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Goalkeepers have a role to play in possession, too

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Seattle's increased emphasis on possession hasn't changed Stefan Frei's role... yet.

Where did that one land?
Where did that one land?
JaneGPhotography

GKtB1

via squawka.com

Distribution is not a strength of Stefan Frei's game.

The comparison above may nevertheless be somewhat harsh on the Seattle Sounders goalkeeper. The squawka.com chalkboard exhibits only open-play passes (Frei completed 1 of 9 on the day), and the 3-2 loss against the Columbus Crew stands as one of few examples of the team being outplayed so far in 2015; Frei's struggles in passing may reflect general malaise of the back line rather than personal failings. Steve Clark's distribution chart on the left is a challenge to best - Clark is arguably the best (or, at least, the most accurate) passer among MLS goalkeepers.

With the Sounders, Frei's passing accuracy has been roughly at the MLS average for keepers (and one might argue that this, in itself is an accomplishment for a team lacking in traditional target forwards). On a "long" pass, the average keeper sends the ball to the other team slightly more than 6 times out of 10. The best keeper turns it over somewhat less than 5 times. The worst keepers for accuracy turn the ball over on long passes 7 times out of 10 chances - launching to midfield is never a good action for holding possession and rarely an effective tactic for mounting a dangerous attack. On Sunday, against the New York Red Bulls, we saw Frei often choose short distribution to the backline and defensive midfield. With New York's cluttered midfield, this tactic wasn't always successful as Seattle found it difficult to move out of its defensive half (though long balls toward a pair of forwards playing uncharacteristically poor games may have not been a better option). As much has been made of Seattle's transition to a more possession-focused offense and the availability of veteran midfield distributor Brad Evans in central defense, I was curious to see whether the Sounders' changing style had made any impact on Frei's role in the passing game.

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Well... no. Frei has exhibited shorter distribution in a number of games within 2015, but so far these fit within the regular variation of his 2014 performance. The seasonal average values for 2014 and 2015 are shown in the eerily similar dashed lines. Can we perceive any significant difference with better resolution on pass type?

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via squawka.com

Still... not really.

Could Seattle still improve its possession game by modifying Frei's usage? The Sounders should have a decent amount of confidence in the performance of the backline so far in 2015 and, more specifically, faith in its ability to clean up isolated mistakes conceding possession in the defensive half. Evans, Osvaldo Alonso and the fullbacks offer a number of methods of advancing the ball with higher success rates. Nevertheless, it's hard to say that Seattle could reduce keeper passes by a truly significant amount.

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In his time with Seattle, Frei has been been responsible for just over 5% of the team's passes - 59% of those being the "long" variety (these numbers include free kicks). In 2014, this translated to ~0.173 long passes per minute - which ranked the third lowest number in the league (behind KC's Eric Kronberg and the aforementioned Steve Clark) despite playing for a high pass-volume team. Frei's LP rate is up in 2015 (to 0.204), a trend that might be partially explained by Seattle conceding a larger number of shots, many off-target. The chart above suggests that Frei's tendency to launch long passes is mainly dependent upon either necessity or game state that asks him to take a larger role.

...but I will still celebrate seeing Seattle playing out of the back.

Unless otherwise noted, all raw stats are collected from OPTA via whoscored.com