount of minutes that he endured from the previous season with Levente that included a successful Europa League run that included navigating through the group stage. Obviously he ran up some miles over the course of two back-to-back concurrent seasons.

Whatever the reason for a disappointing year—his health, commitment to the club, or whatever else you can find to associate blame or cause that Martins didn’t have the season that we all would have liked—I’m sure there will be some that will point out that he scored 8 goals and contributed 2 assists all while being limited to 43 shots. Despite that he scored at a very successful 37% conversion rate. Rah, rah and all those numerical mentionables, am I right?

That isn’t to take anything away, he showed the ability to be a “clinical” finisher as the phrase goes. But the high ratio of shots-to-goals is due to the placement of where the shots take place. His gravitation to high percentage locations is how he manages to put as many away as he did in the short amount of time. Only one of his eight goals was scored outside the 18-yard-box, with six scattered just outside the 6-yard-box. It explains what he was able to do in that short amount of time.

You’ll have to excuse what could be mistaken for some sort of disgruntled analysis. I’m not bitter about Martins and his lack of… whatever, minutes or goals or whatever expectations we all had. This is just reviewing the facts of his season. It tells us how he operates as a striker, and we can look back at his Levente season, in which he scored 7 goals, all but one of his goals came from inside the penalty area. Same song and dance, really not even a different tune. Due to the lack of long range shots, he’s intrinsically going to have an elevated goal conversion rate.

While historically goal conversion rates aren’t sustainable, the fluctuation that is bound to occur with his scoring rate is based primarily upon the location of the shots that are taken. This means that if, and I expect it to be, Martins holds to his common practices of limiting his attempts to the 18-yard-box, I would expect his conversion rates stay abnormally high compared to his peers.

While that’s promising going forward his passing numbers and more specifically the Key Passes (12) are among the lowest among his peers produced in terms of an average per 90 minutes played. The side effect of A) not passing the ball in the attacking third and B) the lack of assisting in shot creation is losing possession when trying to get into deep sitting locations inside the 18-yard box for those high percentage shots of his. His turnovers per 90 (2.39) aren’t quite Eddie Johnson-esque (2.97) , but they are average and with a suppressed key pass rate it neutralizes the high scoring rate.

Let’s take another individual for comparison sake; Lamar Neagle comes in close to the same turnover mark (2.31) but then Neagle creates  three times the amount of Key Passes (39) as what Martins did, while posting a pretty average scoring percentage of 13% while producing more shots. It all works out to Neagle being a more valuable piece to the attack despite the infrequency of converting his shots.

Assuming that Martins could play in something in the range of 25 matches next season, or roughly the accumulative 2,200 minutes–an improvement of nearly 800 minutes from this past season–and taking into account his higher than average conversion rate for total of approximate of 15 goals next season, that would be good. Heck that’s almost great. Especially when you consider, that given the same method, my calculations mint striker Kenny Cooper with 7 goals.

There are certainly pros and cons to Martins deal in retrospect of the 2013 season. Now, considering his possible departure, it’s funny how that changes the attitude and climate of how we perceive him. The move could create a hole in the roster, and considering the departure of Eddie Johnson, it would only compound what many feel to be a growing issue. Despite that “problem” it has me thinking that this is more of an opportunity for Lamar Neagle, who showed a lot of promise in his opportunities in the striker position. Is that enough to take the reigns as “the guy” scoring goals for the Sounders in 2014?

Considering the recent trade and then signing of Kenny Cooper, it’s apparent that he wouldn’t have to do it alone. The additional pick-ups of both Chad Barrett and Corey Hertzog from the re-entry draft this past week leave the Sounders with some interesting pieces which they could pair with Neagle and his quick, run hard, gobble everything up nature. That specific set of skills makes him a keen piece to pair with the prototypical target forward such as Cooper or even the young Eriq Zavaleta–the Generation Adidas talent that is still seemingly unsure of his future position.

The recent acquirements don’t rule out an HGP signing. Rumors, being what they are, simply an unverified thought, have started picking up on twitter that the Sounders could announce the heir to the DeAndre Yedlin lineage as soon as this week. I guess that’s a super Christmas present for someone. As for who that will be, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. The likelihood though is it’s someone who would further increase the depth of options at forward, not to mention the quality.

All those signs, and the fact that Owner/GM Adrian Hanauer has stated that he wants the roster set by Training Camp, could point to Lamar Neagle as one of the single best assets in the entire league now that EJ is headed towards a DP contract–and seemingly Mike Magee, too.  The 26 year-old from Tacoma, WA — straight out of the 253 — has become a valid starting striker option with his performance in the 2013 season, and with the ejection of Eddie Johnson to the US Capital and a possible transfer in the works of Martins, the Sounders may potentially start next year without that “hefty option at striker,” something unfamiliar to fans in the Sounders MLS era.

Don’t look down on Neagle because of the lack of status and not being a household name. Supporters should embrace their own countryman as the big man on campus that he’s bound to become. Despite all the churn up top, Neagle is a very good player and boasts enough tools to be a Sears repairman. His keen physical gifts should be enough to help forget about the recent trouble with some of the high profile figures on this roster and turn a season of frustration, disappointment and little to be sincerely positive about into an opportunity for the future.

Analytically he’s someone poised to become a regular in this league in the striker position. He creates shots for himself—2.1 shots per game—creates shots for others—1.3 key passes a game—and can facilitate play with 1.1 dribbles per game (this is apparently a lot ish). His turnover rate, while a bit high at 1.9, becomes more palatable when you convert it to a p90 basis where it’s only 2.31 turnovers a game and the best rate for a Sounders striker last year.

He also comes back and supports the defense. He comes in ninth in terms of overall defensive actions by a forward in all of MLS. But then he takes it to another level with duels, coming in first overall in the amount of tackles won (43, 73% success rating), 5th in total take-ons (37, 44%) and 3rd in total duels with 191. The guy has an engine that doesn’t relegate him to only the attacking third like many strikers.

Overall I project Neagle to score about 13 goals over the course of 32 matches. If that doesn’t sound like a lot to you, take into consideration that would be good for 5th in all of MLS this year. That’s assuming that he converts at a league minimum rate and plays in roughly 2800 minutes. This isn’t even considering how much he creates for those around him such as Dempsey and whomever else he is paired with.

This isn’t a Neagle or Martins situation. Having both would be great and a boon for the Sounders in the 2014 year. The problem is we don’t know if that is going to happen, and on the heels of the EJ situation, there is going to be plenty of freaking out. Don’t freak out. There is no need with Lamar Neagle on this team. He’s not the euro name that is known by a ton of players, but he’s that lesser known, blue collar goal scorer that gets the job done and goes home at the end of the day to chop wood for fire and feed his nine kids in the middle of the woods. Okay, maybe not. Still, he’s a guy that puts in the work and everyone seems to be able to appreciate that more than a superstar acting out.

In the aftermath of Joe Roth talking about guys who will run through  walls and finding the blue collar work-hard-for-their-paycheck types, Neagle is about one of the best that you can have in all of MLS. He does all the little things and checks a lot of boxes for both fans and front office folks alike. Don’t worry whether Martins stays or goes. Personally, I would rather he stays, but we don’t all get what we want. The next best thing would be seeing Neagle step up in the big boy shoes and being a leader in valuable position and succeeding.

Merry Christmas, you blessed Pitch of Royal Brougham. We look forward to seeing you next year and know that’s not very far away. To all, a merry holiday and the best of luck in the New Year.

#EBFG