Thoughts from Sounderland — Obagoal leads Sounders to victory

Lies, damn lies, and statistics.  Nothing will invoke the ire of the many American soccer fans quite like the perceived intrusion of statistical analysis into their “beautiful game”.  Obsession with numbers is considered a hallmark of the big league American sports, and a similar approach to soccer is often unwelcome as an unnecessary “Americanization” of the game.  Never mind that most advanced soccer stats are being formulated, tracked, and analyzed in Europe – and it is in fact a trend that has been gradually trickling across the Atlantic.

It was Caleb Porter who warned us last fall about the “puppet of statistics” after his Portland side came away from a first-leg 2-1 win in Seattle despite his side being the lesser of the two in possession and shots.  “Goals are the only statistic that matters” is another popular bromide, lifted – as are most of our popular soccer colloquialisms – from a typical Sky Sports broadcast of an EPL match.  On Saturday, Seattle only managed one – just enough to win.  That the lone goal came in the 8th minute seems to indicate a team sitting on their one goal lead for 82 minutes.  But for those of us who watched the match, it didn’t feel that way.  It felt as though the Sounders were in control throughout and really ought to have added to the lead.  Sure, the eyeball test is a good one, but we can also be biased observers, and we may want something to back up our perceptions.  In Saturday’s case, we have statistics to do that.

It really is the passing…

Both teams passed well on Saturday.  San Jose had slightly more pass attempts (472 to 455) while Seattle had slightly better accuracy (82 percent – 80 percent).  Possession was virtually dead even, San Jose enjoying the slightest advantage with 50.6 percent – but given the imprecise nature of the possession stat I’m just going to call it 50/50.

The deciding factor at play in this match was where those passes took place.  While much of the game was a midfield possession battle – 52 percent of the OPTA trackable actions took place in the middle 3rd – the Sounders kept the ball out of their end with only 17 percent of the action in the defensive third.

Key Passes were another revealing metric.  Seattle had 15 (Lamar Neagle lead the way with three, despite a poor 18 for 32 overall passing performance), San Jose just five.  Good passing leads to good shooting, and Seattle doubled San Jose 16 to 8, with five on target – Neagle leading the way with three of them – while San Jose’s lone SOT came on a 90′ set piece and was easily saved by Stefan Frei.

I will be the first to tell you that none of these statistics are the end-all-be-all .  Not all great scoring chances result in a shot – in fact one of Jon Busch’s better “saves” Saturday came in stopping what would’ve been an own-goal.  A 30-yard shot right at the ‘keeper may not be as good a chance as a re-direct from six yards out that just trickles wide.  A CDM and fullback exchanging  five-yard passes in their own half can pad passing stats without representing any meaningful contribution to the game.  But what these metrics can do is help us tell the story of a match; and in Saturday’s case it was a somewhat easy win despite there just being the one goal.

Former Sounder of the week

Cordell Cato was San Jose’s best player in a severely depleted side, with 3 key passes and a game high six tackles.  It’s worth noting The 21 year-old Trinidadian right mid/right back scored the only goal against San Jose in a 2012 US Open Cup quarterfinal match.

San Jose were not only missing Chris Wondolowski and Clarence Goodson to Camp Klinsmann, but their second and third choice forwards (Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart, both to injury); first-choice left mid Shea Salinas -who is tied for second in MLS with Javier Morales averaging 3.3 key passes per game (red card suspension); and their other starting CB Victor Bernardez (suspension).  Not to put too fine a point on it, but this was a team the Sounders really ought to have defeated, even without their own trio of Camp Klinsmann invitees.

Given the nature or MLS soccer, its always a concern a match such as this may take a turn towards the cynical, but this was certainly not the case.  San Jose were whistled for just four fouls, the Sounders seven – as well as the game’s only yellow card for a bad foul by Pineda in the 90th (the ensuing free kick being San Jose’s only SOT).  To their credit, San Jose came out to play a straightforward match; although I guess the burning question is if they intended to play a counterattacking game but just found that avenue shut down by a prepared Sounders side.  Either way, much of the game settled into a somewhat boring and evenly fought game of keep-away, with Seattle enjoying the clear territorial advantage.

Meanwhile at Camp Klinsmann

Fitness, Fitness, Fitness.  This will be USMNT manager Jurgen Klinsmann’s emphasis at his three-week training camp.  This is why he called in his 30 players a week earlier than most other national team camps are scheduled to assemble.  While one might reasonably assume this camp is perhaps more vital to Euro-based players who perhaps weren’t seeing as much playing time as would be the ideal – *cough* Jozy Altidore *cough* – Klinsmann seems to be of the opinion that it is his MLS players who need the extra work.  You can have it either way, really – the Euro based players are maybe more fit but also perhaps a bit worn down from their long season, while MLS players ought to be in “mid-season” form.

Regardless of what Klinsmann’s true intentions are, he knows as well as anyone his side is rather severely lacking in pedigree compared to their group stage opponents – even Ghana.  It’s Klinsmann himself who said, about a year ago, that he needs his players “testing themselves” at the highest levels possible – preferably on teams in the elite of Europe such as I discussed last week.  It has to be a bit disconcerting for him to have watched a wave of USMNT players return to MLS.  But running has always been that great qualifier in soccer, and its clear he wants a team that can at least test their opponents with 90 minutes of hard running.

One can’t help but wonder, however, if Klinsmann is sending signals to his players: that the benefit of selection doubts will be given to Euro-based players.

On the other hand, we have two aggrieved MLS goal-scorers who have not received call-ups for their respective countries in Jermaine Defoe and Obafemi Martins.  For both, their employment in MLS may have been a strike against them.  But what’s bad news for the player is good news for their club.  In the parity-obsessed MLS business plan, that’s at least two more highly-paid “elite” players who will still be around for their teams forced to play on with rosters depleted of top-end talent.

So about that goal

I’ve gotten this far without talking about that goal, but honestly, what more is there to say about it?  It’s likely to be named MLS goal of the year – something I’m prepared to say with not quite one-third of the season played out.  Did Oba *mean* to do that?  He absolutely did!  Did he expect it to work?  Probably not; but that’s hardly the point.  Had it failed it would’ve generated a shoulder shrug of “why not” and I probably would’ve mentioned that it was a prime example of “trying shit”.  In a way it’s not unlike Dempsey’s free kick down in Dallas last month.  Yeah, 9 times out of 10 it sails over or is saved… but every now and again, something pretty spectacular is going to happen, and that’s why we watch.

As an aside, in talking about the nature of statistics, Gonzalo Pineda receives credit for an assist for a pass that was purely “knock it into space and hope Oba can do something.”  In most cases, he likely wouldn’t have even been credited with a key pass, as most players wouldn’t have had the audacity to even shoot in that situation.  A rising tide lifts all boats, indeed.

The fact that a likely goal of the year was the difference in the game provides some evidence to the efficacy of the Earthquakes approach; although one could just as easily say they were fortunate the Sounders squandered so many other scoring chances.  What if San Jose had converted that 90th minute set piece?  We would be left to bemoan the Sounder’s egregious misfortune, looking for someone to blame for a draw that feels like a loss.

Speaking of someone to blame

When we last saw Jalil Anibaba (aside from two brief substitute appearances) he was being blamed for two or three of the goals conceded in the 4-4 draw at Portland.  He started at right back  – the spot at which he was a regular for Chicago last season – and had a solid if not particularly noteworthy match.  He and left back Leo Gonzalez both did their jobs quite well – assuming that job was to keep the ball out of the defensive third and guard against the counterattack.  If you really wanted to you could take issue with his 71% passing rate – that’s probably a bit low for a fullback – but that might be sticking one’s hand up the puppet of statistics.

It is of course excellent news for Sounderland that Jalil Anibaba had a good match, as he looks to be the likely fill-in while Evans and Yedlin are away.  But beyond that, MLS teams simply can’t afford to keep too much veteran dead weight on their rosters, especially one earning $160K in guaranteed compensation for 2014.

Around the League

Don’t look now, but RSL are two points back with a game in hand (giving them a fractionally higher PPM than Seattle: 2.09 vs 2.08) and technically are the better offense, also scoring 23 goals but in one less game.  They also have given up six less than Seattle, giving them a league-best GD of +10.  Through virtually a third of the season, they have yet to lose a match.  They really have to be considered *at worst* a 1B to Seattle’s 1A right now.

I’ve talked about payroll disparity and I’ve decided that heretofore I will refer to the Top four payroll teams – who employ the seven highest-paid players, and 10 of the 12 who are making over $1M this year – as the “ringer” teams.  This is obviously because I think it’s fun to think of those 12 players as “ringers”.  We might as well throw in the subset of Montreal and Vancouver, who employ the other two $1M+ men (Marco Di Vaio and Pedro Morales) as well as the 13-highest paid player (Kenny Miller who is just under the $1M mark).

Other than Seattle, we’re seeing some real mediocrity out of our ringer teams – and we’re only one week into the Camp Klinsmann call-up period.  LA are on a four-match winless run and lost 1-0 to Houston Saturday, and are sitting on nine points after just eight matches played. Toronto are the very definition of mediocrity with four wins and four losses (also only eight matches played – seriously, what’s up with the scheduling this season?).  NYRB have lost two straight and are on just 14 points through 12.

Meanwhile Montreal are dead last in the entire league. At least Vancouver have some bite, coming off of two straight wins and a goal differential as good as the Sounders, and they are outperforming LA, NYRB and TFC with 16 points through 10.

Obviously its a long season, we’ve seen that playoff seeding means very little, and not all ringers are of the same quality and effectiveness.  But it will be interesting to keep track of this as the season progresses.

World Cup preview segment

Because why not… and this is technically taking place south of Brougham Street.  Also, if you like soccer you should care about the World Cup… because I said so.  At any rate, this week’s Team You Should Watch is Belgium.  Yes, Belgium.  And you should read this article, because it’s the best article about soccer I read last week.  Actually, it’s probably the best article about soccer I’ve read this year.  So read it… because you like soccer.

You will see plenty of World Cup talent on display in the Champions League Final this Saturday, which I also advise you to watch if you like soccer.  This year’s Super Bowl of Soccer-Football features a Madrid derby, with freshly crowned La Liga champions Atleti looking to win an historic double by beating Real.  It’s already been a remarkable season for Atleti- who vanquished Barcelona in the quarterfinals to get here.  Real meanwhile comprehensively eliminated Bayern Munich – who seemed likely to become the first repeat European champions in the history of the current Champions League format –  in the semifinals.  They also feature Christiano Ronaldo, also known as the best player in the world, and the man whom the USA get to face in their second group-stage game.  Two other likely Portugal starters will feature in the match, with CB/CDM Pepe (yes, just “Pepe”) and Fábio Coentrão at LB for Real.  Also featuring will be likely starters for Spain (several, obviously), Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, France, and Belgium.  Maybe even a German, too… seriously you should watch this game.

Looking ahead

The Sounders travel to the aforementioned bite-y Vancouver Whitecaps, for the second round of their 2014 Cascadia Cup pursuit.  If you were to come to me right now, as I write this on Monday, May 19th, at 6:51 pm; I would say I will *abso-freaking-lutely* take the draw.  And I’m not in any mood to argue about it.

If you thought New England ran against us, well I’m pretty sure the Whitecraps watched the game tape and could hardly contain their glee.  The last time we saw these guys, they waltzed into RBP on an October Wednesday night and pretty well had their way with what passed for the time as a Sounders defense.  It seems to be destined that a persisting Cascadian Narrative will be the Vancouver Whitecaps as a bogey team for the Seattle Sounders.

Vancouver will be without first-choice right back Steve Beitashour, called in by Iran. They haven’t lost nearly as much talent as Seattle, so that obviously doesn’t help the Sounders.  It’s also worth noting they come in second in MLS, behind the Sounders, in shots on target with 5.6 per game (Sounders with 6.2)  They are also second in successful dribbles per game, behind Dallas.  Even without defending Golden Boot winner Camilo, the Whitecaps are still a lively bunch with a variety of speedy attackers and playmakers that ought to put the Sounders team defending to the test.  It is almost as though they are built specifically to give us trouble.

Of course, because this is MLS, we get this appetizing Cascadia matchup not only during Camp Klinsmann but also on the first of the big three Holiday Weekends of Summer (I believe colloquial summer begins Memorial Day weekend and ends Labor Day weekend, with 4th of July right about in the middle).  But what were you really gonna do this weekend besides watch soccer?