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Goal drought of 2016: Understanding roster needs

The Sounders have scored the fewest number of goals in the league thus far. Why is that, exactly? How should the front office address this problem in the summer transfer window?

MLS: New York City FC at Seattle Sounders FC
Scoring is hard.
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Previously on Sounder at Heart, summer transfer targets were reviewed. Most of the names that have been linked with the Sounders are midfield playmakers. These transfer targets are consistent with the type of player General Manager Garth Lagerwey has been expressing interest in for months.

Lagerwey, along with various members of the Sounders organization have made no secret that the primary objective in the summer transfer window is to add creativity to the Sounders attack in the form of two starters: a designated player and another high-caliber player that will require usage of targeted allocation money (TAM). The hope is that the injection of creativity will generate much needed scoring chances for our forwards, namely Jordan Morris and Clint Dempsey. So far this season the Sounders have scored the fewest number of goals in the entire league. When Oba left town, he left a goal vacancy behind as well as exposed the midfield for its lack of creativity.

To determine the best use of club resources for the upcoming transfer window, let us dig a little deeper into soccer statistics. After all, statistics are often a helpful aid to the eyeball test in determining a team’s weaknesses and strengths. At this point in the season the Sounders have played 15 games, a large enough sample size from which to draw conclusions from.

Quantity of Service ≠ Quality of Service

The following matrices have been created on to compare the Sounders offense against a cross-section of other MLS teams in several statistical categories. In Figure 1 (below), we can see that the Sounders have scored the lowest number of goals per game as well as the lowest goals per game from inside areas. Now, notice the bottom category, shots from inside area. Despite the low production of goals, the Sounders actually generate a fair number of close proximity shots. Not the highest among the five teams, but certainly in the same neighborhood. Chicago Fire, a team that has struggled to score this season, concurrently takes fewer inside shots per game. With Chicago we can see a direct negative correlation. Conversely, the first place Philadelphia Union take the most inside shots and score the most goals—a direct positive correlation. Lastly, let’s look at Real Salt Lake. Here is a team that has scored at nearly twice the rate of the Sounders despite having the lowest rate of inside shots per match. Clearly, the metric "shots inside area" alone cannot be used to determine the strength of a team’s attack. Other variables are at play.

Figure 1 - Goals; goals inside; shots inside

Below, Figure 2 shows the Sounders leading all four statistical categories: chance creation, key passes, possession, and total backward passes. The obvious conclusion to be made from these stats is that our attacking players are failing to score goals despite the high number of chances created, key passes made, and shots taken from inside areas. In other words, the stats tell us the Sounders have a finishing problem, not a creation problem. While there is some truth to the "finishing problem" theory, it is not a complete explanation. While our young forwards and veteran forwards alike have not exactly been clinical in front of goal, the quality of service has not been there like the quantity of service has. Squawka is a fine source for informing us on the quantity of soccer things like shots, chance creation, and key passes, however is unable to address the quality of these attacking attributes.

Figure 2 - chances created; key passes; possession; back passes

Expected Goals

American Soccer Analysis is a site, among many, that tracks advanced soccer statistics, one of which is called "expected goals for" (xGF). xGF is essentially a method for estimating the quality of chances a team creates. This advanced statistic can be applied to a single game, or even over the course of a season. Expected goals evaluates quality of chances by taking several factors into consideration such as number of shots taken, distance of said shots from goal, angle of shots, type of shots (head, chest, foot, etc.), and type of key pass received (through ball, cross, etc.). The xGF stat attempts to discern the quality of chances a team takes in an attempt to erode the importance of the quantity of chance creation, which can be deceptive. As we all know in soccer, some chances are better than others. Of course, xGF is not a perfect measure as it does not take into consideration where defenders are, who is taking the shot, among others factors. For a more in depth take on expected goals, I recommend heading over to SB Nation’s online community for Tottenham, Cartilage Free Captain.

Figure 3 - Expected Goals in MLS

While Squawka has shown us that chance creation, possession, key passes, and shots inside are in no way scarce in Seattle, American Soccer Analysis is telling us that despite the quantity of service, the quality simply isn’t very good. See Figure 3, above. So far this season according to the xGF metric, the Sounders should have scored 18 goals, definitely on the low end of the spectrum.

So, who should we believe, traditional stats, or an algorithm that pretends to understand quality? For me, I’m going to go with a combination, but placing more emphasis on expected goals because it is consistent with the eyeball test. High possession and back passes, combined with the team’s low xGF are indicators of a stagnant offense that has run out of ideas. Sound like something you’ve seen?

Eyeball test

What is not being measured is the pace at which passes are made—tempo. As well as the variance of passes—predictability, creativity. Like many supporters, I have been frustrated this season by how slowly the ball transitions from defense to offense. Attacking players are too often hamstrung by how long it takes the defense and midfield to move the ball into dangerous areas. Some of this is a product of hesitation by players that lack vision and creativity, while another part of the equation is off-the-ball movement—players not making the effort to get open. By the time our attacking players receive the ball in the attacking third, the opposition has already tracked back and positioned their defense, effectively neutralizing the danger of Seattle’s possession. The slow rate of passes (time on the ball), sluggish off-the-ball movement, and lack of midfield creativity all contribute to backward passes, midfield stagnation, high possession, and low quality chance creation.

Who should be brought in? My two cents

Creative attacking midfielders that can provide service from the wide positions as well as from the center of the pitch. Playmakers, generally. I believe the biggest issue with the team is quality of chance creation. Lodeiro and Blanco are two players that have found success creating danger from left, right and center.

Second, a fast, proven strike partner for Deuce that can stretch the defense in the same way Morris, Zardes, and Wood have done with Clint. Morris is an excellent striker, but in my estimation, too much is being asked of him too soon. The pressure to produce goals and carry the team seems to have weighed on him and affected his chance conversion (just a hunch). The loss of confidence our strikers are experiencing may be a symptom of the underlying problem: midfield creativity. When quality of service is lacking, goal output suffers as a result, which in turn affects confidence of the attacking corps, reducing the probability of future success in front of goal. This may sound like pure conjecture, and by all means feel free to disregard, but I truly think the negative feedback loop I described can help explain the poor results we’re seeing on the field.

Current state of the roster shows the Sounders have 27 of 28 roster spots filled. This isn’t a complete picture.

A few things to point out:

  • Torres has been on the disabled list the entire season, dropping that number to 26/28.
  • Victor Mansaray is on a full season loan with Sounders II, 25/28.
  • If two players join in summer transfer like we expect, that becomes 27/28.
  • In addition to two summer signings, if Torres returns as expected, the roster would be at capacity, 28/28.
  • However, teams that reach capacity may be permitted a 29th player if they are carrying three keepers. 28/29
  • If Garth goes on a drunken eBay shopping spree this transfer window, the team could always relegate Michael Farfan to the disabled list like the club did with Alex Correa last season.

TL;DR version

The Sounders need a midfield playmaker(s) and a pacey striker (preferably older than 22, younger than 32) to spell Morris. The Sounders have plenty of roster spots open to make this happen. Cap room is another story.

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