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Stats confirm Brad Smith has been very good

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In his short time with Seattle, Brad Smith has not only shown he’s the right man for the job, he’s one of the best in league.

Max Aquino/Sounder at Heart

There was a time when fullbacks were primarily, well … defenders. You might occasionally see one scamper up a flank to join an attack, but rarely both and never without a nervous glance backwards. Fullbacks were usually shorter, not dominant enough aerially to be deployed centrally. It was a position without glamour or fanfare. Now, they are some of the most in-demand personnel on the market. They command staggering transfer fees at the highest levels, and assume an incredible amount of tactical responsibility.

While there is a general impression that this evolution of fullbacks from wide defenders to what they are now is a recent one, the fact is that we saw the idea germinate as far back as the 1960s and ‘70s when cavalier fullbacks like Nilton Santos, Carlos Alberto, and Giacinto Fachetti refused to literally be put in a corner. They were pioneers then, but their interpretation of the position is now more or less standard across all levels of the professional game.

I don’t think it’s a particularly controversial take to point out that historically speaking, Major League Soccer has hardly been drowning in quality outside backs. Certainly, we can point to several over the last few years that have become integral parts of their team’s tactical schemes — Graham Zusi, Kemar Lawrence, DeAndre Yedlin, and Joevin Jones come to mind — but even in 2019 a look across MLS rosters shows that this position pool may still be the weakest in the league.

Sounders fans have fond memories of a number of players that ran the flanks at CenturyLink. The aforementioned Yedlin and Jones are certainly the two standouts, but who can forget guys like Leo Gonzalez, Adam Johansson, and uh Tyson Wahl? Sure. Let’s go with Tyson Wahl.

While many MLS teams don’t have even one good left back on their roster, Seattle may very well have two. There was a lot of discussion in preseason about whether Nouhou or Brad Smith would earn the starting job. Thus far, 2019 has belonged to Smith, and the Australian has impressed.

A visual impression of these two players would seem to indicate a major difference stylistically. Nouhou often appears to be running downhill, fighting not just the opposition but his own frenetic energy. He is a sledge hammer and the left flank is a non load-bearing wall in a room that needs more open space.

Smith is less, well, all of that. He still boasts a tremendous workrate, and while he may not possess Nouhou’s explosiveness, I wouldn’t know whom to bet on in a straight up foot race. Smith will probably never get as much attention as the easily memed Nouhou does. Nouhou for better or worse is a player you notice. Smith less so.

How Schmetzer uses left backs

In short, they’re important. The only things more reliably important than the left back for Seattle, is Nicolas Lodeiro and in the past, Osvaldo Alonso. A quick perusal of touch percentage per apperance (amount of a team’s touches that an individual player makes) in the Schmetzer era shows indeed how much usage he gets from that position.

2017

Nicolas Lodeiro: 13.7%

Osvaldo Alonso: 13.0%

Nouhou Tolo: 12.0%

Cristian Roldan: 11.6%

Joevin Jones: 11.3%

2018

Nicolas Lodeiro: 14.8%

Waylon Francis: 12.5%

Osvaldo Alonso: 12.4%

Nouhou Tolo: 12.0%

Brad Smith: 11.5%

2019

Nicolas Lodeiro: 14.4%

Brad Smith: 12.9%

Cristian Roldan: 11.8%

Gustav Svensson: 11.6%

Kelvin Leerdam: 10.1%

This is not terribly surprising if you’ve watched the Sounders with any regularity over the last three seasons. Compared to other MLS teams, Seattle were the most left-side biased team in 2017, the second most in 2018, and currently sit atop that particular hill again so far in 2019.

So, is Brad Smith actually good?

I think he’s really good yeah. Before we get into statistical specifics though, I have some caveats for the data we’re about to dive into.

First, and most importantly, we’re still pretty early into the season and as such, we’re dealing with a very small sample size. Six matches is a lot smaller of a sample than we want before declaring a thing to be true and repeatable, but it’s what we’ve got and it’s fun to take a peek anyway.

Secondly, defensive actions tend to be wonky and are hard to compare across seasons and teams even within the same league. High defensive action numbers like tackles, interceptions, and clearances raise eyebrows but don’t necessarily translate to a defender being actually “good” so much as “busy”. We’ll take a look at Brad’s defensive actions, but mainly compare him to players like Nouhou so we can see if Seattle are missing out on anything when Schmetzer elects to play Smith. Also we’ll compare him to 2016/17 Joevin Jones because I think most Seattle fans would consider him to the best LB the Sounders have had.

Defensive stats

Player Tck p90 Tck % Dribbled Past Int p 90 Blk Pass p90 Blk Cross p90 Recoveries p 96
Player Tck p90 Tck % Dribbled Past Int p 90 Blk Pass p90 Blk Cross p90 Recoveries p 96
Jones (2016) 1.8 79.69 0.4 1.2 0.6 0.4 6.12
Jones (2017) 1.5 72.73 0.6 1.2 0.6 0.2 5.96
Nouhou (2018) 2.4 80 0.5 2 0.3 0.7 6.98
Smith (2019) 2.4 86.67 0.5 1.2 0.5 0.2 6.41

This is where I would have expected Nouhou to really stand out, and to some degree he does, taking the top spot of our four contestants in a few categories. Also, interestingly enough, I didn’t include blocked shots because that doesn’t seem like a thing that outside backs should really be doing a lot, but Nouhou somehow managed to get in the way of 0.3 per 90 minutes last season. As best as I can tell, Smith hasn’t blocked a single shot this season, but your mileage may vary on how important you consider that stat for an outside back. For me, it’s not much more than a curiosity. Otherwise, Smith is hanging pretty tough with Nouhou on the defensive side of things. The only mark here that gives me even the slightest pause is that he isn’t doing a lot in the way of blocking crosses, but this could improve given a match or two where Seattle face a lot of them. Smith’s successful tackle rate so far is super impressive, but that will probably normalize around Nouhou’s mark as the season progresses.

If you had asked me before the beginning of the season, I would have said my biggest concern with starting Smith over Nouhou would be losing the defensive tenacity that Nouhou brings. I am no longer concerned with this.

Let’s take a look at the other side of the ball.

Offensive stats

Player Goals p 96 Assists p 96 Shots p96 xG p96 xA p96
Player Goals p 96 Assists p 96 Shots p96 xG p96 xA p96
Joevin Jones (2016) 0.07 0.11 0.58 0.03 0.16
Joevin Jones (2017) 0.04 0.34 1.01 0.1 0.2
Nouhou (2018) 0 0 0.67 0.03 0.06
Brad Smith(2019) 0 0.34 0.17 0.01 0.18

Goals and expected goals are kind of an esoteric stat when it comes to outside backs, but I thought I’d include it because I know somebody would ask if I didn’t. Most shots that outside backs wind up taking are speculative at best, and that’s reflected in our rather paltry xG returns. Smith doesn’t really shoot and his numbers clearly indicate that. Nouhou is famous for his raffle-ticket attempts, and that’s all fun and hilarious late in a match that’s been decided, but can make you pull your hair out when you find yourself in a position where you shouldn’t be wasting attacks. That being said, despite his reputation for such efforts, Nouhou isn’t guilty of that often enough to concern me, but it’s worth noting.

Assists and expected assists are where things get very interesting. Joevin Jones’ 2017 season was incredible from a creator point of view, and his absence in 2018 was, I believe, one of the causes for Seattle’s lackluster start to the campaign. 0.34 assists p96 and 0.2 xA p96 are amongst the very best returns for an outside back since American Soccer Analysis has been able to start tracking data (the sets go back to 2011). Those were truly elite seasons from a shot creation perspective and so far, Smith, is right there too. Smith’s xA is a touch lower than Jones’ 2017, and so I don’t know that he’ll be able to keep up that 0.34 assist rate, but if he’s anywhere in that ballpark come the end of the season, Seattle will be extremely pleased.

The Involvement Suite

Player Pass p96 Pass Score p96 Key Pass p96 Touch % xBp96 xGChainp96
Player Pass p96 Pass Score p96 Key Pass p96 Touch % xBp96 xGChainp96
J. Jones (2016) 62.5 2.04 1.04 11.2 0.75 0.86
J. Jones (2017) 60.2 0.9 1.39 11.3 0.86 1.07
Nouhou (2018) 60.9 -0.16 0.58 12 0.6 0.68
Brad Smith (2019) 77.8 2.29 1.2 12.9 0.65 0.85

I like to call this collection of numbers “The Involvement Suite”. You don’t have to call it that, and I recommend you do not unless you want people to think you’re a pretentious nerd. Basically though, these stats show how involved a player is in a team’s attack/build-up. For example, just looking at the raw amount of passes, we can see that Smith is unsurprisingly moving the ball a lot more than his predecessors.

When we’re looking at a pass score, we’re obviously looking for a positive number. ASA calculates a pass’ chance of success based on the type of pass (header, cross, set piece, etc) and its point of origin and destination. Any amount of passes you complete over your expected successful passes are your pass score. If you come up short of your expected pass success, you’re going to get a negative number. Smith’s 2.29 and Jones’ 2.04 are very good. Nouhou’s (-0.16) is obviously not so much.

Touch percentage is self explanatory, and we already discussed above just how involved Seattle’s left backs are.

Key Passes are a pass that occurs right before a shot. Think of it as an assist where the shot didn’t go in. That’s very often not the fault of the passer, so we like to give them credit for making the shot possible.

xB and xChain are likely going to be the most cryptic of these numbers, but I think they are an important tool in looking at a player’s value. For xB (expected build-up), imagine that a player participates in the buildup but doesn’t make the final pass or the shot in a possession. In the more standardized set of statistics, we don’t give them any credit for this other than noting the successful passes they completed. Expected build-up tells us how often a player is contributing to their team’s most valuable possessions (ones that end in a shot). xChain is more of a catchall, taking a player’s xB and adding in their xA and xG. So in essence, xChain is a combination of all of a player’s contributions to a team’s possessions that end in a shot. I understand if your eyes rolled back in your head there, but the main thing here is that Jones was godlike at this in 2017 and Smith is no slouch so far this season.

The reveal

So for our final act, let’s not just compare Smith to other Sounders, let’s see how he looks when we compare him to other MLS fullbacks. All of the caveats I stated above about sample size apply here too. For this dataset we’re using players that our system recognizes as fullbacks from 2015 to 2018 and have at least 2,000 minutes in a season. To include Smith, we’re also adding in the 22 regular fullbacks who have at least 500 minutes in 2019.

Brad Smith is very good.

This graphic was prepared by Eliot McKinley, whom you should all follow on Twitter if you like cool MLS data viz. It is what we call a “beeswarm plot”. The big green and white number is Brad Smith’s statistic, while the little grey plots are all of the other players in the dataset. Farther to the right is good, farther to the left is not as good. So other than the aforementioned blocked crosses, and interceptions here, Brad Smith is pretty much on the top end of nearly every other metric we’d use to gauge an outside back

. Again, I cannot stress enough that these are VERY early returns, but I’m pretty confident that Brian Schmetzer has made the correct decision in awarding him the starting job.

OK, so he’s good, but is he staying all year?

Yeah, I don’t know. That’s kind of awkward. I can’t speak to any inside knowledge of whatever the situation is, but I think it’s probably safe to assume that given his rather important role in the team, and the way he has been performing, that Seattle would most certainly be very interested in making Smith’s stay longer. We do know his loan is scheduled to end in the summer. But it’s very difficult to imagine that Seattle would be giving him this much playing time if they didn’t have good reason to believe that he would be extending his stay, but that’s just purely speculation on my part.

No matter what happens with Smith’s loan, the Sounders can take some comfort in the fact that Nouhou is a more than capable MLS left back, so Seattle won’t be left entirely in the lurch. While Nouhou may not present quite the same attacking threat that Smith does, he’s maybe a nose better on the defensive side of the ball and still young enough that there is a lot to be excited about in regards to his development. Seattle have generally been blessed with good outside backs, and it’s a nice situation to be in where if one of the league’s best left backs has to go back to England, they can just replace him with one of the league’s best up-and-coming left backs.

My biggest takeaway from looking at all of this, though, should give Seattle fans some comfort even if Smith’s situation isn’t totally resolved yet, and/or Nouhou starts getting concrete interest from abroad. Between Smith, Leerdam, and Nouhou it seems that Seattle’s front office and staff know exactly what they’re looking for when it comes to shopping for this position, and that’s something that a lot of MLS teams have yet to figure out.