Squad Construction & Competitive Edges in MLS Roster Rules: A Manual

“It depends” is a frustrating answer to any question. I hate it. Even if it’s the answer that makes the most sense. In today’s post, which I hope will live on as an evergreen document, I’m not going to use that answer.

The question at hand: What is the best way to build an MLS squad using the myriad of complicated MLS roster rules: salary cap, designated players, GAM, TAM, Allocation Order, Loans, Superdraft, etc?

The answer: There are right ways and wrong ways to use each of the complicated MLS roster mechanics. Period. It does not dependWelcome to the MLS Squad Construction 2018 User Manual. I advise you to put on a fresh pot of coffee, and perhaps, bookmark this page.

While I will touch on some of the major rules, generally speaking, this post is not an explainer of the MLS Roster rules (like you can find here). Instead, it provides pointers on how best to take advantage of each of the key roster requirements, rules, and mechanisms to create a superior squad structure. I should note that this analysis is based not as much in empirical method but in one of intuitive theory. I believe it is a sound underlying logic but please chime in by commenting on the post if you have questions or concerns.

Get ready for a long list of “Do”s and “Don’t”s for any MLS Front Office. Nashville SC, this one is free, the next one will cost you. LAFC, I still haven’t received that check you promised. Here is a table of contents for what is to follow:

MLS Squad Construction Manual

  1. Introduction to Framework
  2. Allocation Money as Increased Budget (not as tradable asset)
  3. Designated Players and Young DP Savings
  4. The Option Value of Loans and Subsidized Wages
  5. Monetizing Allocation Order Ranking
  6. Differences between GAM and TAM
  7. International Slots & Investing in Scouting/Analytics
  8. Limited value of SuperDraft picks
  9. The real benefit of Homegrown Player Contracts

1. Introduction to Framework

Major League Soccer is a league of relative parity compared to other leagues around the world. This is by design as it is a single entity and the parity enforced via a complex set of roster construction rules orbiting mostly around a “salary cap” or “salary budget” depending on how technical you want to be. The broad strokes are that 20 senior players per team carry with them a “charge” that for most of them equals the wages they are paid by the league as a whole (single entity), no single player can have a charge higher than $480K (players who earn more than $480K are only allowed on a roster through the use of various other mechanisms like “Designated Players” and “Allocation money”), and the total “budget charges” on a team cannot exceed $3.8M (2017 amounts).

There’s a lot I want to discuss here, and I have given this a go before, but the core of what I’m going to talk about in this post is the general idea of maximizing a team’s talent given these roster constraints. As a general rule, I’m going to roll with the idea that wages (not transfer fees) are the better measure of a player’s competitive value on the field (outside of what his value as an asset might be in a cap or non cap environment). I first read about this in Soccernomics, but it’s a basically intuitive concept that on the whole, better players demand better wages, and so a team with higher wages generally has better players. I don’t want to get hung up on this point – we’re just going to need to accept it as a general fact – even though as I Google it, it appears some do take exception to the idea. And of course, teams make mistakes in signings. Regardless, it’s helpful to understand how to fit more wages into the constraints of the MLS Salary Budget given that most wages are funded centrally by the league and so with the exception of designated players, maximizing league-funded wages relative to a club’s competition does not come at an incremental cost to the individual club. And salary information is publicly available for MLS players.

Total Wages & League Parity

So I started by saying that there’s relative parity, and that all the teams have this “salary cap” thing of $3.8M, right? Yea, sort of. Here are the actual player wages paid by each MLS team in 2017 courtesy of Steve Fenn‘s excellent Tableau Viz:

Dashboard 1

These are the total team wages (players 1 – 29), not just the Senior players (1-20) whose charges must sum to the $3.8M budget cap. But the point should be clear, that while there is a salary budget/cap in place, teams pay vastly different total wage bills. Most of this variance is tied up in the optional signing of designated players whose wages can be as high as the individual owners are willing to fund them with the team taking only the league-funded $480K charge per DP against the $3.8M budget. What happens if we exclude DPs? While I’m working with a slightly different data source, here is a graph I put together of just the non-DP wages by team in 2017 (the league-funded wages):

League-funded Wages
This chart has the non-DP wages plus the DP and young DP roster charges (but not the DP wages in excess of the budget charges, which the individual club owners fund). The first black line approximates the nominal MLS Salary cap and the second line is a proxy for the cap plus an average year’s worth of distributed allocation money.

What you can see is that on a total dollar measure, the disparity between the teams is greatly reduced once you take away the excess wages supplied by individual owners directly for the designated players. On a low to high basis, we go from a range of $5M-$23M to $4M-$7M. There’s some timing noise in my numbers above, and I’ve done my best to add back the “league funded portion” of each team’s DP wages (200K for a young DP, 480K for any other). But an important reality is that once you take away all excess owner funding for designated players (a max of 3) and you’re just staring at the allocation of central league-funded wages (the salary budget), there’s still a not insignificant amount of room to maneuver if your goal is to maximize your team’s league funded wages relative to the rest of the league (as a proxy for maximizing your team’s talent relative to the rest of the league).

I should mention that while most of this article talks about the importance of maximizing league-funded wage bill, it is absolutely important to get your signings right also. All things considered, Orlando City popping up atop that graph above shouldn’t dissuade you from believing that more league-funded wages is better. They just signed some bad expensive players over their life (and to be fair, they only paid half of Dwyer’s wage this year and it’s counting his annual salary in the above).

2. Allocation Money as Increased Budget (not as a tradable asset)

The disparities in league funded team wages originate in several places, but the largest driver is Targeted Allocation Money (TAM). Each team received $500K in 2015, $800K in 2016, and $1.2M of TAM in 2017 (and there are reports of a fresh batch of $2M+ coming in 2018). This pool of league funds has several uses. Its primary use is that it allows teams to pay players that make more than the maximum budget charge and still comply with the roster rules without having to tag them as designated player (using TAM to pay down the wages of high earners to the max charge). As an example, this might allow a team to pay a total of $5.2M in non-DP wages even though  the cap is $3.8M. TAM can also be applied to a transfer fee which otherwise would blow up a team’s budget number or require the player to be tagged as a designated player. And, it can be traded between teams. So already, we’ve got 1 way to use TAM that increases your team’s wages relative to other teams, and 2 ways that do not.

If you could choose between 1) signing a player for free who is worthy of a $700K wage by applying TAM to his wage and 2) paying a $500K transfer fee for a player worthy of a $200K wage and applying TAM to the transfer fee, it’s clear which one is the more efficient choice when building a squad in this rule-intensive environment. Find the players who are out of contract that can help your squad (seems obvious) and you’ll be able to pay higher wages than if you’d spent TAM to pay a transfer fee. And all else equal, the third option is even worse: trading your TAM to another MLS team for another MLS player’s contract (think of it like an intra-MLS transfer fee). Instead of spending your TAM money to purchase a player like in #2, you do that PLUS you give another MLS team more TAM –TAM that they can use to increase the wages of their roster relative to yours! Transactions like these are veritable “six-pointers.” If you trade someone $200K of TAM, they now have exactly $400K of potential wage budget more than you had before the transactions. If the primary framework of this post is to max out league-funded wages to build a stronger roster than your opponents, trading allocation money is bad.

Orlando City Examples (Good and Bad)

  1. As an example of what a team should do, Orlando City traded Kevin Molino (2017 guaranteed comp of $400K) to Minnesota United for $650K of allocation money. If Orlando City thought they could find a suitable replacement player on the international market demanding somewhere around $650K of transfer fee and $400K in wages, this move makes sense as they’d be extracting team wages from Minnesota, on net. Alternatively, if there was an international player out of contract somewhere that fit their needs, they’d potentially have $1M of cap room to play with to find a replacement TAM player (a real potential upgrade over Molino).
  2. As an example of what not to do, instead of using the allocation money they’d just received from Minnesota, halfway through the season Orlando City traded $1.6M of allocation money to acquire Dom Dwyer’s contract (2017 guaranteed comp of $670K) from SKC. Dwyer’s current contract requires its team to feed it a minimum of $180K of TAM in addition to the max budget charge of $480K. By making this trade Orlando has lowered its team’s league-funded wage bill relative to its peers while still taking on a big contract that requires continuous league assets to stay compliant. On top of this, it sounds like Dwyer’s contract is nearing its end and his next one will need to be DP level for him to re-sign, so it’s possible Orlando’s best case scenario and worst case scenarios for Dwyer are both difficult to swallow. Worst case (i think), he leaves when his contract is up, and the team effectively paid $1.6M for a season and a half of no playoffs. Best case, he signs and becomes a DP, and now he’s taking up one of those precious DP spots for $480K max cap charge.
  • Rule: “Use” TAM to reduce a player’s cap hit to your team’s salary budget, don’t trade it to other teams. At least not for another MLS player contract.
    • Sub-rule: If a team offers you TAM for a player that you can find a replacement for from outside MLS for similar money, go for it. You’re lowering their total potential league-funded wage bill. You will either use the received TAM to replace the player via transfer fee, or if you can find a similar player on a free, you can apply that TAM to those wages or increase your wage bill elsewhere while decreasing your competition’s overall roster strength.
    • Sub-rule: These same principles should work for General Allocation Money (GAM) as well. GAM is like TAM but it has even greater utility in its flexibility.

3. Designated Players and Young DP Savings

Recall the chart above that showed most team wage inequality comes from designated players. This is obvious, but it is critical that a team “hit” on their 3 designated player signings. There are two different lenses we’ll view this from. First, the fan lens, where we can assume that our team’s owner has virtually infinite resources and does not consider transfer fees for designated players to be an investment. This is a simple thought exercise: simply sign the best players that are available and that you can convince to play at your club: most likely attacking players as goals and assists are hard to find. But there are simple ways to maximize your overall league-funded wages with designated players also: namely signing young designated players (aged 23 and younger) who only count $200K against the cap instead of the standard $480K. If you were to sign 3 stud young DPs instead of 3 DPs in their prime, you would have $840K of additional cap room to spend on strengthening the rest of your squad. This is a significant chunk of change: Tito Villalba, Victor Vazquez and Sascha Klestjan make around $650K each. However, I have to mention that if this is strictly the fan perspective first, you may not want to spend all 3 of your DP slots on young (potentially risky) players when you could buy 3 David Villas instead that are proven.

However, from an owner’s perspective — specifically an owner who cares both about having a winning team AND about internally financially prudent things like ROI — the 3 designated player slots should be thought of as investments to the extent that the players signed command significant transfer fees. If this is the case, the Young DP route is absolutely the way to go. First, we already mentioned the competitive advantage to the rest of the team’s budget structure ($200K vs $480K cap hits for each DP). Secondly, if you care about ROI, then any one-time transfer fee paid to another club around the world should be thought of as a prepaid asset and not as an expense. Simply put, you should be paying a transfer fee that you believe you can recoup when the player departs the club. And really, the only way to do that is to sign a young player whose value is still on the rise. The goal doesn’t even need to be to receive more than you paid, simply to recoup. You can’t do that with an established player but you can with a young player. The cap room you save by signing young DPs will allow you to strengthen elsewhere with veterans.

Good examples of this are FC Dallas (who filled all 3 2017 DP slots with young DPs, successfully generating that extra $840K budget amount) and Atlanta United whose Almiron and Villalba counted as young DPs (a combined $400K against the cap instead of $960K), allowing them to spend $325K on an expensive veteran CB like Michael Parkhurst to captain the expansion side. Below is a breakdown of the 2017 DP wages.

DP Wages
Someone will probably call out Montreal. For whatever reason Piatti still shows up in the Players Union Salary releases as making $450K (under the DP threshold). I don’t think this is true, but the data is the data.
  • Rule: Sign young DPs instead of old ones to a) gain an $840K budget advantage with which to strengthen the rest of your squad and b) to increase the chance of eventually recouping transfer fees paid to sign your DPs, and c) increase the chance of turning a profit on the player’s departure, which could add up to $650K of GAM to your team’s overall budget (or more, if they change the rule).

4. The option value of loans and subsidized wages

If we maintain our goal of increasing the squad’s wage bill relative to the competition, there’s another tool to add to the kit. It is customary in global football for clubs to loan young players to one another for half seasons or seasons at a time. Acquiring players on loan is helpful in MLS for a few reasons. The first is that it is not uncommon for a home club to pay a portion of the loanee’s wages. Having a player on your roster in MLS but not having to pay 100% of that players wages is immense as it allows you to once again strengthen the total wage bill of your club (and it’s overall roster strength) relative to the rest of the league. Secondly, loan agreements often have purchase options and options are always good. Specifically in MLS, the ability to not bring a player back next season if he’s not working out this season allows you to free up the cap space needed in the following season to find the player’s replacement. In MLS with strict salary cap rules, a bad player on an expensive contract that you can’t get rid of can cripple your team’s overall budget strategy in a way that doesn’t exist in other league’s around the world.

In 2017, Atlanta United acquired 4 players on loan: Josef Martinez, Yamil Asad, Greg Garza, and Anton Walkes. Martinez was a DP whose option was exercised after just 3 games because it turns out he’s Thierry Henry but good. Asad and Garza were paid $150K each by Atlanta, suggesting to many of us that their home clubs footed the bill for the rest. And Anton Walkes was a league minimum $53K charge for Atlanta, suggesting Tottenham paid some portion in addition to this. Atlanta was able to allocate these additional funds to strengthen the squad in other ways. But more importantly, nothing is ever a sure thing. It’s possible all 4 of these guys might’ve been failures and had the deals not been set up as loans, ATL could’ve been heading into 2018 with no roster flexibility (like Orlando City). The roaring success of all 4 players in 2017 has left Atlanta with much better problems to have (which I’ve discussed in other posts).

  • Rule: Roll the dice with 3 or 4 high upside loanees with purchase options while if possible having their home clubs subsidize the wages. If 2 are winners, exercise their options and call it a day. The rest go back to their clubs next year and you have cap space to play with. Use wage subsidies on loanees to strengthen other areas of the team, increasing your effective team wages relative to the rest of the league.

5. Monetizing Allocation Order Ranking

OK, this one is just weird. Basically there’s a ranking/priority order for MLS teams chasing USMNT players or other good players that used to play in MLS but who’ve left and want to return to the league. Basically if you want to bring one of these players into the league, everyone in front of you in the ranking order has dibs before you can sign the player. This order resets each season in a worst to first ordering (giving bad teams the first crack at utilizing this mechanism in the offseason) with expansion teams automatically getting the first pick. So a couple features to this thing that are really important. First, it appears to me that the only spot in this ranking that has value is the #1 pick as the #1 pick has right of first refusal whenever there’s a player trying to reenter the league. Second, as the summer transfer window closes (halfway through the MLS season), the market value should start to disappear because if the team in the #1 spot doesn’t use the mechanism it doesn’t get to hold onto it: the order will reset the following year and they’ll likely lose that spot. Third, the timing of when players decide they want to come back to MLS and whether these players meet the needs of MLS teams matters and is somewhat random. Fourth, just from looking at recent transactions and the valuations inherent in them, this thing matters, and clubs place significant value on it. Here are the 2017 allocation order uses and trades:

  • Chicago trades GAM (undisclosed) + 1st round pick + 3rd spot for Minnesota’s #2 spot (Juninho)
  • Atlanta signs Brad Guzan (free transfer)
  • VAN trades $225K + International Slot to Minnesota’s #1 Spot (Freddy Montero loan)
  • DC trades $175K + 9th spot in the order for Dynamo’s #1 spot. (Deshorn Brown)
  • NE trades $175K + 5th spot in the order for San Jose’s #2 spot.
  • NE trades $400K + 2 years of intl slots to CLB for rights to Kriztan Nemeth through CLB’s #1 spot in the order

Just eyeballing it, that looks like basically if a decent player is on the line, we’re talking about the #1 ranking having a trade value somewhere in the range of $300K – $600K in allocation money. Additionally, similar to the principles we discussed earlier around TAM, the type of player you bring in through this mechanism is either a high value TAM player or a DP — my point being if you trade for the #1 pick, you’re trading a bunch of allocation money and then needing to use more allocation money to pay the wages of the player you’ve acquired. While I don’t know for sure, I can’t imagine any team would trade league assets to another league team in order for the rights to then pay a hefty transfer fee to a foreign club for the rights to pay a hefty wage to the incoming player. But, I’m sure this has happened. What’s probably much more common is that teams monitor the allocation list for players whose contracts are expiring. As an example, Atlanta United were able to use their #1 ranking in the allocation order to sign Brad Guzan on a free transfer (i suspect he’s on $700K wages or around there).

The question though is, what’s the best thing a team can do with a high allocation order ranking (what’s our next “Rule”)? It appears to me that if you’re going to exercise your privilege from the top spot of the allocation order, you have to strike it big and you have to find a player who is out of contract (Brad Guzan is a good example). But there are generally, more efficient plays: namely, trade the allocation ranking down to another team who has their hopes set on an available player. Collect allocation money and other assets from that team, thereby necessarily increasing your team’s potential wage bill relative to your competition’s (all at zero actual additional cost). Because the #1 ranking is the only one with real value at any given moment, an ideal string of transactions would be finding yourself at the #1 spot multiple times in a given season, by trading the #1 spot down for the #3 spot let’s say + allocation money. Then after one more team uses their position, you’re back in #1 and ready to fleece the next team for allocation money should a big name be available. All the while, you would have to keep an eye on the clock and realize that your allocation order will not carry over to next season.

So, while Atlanta’s Brad Guzan signing was certainly a success, what Minnesota did was also very interesting and in my mind, clever. They started the season in the #2 spot, but on Dec 23 traded the #2 spot to Chicago for the #3 spot + allocation money (undisclosed) + a 1st round draft pick . Then After Chicago took Juninho and Atlanta took Guzan, Minnesota had the #1 spot and traded it to Vancouver for $225K + a 2017 international slot. So the basic concept is there, so long as you hold teams near the top of the order hostage for the highest possible ranking spots, you can put the league through the windmill so to speak, repeatedly landing yourself back atop the order and demanding more assets to let other teams go after their guys, all the while increasing your league-funded team wages relative to your competition by buying TAM not selling it. There’s some nuanced game theory in there somewhere, but at least as a framework this should be the goal. LAFC, read this paragraph again.

  • Rule #4: Trade allocation ranking order down a few spots to collect allocation money, then do it again once your team is back up in the top spot. Remember not to let the summer transfer window close on you in the top spot.

6. Differences between GAM and TAM

In principle, general allocation money and targeted allocation money do the same thing: they allow a team to have a wage bill that exceeds the nominal $3.8M salary budget cap. But there are key differences that should have an impact on front office behavior. First of all, targeted allocation money can be applied only to players who make more than the $480K max budget charge but less than $1M. And importantly, GAM and TAM cannot be combined and applied to a single player’s budget charge. Because of this, if a team is trying to sign a player right around that max budget charge and also comply with the league’s $3.8M budget cap, whether his wages are ultimately above or below the max charge may depend on which allocation money resource is more plentiful for the club. You may want to pay a player $500K instead of $475K if you have enough TAM (but not enough GAM) to reduce his wage low enough to slide under the overall budget cap. In order to increase your club’s league-funded wage efficiency relative to your competition, it may involve paying a player more than his market value, as counter intuitive as that may sound. Sam Steejskal first reported on these sorts of odd incentives.

Secondly, understand that while General Allocation Money is indefinite-lived, Targeted Allocation Money does in fact expire after 4 transfer windows. As an example, TAM issued in 2017 will expire at the end of the 2018 season. This presents interesting and complex scenarios. Take for example a situation where Team A may have TAM that’s about to expire. The value of this expiring TAM is quite low to most teams, but perhaps there’s a team out there (Team B) that is trying to pay a one-time transfer fee before the window shuts to secure a player. Assume also there are other teams with varying common needs of TAM and stocks of TAM. Team A’s goal should be to identify the appropriate trading partner (Team B) who has a need for TAM for the purpose of using it in the very short term (before it expires). Offers from other teams in the league will surely be low-ball in nature because the TAM is about to expire. Team B’s goal should be to find a cut rate deal for TAM given the presence of TAM that is about to expire. If Team B deals with any other team than Team A they’ll likely have to pay more for the same amount of TAM (different vintages). Something to think about. Less of a direct takeaway.

7. International Spots

I’ve mentioned over and over again that when teams are considering trading for a player currently under contract with another MLS team, that they should evaluate whether there are comparable players available on the global market because it makes sense to use TAM towards a fee outbound from MLS rather than trade another MLS team an asset that increases their wages relative to your own for a similar player. In order for this process to work, you need International Spots/slots. Each team starts with 8 but these are freely traded in 1 or 2 season increments. Based on my research, the market value seems to be between $50K and $75K of allocation money, but they’re also acquired by trading other assets like draft picks or players. I’ve also noticed that this market normally clears. Some teams like to have a lot of IS slots and others only use a handful, so teams don’t seem to have trouble acquiring the international slots they need, and I’m yet to see a team really be held over the barrel for one.

Most importantly though, if you can get your international players Green cards after they’ve been around for a year, then you no longer have to use an IS on them. This is a free lunch, and every team should pursue it. As IS spots free up, you can either monetize them or use them to sign players on the much more liquid global player market (compared to the unionized and single entity-contracted MLS player pool)

Example: Atlanta getting Green Cards for Kenwyne Jones, Chris McCann, and Kevin Kratz. Not only does it free up IS spots, but it theoretically increases the intra-MLS trade value of these players slightly.

  • Rule: Acquire international spots in order to ensure the ability to compare MLS trade opportunities to global player market. Work international players through the US Customs Office Green Card process to free up international spots and increase player trade value.

This is a good time to mention that I fully realize that the directive to sign comparable internationals instead of trade for MLS players in an effort to maximize your league-funded wages relative to your peers comes at a real cost (not a TAM/GAM asset cost). This is because while trading assets for MLS players is not an efficient use of league assets and cedes inherent competitive advantage, it costs less “real life dollars” to gather information on MLS players than it does to hire scouts and analysts to generate information on players abroad. The costs of setting up a quality scouting and analytics department do not count against the salary cap. They are simply real costs to be incurred by the owner of a club. So one way to think about this is a tradeoff between the following two models:

  1. Spend more money on scouting and analytics. In doing so, spend allocation money on wages and transfer fees for international players that you otherwise would trade to an MLS team for a comparable league player. In doing so, you increase your team’s league-funded wages relative to your peers, increasing your theoretical advantage.
  2. Spend less money on scouting and analytics. Instead, give up league assets to other MLS teams in order to acquire league players (the cost of this information is not the real life dollars you would spend on scouting/analytics but instead the ceding of competitive advantage to other MLS clubs).

One of these seems like MLS 3.0, the other MLS 2.0, at best.

8. The limited value of a SuperDraft pick.

I’ve placed a high value on allocation money in all of the above rules/arguments, so I should mention an asset that should be given a much lower priority: SuperDraft picks. Each year players are drafted out of college via the 4 rounds of the MLS SuperDraft. Before the draft there’s a combine where players work out and scrimmage in front of all the teams. Generally speaking, players drafted in the SuperDraft either make the senior minimum wage or the reserve minimum wage, or if higher than that, they are tagged as Generation Adidas players (normally the top prospects) and they are automatically eligible to be placed on the supplemental roster (and therefore not count against the cap). Kevin Minkus at AmericanSoccerAnalysis did a study to understand the value of SuperDraft picks based on their ordering. I’ve included his chart below:

Kevin Minkus at AmericanSoccerAnalysis pulled together this helpful chart looking at empirical success rates as measured by minutes contribution across the 4 rounds of the draft.

Basically each pick in the first round is expected to contribute fewer and fewer minutes over the first 2 years a player is in the league, with anything outside of the first round being mostly valueless on average. When you consider that a healthy MLS academy is pumping out homegrown players who are competing for the same roster spots, there’s a very real argument that an MLS team should not want to make any pick outside of the first round (anomalous draft classes not withstanding). This makes me thinking that whenever a team needs to trade for a player or an asset, they should first start by offering SuperDraft picks. If you need an international slot, try a SuperDraft pick, what about a nominal amount of GAM or TAM, try a SuperDraft pick. Want to move up a few places in the allocation order? (say from 7 to 5 and then hope 4 teams utilize their rankings allowing you to spend some amount of time in the top spot) Try trading a SuperDraft pick or two.

Something you should not do is trade allocation money for a better SuperDraft pick. I simply do not understand it. As an example New York City FC traded $250K of GAM to Chicago for the rights to draft Jonathan Lewis, who is certainly a prospect with some upside. But I don’t follow why drafting Lewis and hoping he develops into a good player who if he becomes a good player will demand a higher salary is better than spending $250K of GAM (effectively $250K of salary budget) on a player of the $250K caliber. Players who make around $250K include Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, AJ DelaGarza, Steven Beitashour, Drew Moor, Sebastian Lletget. Point is that’s the caliber of player you can have on your team at that wage amount – now acquiring one of those players may cost something, or it may not. Older players like Jeff Larentowicz ($175K) was a free agent around this time.

In contrast, Atlanta United have done a decent job trading SuperDraft picks for assets, including: 2017 #24 pick for 2 seasons worth of international slot, 2020 4th rounder for Kevin Kratz, 2019 fourth rounder for Harrison Heath, 3rd rounder or conditional 2nd for Romario Williams, 2018 2nd rounder for the discovery rights to Greg Garza.

They did trade an expansion drafted player for the #8 pick and turned that into Julian Gressel, which has worked out swimmingly, but I don’t think this sort of move works out very often.

  • Rule: Trade your Superdraft picks away for assets you can use to increase your team’s total potential league-funded wages relative to your competition.

9. Homegrown Players

The league (and surely in partnership with USSF) has created special rules around homegrown players that are supposed to create incentives for clubs to invest in youth development. I want to clarify specifically what the incentives accomplish here, because I think there’s some confusion about the way people talk about this. First the rule: basically, if a player qualifies as a homegrown (he’s played in your development system for a year), he isn’t subject to the Superdraft and instead you can sign him to your team as a homegrown player. He will occupy a supplemental or reserve spot on your roster so he won’t count against the cap, so long as he makes $125K or less (they start out making much less: Tyler Adams makes $75K).

So I want to be clear, that the primary benefit of the homegrown player designation is *not* that a homegrown player doesn’t count against your cap. After all, no supplemental or reserve roster spot (21-29) counts against the cap (basically the low earners in MLS). If we play the scenario out where a club successfully develops a star out of their youth system, while he’s still developing in his early years in MLS he’ll be on the supplemental/reserve roster, making $75K or so and not counting against the cap. But if the player truly becomes a star, at some point it will be time to renegotiate a contract and his wage demands will exceed $125K (perhaps at this point there are clubs overseas offering him much more than this). It is at this point that an MLS club can either a) sign him to a fair market value wage, at which point he (like all other good players) counts against the cap and the homegrown player tag goes away, or b) sell him overseas and take the profits from the sale (which is basically the entire fee) after MLS takes its cut (or doesn’t if they change the rules as reported), and convert $650K of this profit into general allocation money to increase the strength of the squad. If you’re still reading at this point, I think you know where I’m going with this. The primary purpose of the homegrown player rule, is not for MLS teams to create homegrown superstars and keep them in MLS (if it was, then the rules would be much more generous to teams who do this – maybe the player’s wages would be exempt from the cap hit regardless of amount). The rule is designed to create an incentive for MLS teams to develop youth players in the area into stars and then sell them overseas. One important note, which I may explore further in another post, is that in order to sell a player oversees for a significant transfer fee you need to resign the player to a long term contract. So the act of turning a non-cap hitting homegrown into a transfer fee may involve a transition period, where the player is briefly making something closer to a fair market value wage before a foreign club comes in for him.

  • Rule: Develop homegrown players by stashing them in spots 21-29 on your bench and getting them minutes, and then when they have developed into stars, sell them to generate profits which you can convert into general allocation money to further strengthen your team (increase your team’s league-funded wage bill relative to your competition).
    • Alternatively, you can sign a homegrown player out of college who would otherwise have entered the SuperDraft if he has fulfilled the 1 year of development within your academy. This 22-23 year old is likely more ready to see significant minutes in MLS than a 16 year old phenom prospect. Accordingly, there’s a benefit to paying the 22-23 year old an entry-level homegrown wage and have him not count against the cap.

That’s it for now in terms of the “Do”s and “Don’t”s.

I should mention Jared Young at AmericanSoccerAnalysis has a similar full breakdown of Roster Construction here. He comes to some different conclusions about what portions of the roster a club should focus on. It’s an interesting read and a very helpful breakdown of the key rules.

Let me know if you have questions or ideas on where to take this from here. I’ll likely be publishing something like this in chapter form over at DirtySouthSoccer. I’d also like to looks specifically at some of the nuances of how an expansion team can find advantages – with the expansion draft and other types of things.

I also have vague plans to publish some MLS Trade Price Guides as the league becomes more and more transparent with the amounts being traded around.



2017 MLS Playoff Opposition / Matchup Analysis: Columbus Crew

This is exciting…

The return of match previews / opposition analyses, whatever you want to call them. Hello wordpress. It has been a while.

Atlanta United (#4) plays Columbus Crew (#5) at 7pm Thursday October 26, 2017 with #Narrative abounding. Quickly just to set the narrative table, before we get into the useful stuff:

  • Columbus Crew are probably getting moved to Austin, TX after the 2018 season
  • ATL were inches away (multiple times) vs TFC from earning a first round bye
  • Atlanta United fans boo’d the most recognizable US National Team players vs TFC
  • Both teams played Sunday afternoon/evening after a week of rest.

I am going to preview this matchup / prepare a stats-based opposition analysis.

First, to relive the home match at Bobby Dodd Stadium earlier this season, check out my old post here. If I’m honest, the content was better then. That was a fun match.

Goal Keepers (we’re going to go back to front, sorta):

Atlanta United have one of the best goal keepers in the league. Possibly the best. AmericanSoccerAnalysis has a model for measuring the average number of goals a keeper will concede on average for a given profile of shots on target he faces. If you compare the goals Guzan has conceded to his expected goals based on this method, he leads all keepers but one in MLS with -0.28 per game. Only Tim Melia’s -0.36 per game tops it. Crew SC’s Zack Steffen, on the other hand, is 18th out of 22 starters in the league by this metric, conceding 0.13 more goals per game than the model would suggest. See below for a visual. Red dots are playoff teams.GK Season Review

In terms of distribution, Guzan leads the league in pass completion rate, largely because he plays the highest percentage of short passes in MLS. Steffen is 7th in MLS and not so far off substantively. Columbus likes to play it short out of the back as well. See below:

GK Distribution Season Review

Style of Play

One metric to use for style of play comparisons is Cross to ThroughBall ratio. If I look on whoscored I can get this for key passes only (couldn’t find throughballs that don’t result in shots – probably because they are rare). Columbus looks similar to Atlanta in this regard:

CrosstoKP Season Review

Another metric we can look at is the portion of a team’s total passes that are long passes. Columbus plays the second fewest long balls in MLS (behind NYC). They are technically proficient and like to play the short passing game.

Long Passes Season Review

When Columbus visited Atlanta earlier in the season, they upped the percentage of long balls to 18% (16% in the first half). Even at home in Columbus, they passed long slightly more often – likely to combat Atlanta’s high pressure and bypass the midfield (to minimize turnovers). Here were the pressing/tidiness stats from those matches.CLB1 reviewCLB2 review

Across the two games, Atlanta turned Columbus over in its own half 6 times per own-half pass on average, which is a slightly less furious pace than Atlanta’s home average of pressing its opposition into errors every 4-5 passes. On top of this, the Five Stripes are disrupting opponents’ own-half buildup at a lighter pace in Mercedes Benz stadium, whether due to fitness conservation or the size of the pitch, or another reason. giveaways season reviewThis all adds up to make me wonder if we are going to see the same sort of high pressure success on Thursday. This worries me as an ATLUTD supporter because I know the team is comfortable simply releasing the hounds of pressure.

Centre Back Distribution

Since we’ve established both teams like to play from the back, let’s see how the centre backs stack up in terms of distribution. Below is a graphic of pass completion % on the Y and Long Ball % on the X, with Crew SC’s starting defenders colored yellow and Atlanta’s red:CB Distribution YE Review

Both teams appear to be above average passers based on this simple metric, and surprisingly, Atlanta’s CB’s actually play long balls slightly more often than the average centre back with over 15 appearances this year. If I had to pick a Crew CB to focus on turning over it would be Mensah, just slightly. ASA has a handy tool that’s more sophisticated than what I graphed above to measure passing skill, which they call xPassing.

xPass CB Season Review

According to this metric, all 4 starting CBs pass at a more successful rate than one would expected for the types of passes they attempt. Columbus’ duo shows up slightly better here. For anyone worried about Parkhurst not being fit for Thursday, these metrics show Larentowicz as slightly worse than LGP on this metric (but still positive), and Walkes as a worse distributor (-5.3%).

Atlanta created a goal in the first match when Asad stole the ball from the back line and found Villalba in the danger zone for an easy-looking put-away. But based on the above data, I wouldn’t label this as a particular opportunity for Atlanta to exploit. Columbus is pretty good at keeping the ball and playing it on the floor from back to front.

In the first match (BDS) Columbus did not press exceedingly high as Atlanta advanced, waiting until the ball reached the top of the center circle to engage. And this worked generally well for them in the first half, creating a few good transition chances from picking off passes from the ATL centre backs at midfield. If Boswell or Walkes play in place of Parkhurst, expect this to change (with a more aggressive pressing approach), but in general, I think this is a fine strategy for an away side at Mercedes Benz Stadium. Below is a poorly drawn formations graphic showing expected lines of engagement for pressing. These will change as the game state changes, but I expect Columbus to press in that middle third more often to spring transition, while Atlanta hunts the ball no matter where it is (all the way to the Columbus back line). This isn’t to say that Columbus won’t press all the way back to the keeper when Atlanta are in a vulnerable moment (facing their own goal in defense etc).

Expect Columbus to invite Atlanta’s press and then try to bypass midfield in transition with one touch passing or balls over the top.


I haven’t watched much Crew lately which is why this post is mainly stats-type analysis. But I’ll trust Matt Doyle that the Crew have stabilized into a 4-2-3-1 with Kamara leading the line and Higuain, Meram and Santos forming the band of 3. Trapp and Abu in the middle with Afful/ Mensah/ Williams/ Raitala in a back 4.

While Martino has played with various formations in the runup to this game (4-4-2s against New England and Red Bulls, and 3-4-3 vs Toronto), I expect him to return to a traditional back 4 (with 2 CB’s marking kamara) and the deepest midfielder dropping back between the CBs while ATL have the ball. A 3 man back line isn’t optimal against a lone striker.

Creative Influence

You can probably guess who leads chance creation numbers as measured by expected goals + expected assists per 90. Kamara, Higuain, and Meram are contributing 0.66, 0.49, and 0.47 xG+xA per 90, respectively, with Kamara’s output primarily accounted for with an expected goal every 2 games, and Higuain’s and Meram’s outputs split more evenly between expected goals and expected assists. There’s no doubting that this is a dangerous front 3. And honestly, the answer to how to defend against these guys does not lie in the simple kind of analytics I’m capable of. But there are other things of course.

Interestingly, if we look at xBuildup (a metric published by ASA, helpful for assigning credit to players for their role in the buildup or creation of a chances that does not include the player taking the final shot or shot assist), an interesting name pops up: Mohammed Abu, registering 0.4 XG per 90 -> suggesting he has a hand in some form of the possession sequences leading up to (but not including shots or shot assists) about 0.4 expected goals created per game. Not bad since the Columbus are creating 1.4 xG per game on average. It would appear as though Tata Martino should be focusing some tactics to disrupt Abu in possession. This might mean placing an athletic/motor player centrall in the #10 spot to harrass and deny Abu time and the ball. Break the link most commonly chaining possessions into scoring chances and you will have accomplished something important.

Attacking and Defensive Trends

If we look at expected goals for and against trends for Atlanta home matches and Columbus away matches, it’s a little uncomfortable for my liking. Both teams hit an electric attacking run of form in September and have cooled off some, and both club’s defensive averages have inched up in October.

Crewe xGfa 3game


Atlanta’s latest 3 game home form on the attack side is 1.6 xG, which Columbus has matched away from home. And Atlanta’s home form on the defensive side is most recently a 3 game average of 1.3 xG conceded, with Columbus holding their opponents to 1.2 xG on the road. There are always #reasons. The Minnesota game is weighs heavy on the Atlanta averages given the red card to Reynish and the injuries to Almiron and Garza and callups of Martinez and Guzan. And also, as I’ve discussed previously on the blog, big chances that Atlanta creates on the break are often not captured well by the expected goals model. The overall defensive trend before these last couple of games was very, very solid for the Five Stripes.

Other Concerns

Kevin Minkus yesterday pointed out that Atlanta United are giving up high quality shots off of set pieces and Columbus may in fact create good shots off of set pieces, even if it has been relatively few to date:


This is scary. Lots to think about. I have this general fear of going down a goal early and then chasing the game against an awful game state (DCU type stuff), and so I’m hesitant to suggest really pushing numbers forward early to strangle the visitors — the thing is, this is exactly what the other part of my brain is screaming. Columbus will be travelling on short rest, with non soccer baggage lingering, and so it’s tempting to suggest a full on raiding party in the opening 10 minutes – kill them off early.

The thing is, the underlying numbers (to me at least) suggest a slowing of the high press at MBS. Maybe I’m not capturing what’s really going on, but I can think of reasons why the press works to less effect at MBS than BDS. And I also recognize that Atlanta have the home crowd advantage for this entire match, whether it be 90 minutes or 120 minute or all the way to PKs (shudders). I’d hate to spoil that by playing 75 minutes down a goal against a bunkering Crew who nicked a counter goal early. So I think my overall recommendation would be to exercise caution early on (I know you’re probably shaking your head), save some legs for what might be 120 minutes. The other recommendation is to task someone in the central attacking channel to press Mohammed Abu relentlessly, even at the expense of showing for the ball in transition. I’m not sure if this should be Almiron or Asad or even Gressel(!) who could be in for a starting role if Parkhurst isn’t ready (and Jeff slides back). And I hate to over think it, but something tells me we won’t succeed with Tito’s pace out wide in this one like we have in recent matches. We didn’t create much from wide in the first Columbus match (admittedly the field was narrower), and our goals came over the top in the second. I think I am calling for an inverted Tito on the left, a centrally located Asad, and Almiron inverted on the right. With players rotating to conserve energy and sanity as the central most player bothers Abu all night.

God speed. Hopefully, I get to do this again before next year.


Atlanta United Venue Analysis: Bobby Dodd Stadium vs Mercedes Benz Stadium vs Opponents Stadia

Josh over at Dirty South Soccer wrote a really nice piece on some of the observable differences between Atlanta United playing at Bobby Dodd and Mercedes Benz. Click here to check that out. I’m not as eloquent or as wise as him, nor as versed in soccer tactics, but I wanted to just drop some data / graphs in here that I’d been tweeting about in recent weeks to add to this comparison.

First up, here’s a table I keep to track some of the Atlanta United tidiness stats.


Takeaway1: Atlanta are tidier on the ball at home, and more tidy on the ball at the Benz compared to Bobby Dodd. This shows up in the own-half passes per giveaways and own-half passing % metrics.

Takeaway2: Atlanta are suppressing opponents’ shots (and shots on target) at home, and most impressively at the Benz. The result is improved expected goals against figures as well as improved goals conceded figures.

Tweets that support this:

Next up, the pressing stats for Bobby Dodd, Mercedes Benz, and away matches:VenuePressingCompare


Takeaway1: Interestingly, while Atlanta United pressed more furiously and to greater effect at Bobby Dodd than on the road, the pressing numbers come down quite a bit at MBS – could be schedule congestion and fitness conservation – could be larger pitch makes it harder to press opponents into mistakes.

Takeaway 2: ATL Goals and Expected goals have trended up furiously at MBS compared to Bobby Dodd, both being higher than the average away matches output. Expected goal data comes from AmericanSoccerAnalysis.com as always.


Game by Game Pressing/Tidiness Game Stats (I hadn’t posted these here since the FCD match.

Finally, I wrote something about the inevitable sales of Atlanta United players and how this works out with the current MLS rules.


God speed to everyone in the postseason.

Atlanta United FC 3 – 0 FC Dallas

Chance Dominance & Efficiency in the Final Third

In the first ever soccer match at Mercedes Benz Stadium, Atlanta dominated the score sheet with a 3-0 victory and created their highest single game tally of expected goals (2.8 per ASA) this season. The team held FC Dallas to 0 goals and 1.2 expected goals (this spread is partly luck and partly Guzan). And the resulting 1.7 xGD is the highest winning expected goal difference for the club this season. All this points to dominance by the Five Stripes, and I think that’s probably fair. The box score suggests dominance as well:

Game Stats

However, I would say as a fan, I only felt comfortable in the second half. FC Dallas’ only two shots on target were two very good chances that Guzan had to make big saves for.

FCD on target and blocked
Green (SOT) early in 2H. Yellow (blocked) all in 1H.

And as dominant as Atlanta were in the end, those types of games will occasionally go south depending on the ordering of events and the direction of some bounces. I’ve included a map of all 5 of FC Dallas’ shots on target and blocked shots. They’re all very good chances, and would’ve altered events.


On the Atlanta side of things, 12 of 19 shots being put on frame is a high number (63% vs the league average 36%). The home side were exceedingly efficient at turning shots into #problems for Jesse Gonzalez. But as I recall, they were also much more efficient at turning attacks into shots (contrast this with away at Orlando where many counters and other attacking moves ended up just shy of registered shots). Touches Around Box - ATLWhoscored has Atlanta at 27 touches inside the box, with an insanely high 8 firing within the 6 yard box. While a few of the 19 were from range, 19 shots on 27 touches inside the box feels pretty high to me – it feels *very* efficient. Because of all of this, I would not describe Atlanta’s 25% SOT conversion in this game as wasteful or as evidence of “sloppiness in the final third.” I would say the team were mostly lights out efficient in turning attacks into threats and threats into huge threats. Jesse Gonzalez stood on his head some, but at the same time, even while putting on massive shots and xG numbers, Atlanta still bested the 2.8 expected goals with 3 actual goals. I would say finishing was not a problem in this one.

That all being said, while it’s not surprising to hear very bullish talk of the team challenging for a top 2 spot in the east, along with talk that the wider and deeper playing surface has offered us a glimpse at a new normal for Atlanta where they will dominate every away side with pace and tenacity, (inhales) I expect we might see the team be slightly less efficient going forward at turning attacks into shots, slightly less efficient at turning shots into shots on target, and slightly more efficient at turning shots on target into goals (as has been the trend so far this year). I don’t feel too strongly about it. I’m just hesitant to think that what we saw against FC Dallas is what we’ll see going forward because of a bigger field and a slicker surface.

Pressing & Tidiness

Pressure FCD Table.PNG

These pressing numbers seem fairly standard for Atlanta with the exception that Dallas was slightly tidier than a typical Atlanta opponent. This may have been impacted by the severe game states of Atlanta leading for most of the game and increasing its lead as the game went on. Also both teams played more own-half passes than I’ve been seeing in these numbers. Atlanta’s 225 higher than its season average of 195, and FC Dallas’ 163 higher than Atlanta’s opponents’ average of 126. Perhaps this is the bigger pitch showing up, hard to tell. I thought Atlanta’s press was somewhat more ruthless than these numbers show with several balls won back quickly after a turnover, and quickly converted into through balls and other transition moves.

Atlanta’s defensive actions in the first half (left) and second half (right):

This is somewhat surprising given what I thought I observed which was a press that slowed somewhat in the second. I think in the second what you’re seeing is more counter-pressing — pressing to win the ball shortly after losing it to keep Dallas from countering.


We saw a return to the more pronounced back-3 shape with Larentowicz eager to join the other centre backs when in possession (LGP and Parkhurst in the left graphic, Jeff in the right).

Asad and Almiron seemed to connect over and over again with great effectiveness on the left. I can’t tell just yet if we should credit the larger pitch or not. It very well could have been the case that they each felt more comfortable on the ball with the defense stretched both laterally and vertically by the speed of Martinez and Villalba (and also Almiron). Jason Poon suggested that Atlanta and Almiron specifically targeted Dallas’ right back Grana. And that might very well have been the case. On the left below is the chalkboard for Garza + Asad, and on the right the map for Almiron, who does seem awfully left-leaning for a central playmaker. Asad drifts inward some but no more than usual. Anyhow, the key passes coming in from that side from these 3 players alone is … it’s high.

Walkes and VillalbaOn the right side, there has been some criticism recently that the Garza/Asad dynamic of the fullback stretching the defense wide and the attacking midfielder tucking in wasn’t being replicated to the same degree of success. In this game however, I noticed Villalba tucking in often nicely into pockets between the lines to receive the ball. We don’t see the same degree of advancement from Walkes that we might see from Garza game to game, but the variety in attacking width on the right seemed to work well enough.



One last look at the attacking passes for each team. You can really see a contrast in style between the two. The first half below, Atlanta on the left and Dallas on the right:

FC Dallas obsessed with width. Atlanta just killing them from the most dangerous areas. In the second, it’s a little bit more varied as Dallas chased the game.

I’ll have to cut this one off now. Too many games.

In short, this game was a lot of fun. It’s possible the larger pitch is super-charging the team, but I want more evidence before we call that one. Atlanta was extremely efficient at turning attacks into shots, but Gonzalez was also a disruption. Guzan was very good. Atlanta good. Dallas bad.



July 21: Orlando 0 – 1 Atlanta (a return)

Back after a brief hiatus. Thanks for your patience. This one (which I watched from my couch on pins and needles) was fascinating. It felt like a smash and grab in the immediate aftermath, but we’ll investigate to what extent that sentiment is accurate. Let’s just dive right in.


OCSC outshot Atlanta 13 to 8 and many will tell you they should have won.  Most* expected goals models show something that many would interpret as Atlanta lucky as all hell to leave the state of Florida with any points, let alone all three (here’s one):

11tegen11 race xg
@11tegen11 shows Atlanta producing very few low quality shots in this one. With Orlando creating more, including the 1 very, very big header chance off the set piece (saved by Guzan).

And for good measure, FiveThirtyEight also had the shots-based xG at 1.2 – 0.4 in favor of Orlando. At time of posting ASA’s numbers aren’t up yet, but they’re normally similar.

Here are the shots:


So, was Atlanta actually lucky and Orlando unlucky? Not so fast. Atlanta is perhaps fortunate that some of the Orlando shots weren’t put on frame, and Atlanta won’t count on a dream strike from Tito every match, but Orlando can always shoot better, and they can close down a striker cutting inside with the ball on his dominant foot. If we’re going to give cosmic credit to teams for shots they would normally expect to put on frame but didn’t (or for close headers that are scored more often than Guzan let them in this game), we should look into giving some credit to attacking moves that are normally converted into high quality shots, but that may not have been (namely those of Atlanta). One such way to accomplish that is to calculate an expected goals value from non-shot events data, and FiveThirtyEight happily includes such an estimate alongside its shots-based expected goals model (check the last row).

538 exG

Taking into consideration some of the more dangerous moments Atlanta created but that did not result in shots shows a more even match, and for my money, that’s the true story of the game (though I do not fully understand everything that goes into their model). The total number of touches in the penalty box and surrounding areas seems similar as well (these coming from whoscored.com).

ATL Touches in the Box

Atlanta may have been lucky to take all 3 points and the teams largely played evenly to a draw, but there’s nothing wrong with taking 3 against a #rival because of a beautiful goal. And no, I do NOT think Orlando have a claim to have outplayed Atlanta on this day. I’ll do my best to make the case for why.

Flow of the Game: Atlanta pressed high. Orlando didn’t.

First off, aside from the first few moments after the whistle and a handful of half-hearted other attempts, Orlando rarely pressed Atlanta’s back line in this game, and they were happy to cede the lion’s share of possession to the away side. Atlanta attempted 63% of all passes attempted in the first half, and 49% in the second, for a combined 57% of passes attempted in the match (aligns with the official possession figure of 55%). See below for a pretty common initial look from Orlando when Atlanta were starting play.

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Basically, as we’ve seen several times this year, Atlanta played like the home side, and Orlando looked to absorb and counter, which — look, that’s totally a valid game plan, especially against the Five Stripes as I’ve mentioned before — but when you’re playing at home with this sort of reactive approach, it seems more likely that a weird moment can slide you from a drawing position into a losing one rather than from a winning position into a drawing one (the more likely ‘oops’ that a proactive team like Atlanta should look out for over the second half of the season). To boot, here are the patented Tiotal Football Pressure & Tidiness Stats for the game:


What we see here is 1) Orlando generally choosing not to (or failing to) disrupt Atlanta’s buildup play, allowing the away side to start possession calmly and 2) Atlanta not allowing Orlando the same privilege. Remember ATL are averaging 190+ own-half passes and 33 giveaways per game, for something like 7 own-half passes per giveaway. And their opponents are averaging 130, 30, and 4.3 against ATL. In a recent post over at DirtySouthSoccer I had posited that while these averages create a somewhat advantageous equilibrium for the Five Stripes, perhaps there was a slightly higher level they could move to in terms of “tidiness”:

“The question is, is it the equilibrium Tata Martino (and Darren Eales) aim for (?), or is there a possible equilibrium where Atlanta is shaving off a handful of giveaways per game and still maintaining their pressing effectiveness and ball control? Could we see the team average 25 or fewer giveaways per game down the stretch while still turning their opponents over 30+ and forcing the long balls?” (DirtySouthSoccer)

Well, that worked out quite nicely! Here Atlanta are a mere few days after I wrote that piece, putting up a much tidier overall performance while still creating havoc in their opponent’s half (partly due to Orlando not trying much to disrupt). The second half is a bit mediocre from both teams – partly the humidity I expect. Atlanta’s press slowed slightly in the second, though still higher than Orlando’s. But why didn’t the successful Atlanta high press turn into shots, chances, expected goals, goals you might ask? I’m tempted to blame chance in the same way analytics folk often blame chance for conversion rates that might seem too low or too high.

Pressing Moments

To my eye, there were several successful pressing moments that just barely did not come off in terms of creating shots, but on another day they might’ve. To paint a picture, here are just a few I noticed:

  • In the 13th minute, Atlanta press generally pretty well chasing the ball around Orlando’s half, and they create an unsuccessful touch or two, but it’s just barely recovered by Orlando — I might call it luck. In many games the ball bounces the other way and Atlanta are off to the races.

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  • In the 14th minute, Asad pins Orlando back deep only for the player to narrowly escape him to find a centre back who boots it long, but it is intercepted by LGP well inside Orlando’s half. A 1-2-3 in quick succession nearly finds LGP through on goal for a 1v1 chance. Gressel’s throughball is narrowly caught out. Orlando were almost punished for their loose possession — we were closer than many realize to the game changing drastically this early. But no Atlanta shot was registered.

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  • In the 40th minute, Atlanta forces a long ball from Bendik, and then immediately presses the wide player causing a terrible back pass and a massive chance for Almiron through on goal, but again no shot is registered because of a desperate retreating slide tackle from OCSC.

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These were just a few I grabbed screens of, but generally speaking Atlanta created a ton of danger for Orlando City in this game from the press that simply wasn’t resolved into a shot in the box score, and therefore had no associated expected goal value, and on and on. Be cautious if you suggest Atlanta were overly fortunate. There was some luck. There normally is. But there was also Atlanta executing their game plan.

Buildup Moments

Given the lack of a high press from Orlando (or the occasional attempt at it), this match was also a nice view into the kinds of buildup patterns Atlanta aim for against what was often two banks of four. I think this is interesting because we are often wondering whether Atlanta can create from buildup play (instead of just from turnovers). And I’ve been obsessed with whether or not Atlanta are improving the tidiness required to play this way. Here are a few key moments that I found illustrative, and buried in here are some very good near chances – more of those kinds of things that don’t show up in the shots/xG totals:

  • In the 2nd minute, Atlanta passes through a fairly high Orlando City position to create a very nice attacking look. This may have been one of the moments that persuaded Orlando not to press high as much.

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  • In the 15th minute, Atlanta plays the ball forward through their own half largely uncontested, and play really begins with the classic “Asad-tuck-in-Garza-overlap-Almiron-shows-for-the-ball-triangle” (TM). This is Atlanta’s Plan A it seems to me. The buildup culminates with 3 Atlanta attackers narrow moving into the box with Almiron the ball behind them, and Garza and Walkes in plenty of space wide. Then they successfully work the ball into the danger area, but fail to find a shot. Great buildup play on the road in a hostile environment.

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  • In the 23rd minute, there’s this nice little flick (link to MLS clip) coming from back to front as LGP finds Almiron in space centrally and he plays Asad through nicely.
  • In the 36th minute, we see Plan A again: calm and conservative buildup from the back. Asad tucked in, Garz/Asad/Almiron/Tito combination down the left. Narrowly called offside though I don’t see it. Another one of those very good plays/ very dangerous chancs that doesn’t show up anywhere in the numbers.

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  • In the 63rd minute, you see another very high quality concept from Atlanta in buildup (similar to the last one). Under basically no pressure from Orlando’s forwards, the Atlanta de facto back 3 is able to rotate the ball around with ease and then Parkhurst can pick out Almiron dropping between the lines. Again, if I’m offered this position, I play it. It didn’t come off but a very nice buildup.

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  • In the 78th minute, we see Orlando nominally pressing high but with little effectiveness. Atlanta plays the extreme short buildup concept, and Garza makes a safe choice to play direct under a little bit of pressure (denies a giveaway opportunity for Orlando). The ball is headed back to the midway line by Orlando and Atlanta wins the second ball, and look at that final position: 4v2 in the attacking third. Again, another very dangerous situation. Just missing the final ball/move from the away side.

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On balance, if you told me I was playing away in a hostile environment and gave me the choice between these types of moments and a couple admittedly good header opportunities off of set pieces, I think I’m taking these — before we even get to Tito’s Level 99 Thunderbolt. Jesus what a goal. I don’t have much to add to that. I think Rob at DirtySouth has some good points about Tito potentially lining up on the left for shots such as this one, and for other reasons.

And that’s basically what I wanted to get across. Shots-based expected goals did not tell the whole story of this one. And oddly, this seems to happen often with this team. It may have felt like a heist in the middle of the night with Guzan’s very nice saves, and Tito’s fireball, and Will Johnson’s miss, but on balance, Atlanta accomplished what they wanted to in the press and in buildup, and occasionally you’ll have games where it’s hard to convert that into end product. It’s the nature of the sport.

Oh, two quick comments on team shape.

First, I thought it was cool to see Jeff Larentowicz in a more pronounced back 3 for most of the game, which is the correct “by-the-book” move against a 2 forward setup from Orlando.

Second, late in the game a fascinating thing happened. Jason Longshore was the first person I saw who mentioned it (on Monday’s SoccerDownHere show). Martino had Atlanta line up in a sort of false 9 4-3-3 type look, with Almiron leading the line, flanked by two more traditional forward type players, Villalba on the left and Vazquez on the right. There were a couple nice moments in this – one was THE GOAL. The other involved Almiron picking the ball up in the half space, dealing it to Walkes wide right and collecting it again for a shot just outside the box. I think this is something to keep an eye on. The only other time I remember seeing something like this was against Toronto where Almiron played centrally flanked by Villalba on the right and Asad on the left. I might like to see this look with Villalba on the left, Martinez on the right, Almiron central, and Asad sitting behind him as the furthest forward in a central midfield triangle.


I’ve described these in further detail over at DirtySouth, but basically because MLS’ schedule is less balanced than a traditional European league, we shouldn’t look at the table “straight” the way we might look at the Premier League table. Once you make some adjustments for games played, and home/away splits, you get a better picture of how teams are actually doing. Atlanta are doing well. See below:

Pace 1: Win away, Draw Away Measuring StickPACE1

PACE 2: Historical MLS Home/Away Average Points Per Game Measuring StickPACE2


High Press and Possession – Midseason Review

I put together something over at DirtySouthSoccer summarizing and reviewing all of the pressure/tidiness type stats you might see on this blog all the time. I sort of like how ti turned out. Please check it out here:


Player Tidiness

A poor excuse for a catch-up post (7-17-17)

Thought I would drop in a few pressure/possession tables for the most recent few games, which I have not covered on the blog at all during a period of absence.

First, the Five Stripes hosted Colorado, winning 1-0 on 1.9-0.8 of shot-based expected goals (ASA).

COL pressure table

Next, the return leg in Columbus, a 2-0 victory compared to 1.2-1.3 xG (ASA).


And lastly, a weird one against a 10-man San Jose, in which Atlanta won 4-2 on 2.6-1.3 expected goals based on the quality and number of shots.


Overall these were some decently unique games in terms of pressure, tidiness, and chance quality. Colorado didn’t even attempt to press Atlanta, and it shows in the above average tidiness figures for the home side. Colorado couldn’t hold onto the ball in their own half, putting up an abysmal pass per giveaway number while generally limiting the damage from lost possessions in their own half. Against Columbus, Atlanta actually sat back slightly (partly cuz game state) and hit long over the top with some success. We’ll look back on this one as a very rare gem, I’d imagine, for a number of reasons even if they couldn’t limit the giveaways against a pressing Crew FC. And then against San Jose, the first half press numbers are interesting as San Jose gave as much as they got. But the second half went as one would expect with the Earthquakes down a man. Atlanta barely spent time in its own half, and simply did not turn the ball over back there. Atlanta’s pressure on San Jose in the second was impressive.

Atlanta’s averaging 7 own-half passes per giveaway compared to their opponents’ 4.3. That 4.3 number feels about right for a high pressing side. We’ll see if that 7 budges going forward.

Atlanta continue to “run hot” against the expected goals models. I put up a poll asking whether we thought Atlanta’s results would continue over the second half of the season at their current GD per game pace (+0.5) or decline somewhat towards their expected goal difference per game of (-0.3). It was unanimous for the former, which I found interesting. But everyone seems right at the moment…

There will likely be something from me on DirtySouthSoccer.com this week. Be on the lookout.