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Expected Crosses, Expected Struggles

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Playing from behind has played to the Seattle Sounders' weaknesses on offense.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

At the heart of any model of expected goals lies a basic truth: shot location is a key determinant of scoring. The best possible shooter scores infrequently from outside the box. The most agile keeper struggles to stop shots at point-blank range.

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When the Sounders' per 90' shooting rate dropped by 4 from 2014 to 2015, it was some consolation that half again as many shots came within the 6-yard box... nearly 10% of Seattle's attempts to score. On average, roughly a third of shots taken from that range in MLS end up in the back of the net.

Year Shots per 90' OutsideBox(%) PenArea(%) 6-Yard(%)
2014 13.82 45.96 47.87 6.38
2015 9.62 38.53 51.99 9.48
2016 11.80 54.24 40.68 5.08

In 2016, Seattle's shooting rate has recovered somewhat, but the team's expected goals have sunk to the bottom of the MLS table (setting aside, for the moment, the additional concern that many Sounders shots are coming when playing from behind).

In Obafemi Martins, Seattle had a combination of off-the ball movement and sheer physical ability that could not be consistently marked out of a game. Sigi Schmid could (and did) leave Martins and Clint Dempsey with the freedom to seek out their strike partner on first look for an outlet pass, and trust that scoring situations that arose would be dangerous. In 2014 and 2015, Marco Pappa presented a secondary creative option, and Lamar Neagle a third forward to make the final shot (less so in 2015 than before, of course...). Martins' departure left a hole that couldn't be tactically matched by any player on the roster, demanding a change to the tactical approach in the final third. Said change hasn't worked.

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The chart above shows crossing rates and accuracy for MLS teams between 2014 and 2016. We should be encouraged that no team has managed to sustain a crossing success rate below 20% over the course of a full season, and strongly discouraged that crossing has become a dominant Sounder tactic when a cross finds a rave green target on 1 of every 6 attempts.

Seattle has one particularly dangerous target for headers in the run of play (Nelson Valdez), who is simultaneously committed to hold-up play in a manner that limits his access to goal. Dempsey, Andreas Ivanschitz, and Jordan Morris are certainly capable of headed goals, but the tactical situation to give them those opportunities relies on space in the box. The more Seattle relies on the cross, the less effective it will become with the personnel in place.

Raw data for this work has been collected from OPTA via whoscored.com.