Sigi Schmid acknowledged the importance of on-field roles following the Seattle Sounders' 3-1 road victory over the Colorado Rapids, concerning Lamar Neagle:
"He can score goals from the wing, he doesn't have to be up front. I thought he had an uptick game last week up front and he was able to transfer that onto the wing, and you can be goal dangerous from there as well."
For Neagle, that's two games, two different positions, and 5 shots on goal for each (following 305 minutes without a shot of any kind to start the season). At that rate, figuring out a way to clone him may be a more pressing concern than figuring out his ideal position on the field... but Neagle is always going to have weaker stretches of play, and he's not going to supplant Seattle's first-choice strikers except in case of injury. Neagle has a considerable amount of playing time in both positions; Sigi's comment simply restates the ongoing question of which role offers better value to the team, at a time when promising youngsters are making bids for midfield playing time. That value is ultimately dependent upon the style of player that fits into the existing attack.
So... what kind of midfielder is Lamar Neagle, how does he compare to the MLS average, and how can we define an average for the specific expectations of his wing role? The x-axis, measuring "short" (as defined by whoscored.com) passing accuracy is self-explanatory. "Distance" on the y-axis is a measure of MLS midfielder role similarity to Neagle, defined by team shares of defensive actions and passes (more thoroughly discussed here). The metric is the Euclidean distance between Neagle and other midfielders.
How do we weight the difficulty of actions we measure in soccer. Advanced metrics like expected goals use contextual information (e.g. shooting position, body part, situation) to assess the difficulty/probability of scoring (for further reading, check out americansocceranalysis.com, Michael Caley's model and commentary, and sidereal's piece here). Similarly, I've previously discussed how not all passes are struck equal. Measuring player role gives us another means of assessing statistical context - other players in the league asked to perform the same task represent a more complete measure of difficulty than we can currently measure with x,y coordinates.
You should notice that Neagle (the point that lies directly on the x-axis) had a low pass accuracy in 2014 by the standards of MLS starting midfielders. As a player's role approaches Neagle's responsibilities - as defined by pass and defense shares - most players exhibit lower-than average pass accuracy. MLS employs a number of attacking midfielders who, like Neagle, prioritize high risk / high reward play, and have correspondingly weak passing numbers. How does Neagle compare to those midfielders with most similar on-field roles?
A "touch" here is defines as any short pass, long pass, cross, or shot as parsed by whoscored.com.
Lamar Neagle is a below-average passer and loses possession somewhat more than his immediate peers. He creates chances (his own shots, and those of his teammates) at a fairly average rate. He converts those chances (G+A) at a very high rate. Whether he is merely average or very good as an MLS winger is ultimately a question of how much one attributes that middle graph to "luck." Per americansocceranalysis, Neagle's expected goals+assists were ~10 for 2014, in contrast to his actual result of 16. The change would place his G+A/100Touches around 1.
As an attack progresses, soccer arguably becomes more of a zero-sum game - fewer than 11 players participate in setting up a shot, scoring a goal, and losing possession to the other team. Where Neagle takes a chance, that may sometimes mean Marco Pappa does not. If Aaron Kovar is crossing from the left flank to Clint Dempsey around the 6-yard box, Dempsey is not providing a through ball to Obafemi Martins at the top of the penalty area. Neagle is fit into this offense as the attacker with the least distributional responsibility, considerably defensive responsibility, and the need to provide a third attacker in the box.
Does Neagle's Own Performance Vary by Position?
Against Colorado, we saw the benefits of Neagle matching up against Bobby Burling in space outside the box and making a late run while marked by James Riley. Duels on the wing work well... sometimes better than they do forward. Since 2013, as a starter:
Neagle is legitimately dangerous and good value as a starter on the wing as well as at forward. Situationally, Seattle can benefit from swapping him with a player who provides better service or possession. For most situations, he is a good option.