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Possession, Pace, Purpose - title contenders

There are three elite teams in MLS as the All Star Game approaches. Each go about things a bit differently.

Holding hands at the top, these two sides are Seattle's biggest threats on the year.
Holding hands at the top, these two sides are Seattle's biggest threats on the year.
Gary Rohman/Sporting KC-USA TODAY Sports

Now just over halfway through the MLS season a few things start to become apparent. Team styles are knowable. Expected performances can be divined. One of the things that's become clear is that Seattle Sounders FC is one of the best teams in the league, but they are not in a tier by themselves, in fact there are two other teams that look to be essentially as good as Seattle - the LA Galaxy and Sporting Kansas City.

There are other good teams, but not great teams.

This is true across multiple ways to assess team strength. Looking at just Sagarin and you find that those three sides are the top three, but they aren't clearly in a separate tier as D.C. United are also strong by that measure.

Let's take a journey through expected Goal Differential as shared by TempoFreeSoccer (we're going to spend some time with this chart so leave the tab open). This is from prior to the matches of Wednesday night, but things wouldn't shift dramatically. The top three are clear and the good fortune of United is clear. The 4th best side is TFC, but they have a weakness in actual Goal Differential. TFC lacks the offensive power that our hypothetical top three. DC makes the TFC attack look powerful.

Sidereal's CPR (again prior to the Wednesday games) shows the same top three again. Dallas is the next best, right about Toronto. Both have the same flaw - completing passes in the final third. Sporting does have a weakness according to CPR, but two of the other three components are amazing.

So there are three teams that are "the best so far" by several different measures. They're even three of the top four teams by PPG in the Supporters' Shield race. This isn't what is most interesting. There's always going to be a top tier of teams (even if they are the same top tier year-to-year, we'll look at that later).

Go back to the TFS chart. Hidden in that is some interesting data about style of play, not just predictive data, but descriptive data about how teams do what they do.

Seattle Sounders FC plays a high tempo game. This isn't new, it's actually been true for the past three seasons.

It's part of why the goals against numbers for Seattle are so bad. They play at such a pace that even though their defense is good as a rate state the tempo creates raw numbers that look quite poor. That's Seattle.

With the LA Galaxy you see a team that counters through quick passes. The pace of most of their matches is actually the slowest in the league. Arena is allowing other teams to play with the ball. LA's opponents are getting the opportunity to move the ball around to the tune of half a pass per possession more than the best team at limiting opponent touches.

That takes us to KC. Their high pressure defense is working. They are the best team in MLS at limiting an opponent's touches. And this year they've added a single dynamic player that can score goals in bunches (and one of the best midfielders in the league as well).

So not only are there three top teams right now, all of them are using different styles of play. Seattle and LA use similar shapes, but their tactics vary and you can see it right in the numbers. Major League Soccer is seeing variance not just in the top tiers. LA's Counter, high press 4-3-3, frantic hydra, press 4-diamond-2, bunker/counter of TFC, dead balls & long balls of Dallas.

The loss to LA hurts, but it is also part of the nature of facing one of the clear top tiers sides, a poor mix of styles for Seattle and the weakened defense. It was an imperfect storm, one that will need to be weathered at least twice more and probably four more times for Seattle or the Galaxy to make the MLS Cup.

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