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Advanced stats somehow like the Sounders even more than you

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We crunched the numbers and the numbers were like, “Are you sure this is right?”

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

Things are going pretty well in Sounders town. Brian Schmetzer and Co. are off to the best start in team history (probably... we’ll get into it) despite missing their two best players (Lodeiro, Morris) and a difficult opening schedule. There’s a new formation and it’s doing good soccer. There are new heroes stepping up (come forth Bradley Smith and Alexander Roldan), we’re seeing the youths get substantial playing time, and did I already mention that Nicolas Lodeiro has only played 24 minutes this year? Seattle has taken 16 of the first 18 points on offer, and they’re sitting high atop the table with a +11 GD, which is nearly double that of their nearest competitor.

So just how good is this Seattle team? Is this sustainable? Am I going to claim that Alex Roldan is possibly the best right back in MLS and also the 16th best GK?

It’s time for another Sounders statistical deep dive.

Before we get started here, I once again have to do my usual statistical caveat, which is: We are still really early into this season from a statistical perspective. All of the sample sizes I’m going to be using from 2021 are small, and should be regarded as such. That being said, what am I supposed to do? Not write an article until the end of the season? Nonsense. I want to do it now.

How good are the Sounders compared to the rest of the league?

Like, really good. Obviously.

Sounders vs. league

Stat: Shots Shots Against Goals Goals Against Goal Difference xG xGA xGD Pts xPts
Stat: Shots Shots Against Goals Goals Against Goal Difference xG xGA xGD Pts xPts
Total: 13.5 12 2.17 0.33 1.83 1.7 1.02 0.68 2.67 1.86
League Rank: 9 13 1 1 1 5 8 4 1 4

Once you start looking at the underlying numbers, it doesn’t look as all-conquering as it may seem at a surface glance of the standard table, but it’s worth pointing out that schedules aren’t really at all comparable right now, and it usually takes a little while for underlying numbers to settle. The Sounders are the best where it counts though, and I’m not sure what more we can ask of them.

Best start?

So let’s hit that first question I mentioned above. This is without a doubt the best I’ve ever felt about the Seattle Sounders after the first six matches of a season. The fact that it is the best start in team history is being touted frequently, and I wouldn’t have even thought to have questioned it, but then:

Sounders through years

Season Points xPoints Goals xGoals Goals Allowed xGoals Allowed GD xGD
Season Points xPoints Goals xGoals Goals Allowed xGoals Allowed GD xGD
2016 7 8.52 6 7.4 7 6.83 -1 0.58
2017 6 9.86 8 9.6 8 7.04 0 2.55
2018 4 7.94 5 8.34 13 9.09 -4 -0.75
2019 16 10.66 14 11.54 5 8.2 9 3.34
2020* 11 12.28 10 12.12 4 5.35 6 6.77
2021 16 11.13 13 10.18 2 6.11 11 4.07

I’m a little hesitant to even count 2020 here, or anywhere else. So, sure yes, a slightly better xGD in 2020, but also the first 6 games of 2020 were confusing and some of them were in a tournament in Orlando and some of them were not, and there was this whole pandemic thing. I’m sure you read about it. I present the numbers because we have the data, but it’s an asterisk season for me. So that leaves us with 2019.

That year was also a really good start to the season. As you can see, it’s the same amount of points. There were more goals in 2019. You could make an argument that the 2019 start was at a similar level to this year’s campaign. That is, until you look at the fixture list:

2019

Cincinnati - Home
Colorado - Home
Vancouver - Away
Real Salt Lake - Away
Toronto - Home
San Jose - Home

2021

Minnesota - Home
LAFC - Away
LAG Home
San Jose - Away
Portland - Away
LAFC - Home

That’s not just a much harder schedule than 2019, it’s one of the hardest schedules any MLS team has faced this season, and so far Seattle has more-or-less aced it other than that whole laying under the wall bit, which, with the comforting distance of hindsight, was actually pretty funny when you think about it. (Both images provided by @benwright of Speedway Soccer.)

The funny bit about strength of schedule, especially one that calculates and resolves weekly, is that the reason why LAFC has the toughest schedule is because they’ve played the Sounders twice. Seattle’s strength of schedule ranking is only as “low” as it is, because they can’t play themselves. That sounds like a pitch for some CBS drama (“in a world where Major League Soccer rules the land, the only team the Sounders couldn’t beat ... were themselves...”) I’d watch that. I guess we kind of have been so far this year.

OK, but, like, why?

Well, I’ll leave that to you armchair tacticians here in the comments section to work this bit out, but suffice to say that Seattle wears the 3-5-2 well. Oh, and the Sounders are getting some fantastic individual performances.

Obviously, there’s a ton of attention on Raúl Ruidíaz, as he is the guy who does most of the kicking the ball into the net. And yes, indeed he is worthy of such praise:

MLS TOP 5 PLAYERS SORTED BY xG+XA p 96

Player Minutes Shots Goals xG Assists xA xG+xA
Player Minutes Shots Goals xG Assists xA xG+xA
Raul Ruidiaz 591 29 5 5.65 0 0.25 5.9
Chicharito 467 15 7 4.55 1 0.2 4.75
Carles Gil 593 10 1 1.53 2 2.84 4.37
Robin Lod 482 20 2 3.08 2 1.24 4.32
Valentin Castellanos 490 22 4 3.93 0 0.27 4.2

If anything should give you any pause about that table, it’s that Ruidíaz is actually scoring LESS than our xG model suggests he should. Usually, somebody toward the top of goalscoring charts this early into the season is unsustainably outperforming our model. (cough) Chicharito (cough). Sorry, allergies. Anyway, Ruidiaz is doing the opposite, and it’s kind of terrifying to consider that the guy with the second-most goals in MLS is technically underperforming his expected production.

Here’s another fun one to look at:

BOTTOM 5 MLS GKS SORTED BY xG FACED PER 96

Player Minutes Shots Faced Saves xG Faced G-xG
Player Minutes Shots Faced Saves xG Faced G-xG
Pedro Gallese 492 2.54 2.15 0.46 -0.07
Joe Willis 491 2.35 1.37 0.7 0.08
Stefan Frei 488 3.93 3.34 0.72 -0.32
Sean Johnson 490 3.33 2.55 0.81 -0.03
John Pulskamp 489 3.53 2.16 0.84 -0.18

Bottom 5 MLS GKs might sound bad, but really, it depends what you’re looking for. Seattle have kept Stefan Frei relatively comfortable so far. He’s faced more shots than anybody on this list. He’s had to make more saves than anybody on this list, but he’s faced the third least xG in the league, which means that the kind of shots that Seattle is allowing are really poor ones. And the ones being allowed are being handled, as Frei also boasts the highest amount of saves in this group and the best G-xG. It will be strange to see the Sounders march out without Frei while he recovers from his injury, but hey, at least they thought to get a back-up Stefan (who, lest we forget, got a shutout in his first performance)!

How are the Sounders doing such a good job limiting quality shots?

The Defense

Here are the league leaders in T+I p96 (tackles plus interceptions).

Right there in the middle of 4 representatives from the most pressingest, tacklingest club in MLS is João Paulo, whose xQG (expected quarter given, a stat I just made up as a joke) is statistically equal to zero.

MLS LEAGUE LEADERS TACKLES PLUS INTERCEPTIONS PER 90 MINUTES

Player Tackles Interceptions T+I
Player Tackles Interceptions T+I
Kyle Duncan 4.89 5.33 10.2
Joao Paulo Mior 6.12 2.45 8.57
Sean Davis 4.4 4 8.4
Cristian Casseres JR 5 2.29 7.29
Claudio Bravo 2.95 4.32 7.27
Junior Moreno 5.2 1.8 7
Yeimar Gomez Andrade 3.49 3.49 6.98

And yep, right there at No. 7 is Yeimar Gomez Andrade. Let’s throw clearances in there and see what happens. Clearances are probably the least artful defensive action, but consider how often you silently scream CLEAR IT to yourself (or out loud in a crowded restaurant where the game is muted on a TV over the bar and you’re the only person watching it with any interest, I’m not judging) while watching a game of soccer. Clearances are the sledgehammers of a defender’s tool kit. Ideally, you aren’t put in a position where you need to use it, but sometimes brute force is the only way to get the job done.

MLS LEAGUE LEADERS DEFENSIVE ACTIONS (TACKLES + INTERCEPTIONS + CLEARANCES) PER 90 MINUTES

Player Tackles + Interceptions Clearances Total Defensive Actions
Player Tackles + Interceptions Clearances Total Defensive Actions
Yeimar Gomez Andrade 6.98 9.77 16.75
Francisco Calvo 5.4 10.2 15.6
Nick Hagglund 3.87 10 13.87
Johan Kappelhof 4.57 8.86 13.43
Jesus Murillo 5.2 8.2 13.4
Aaron Long 5.8 7 12.8
Jonathan Bornstein 6.57 5.43 12
Nouhou Tolo 5.67 5.83 11.5

This is the part where one of you bros with some picture of Arsenal as your header pic on Twitter is pushing the bridge of your glasses back up on your nose and going “Defensive actions? Well actually the great Paolo Maldini once said that if I ever had to make a tackle it was because I already made a mistake.” To which I say, shut up Paolo Maldini, nobody asked you. You’re like 60 years old and I’ve never seen you win a Supporters’ Shield. I kid. I know he was great, and he’s not wrong. If you look at a lot of these guys around Yeimar and Nouhou, you’ll see defenders for teams that aren’t that great at defense. They’re less “good” and more “busy,” but Yeimar and Nouhou have pretty clearly been the best defenders on the best defense in the league thus far. Whatever they’re doing, it’s working. The aggression is by design and they’re doing their job extremely well.

In fact, if we want to take a closer look at just how well Yeimar has been playing, let’s pop over to American Soccer Analysis’ Goals Added metric.

Goals added (g+) measures a player’s total on-ball contribution in attack and defense. It does this by calculating how much each touch changes their team’s chances of scoring and conceding across two possessions.

That’s the thesis statement anyway, and a most basic explanation of what we’re looking at. There’s a lot more to it than that, and here are some links if you want to really get lost down the rabbit hole, but for our purposes here let’s just go with the theory that generally Goals Added likes things that makes your team more likely to score and less likely to concede. It can get a little bit murky in the subtleties of certain ambitious No. 10s, but generally speaking, you aren’t going to see a lot of bad players scoring well here.

Defender g+

Player Season Minutes Dribbling Fouling Shooting Passing Interrupting Receiving g+
Player Season Minutes Dribbling Fouling Shooting Passing Interrupting Receiving g+
Yeimar Gomez Andrade 2021 435 -0.01 0.01 -0.01 0.02 0.18 0.03 0.18
Chad Marshall 2018 2855 -0.01 0.02 0.01 -0.02 0.01 0.03 0.05
Roman Torres 2019 1563 0.02 0.01 0.01 -0.03 0.01 0.02 0.05
Xavier Arreaga 2019 1389 0.01 0 0 -0.01 0.04 0 0.04
Roman Torres 2016 1251 0 0.01 0 -0.01 0.04 0 0.04
Chad Marshall 2015 3049 0 0.01 0 -0.01 0.02 0 0.03
Chad Marshall 2016 3429 -0.01 0 0.01 0 0.01 0 0.02
Chad Marshall 2014 3396 0 0.02 0 -0.01 0.01 0.01 0.02
Yeimar Gomez Andrade 2020 2164 -0.01 0 0.01 0 -0.01 0.02 0.02

Remember the statistical caveat I gave at the beginning of the article? Small sample size? Early in the season? That’s a really good reason to not get overly excited about Yeimar’s numbers except HOLY PREKI look at his numbers so far this season! That 0.18 p96 is the best we’ve seen from a Seattle CB, and not by a small margin. I am comfortable stating that Yeimar is not only the Sounders’ best defender this year and in the history of the franchise, but probably in the history of the world. Take THAT, Maldini. But seriously, obviously that was hyperbolic, but the g+ model adores what Yeimar is doing out there this season. And not just him.

Seattle have been blessed with a number of tremendous fullbacks since their MLS inception (and even before — I will never forget you Danny Merle. I’m sorry I drunkenly and loudly criticized some of your distribution that one night while you were very much within earshot. I was but a woefully misguided youth).

Sounders fullbacks

Player Season Minutes Receiving Shooting Fouling Interrupting Passing Dribbling g+
Player Season Minutes Receiving Shooting Fouling Interrupting Passing Dribbling g+
Brad Smith 2021 426 0.11 0.07 0 -0.03 -0.03 0 0.12
Alex Roldan 2021 591 0 -0.01 0.05 0.03 0.03 -0.04 0.08
Kelvin Leerdam 2020 1814 0.05 0 0.01 -0.01 0 -0.01 0.05
DeAndre Yedlin 2014 2781 0 0 0 0.03 0 0.01 0.04
Leonardo Gonzalez 2013 2686 -0.02 -0.01 0 0.03 0.03 -0.01 0.03
Brad Smith 2019 2473 0.01 0 0.01 0.01 0 0.01 0.03
Kelvin Leerdam 2017 1876 0.03 0.01 -0.01 0 -0.02 0.03 0.03
Joevin Jones 2017 3029 0.01 -0.01 0.01 -0.01 -0.02 0.03 0.02
Kelvin Leerdam 2019 3034 0.02 0.01 -0.01 -0.01 0.01 0 0.01
DeAndre Yedlin 2013 3090 -0.01 0 0 0.01 -0.01 0.02 0.01

We can get into the subtle distinctions between “fullbacks” (which the Sounders used pretty exclusively until this season) and “wingbacks” (which they are using this season) at a later date. I do acknowledge that tactically these are not precisely the same thing and so take that or leave it with regards to comparisons, but I’d also point out that “positions” are an artificial construct and lineup graphics are a lie. Whatever you want to name them, the guys who play the farthest wide and have defensive responsibilities for the Seattle Sounders, are running riot on opposing MLS franchises in 2021. Smith will get a lion’s share of the plaudits due to his three goals, but for my money, it’s Alex Roldan who is this season’s most improved player. He’s not shooting as often as Smith, but he’s doing more defensive work, and here’s a great example of a contribution that usually gets overlooked: His 0.05 g+ in fouling is the fourth-best in the league this year and that means he’s earning set pieces in dangerous situations and also fouling smartly and not giving set pieces up in dangerous situations. Considering that the two times Seattle has been scored upon this year have been from free kicks, stuff like that is VERY important and often gets lost in traditional statistical analysis.

So is it sustainable?

Ahh, the jackpot question. Here’s the 100% uncut truth: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I mean, no, as good as they are, Seattle probably aren’t going to keep a 2.67 ppg going all the way into October (although a 91-point season would be pretty cool). Too much stuff happens in soccer. Red cards. Penalties. Injuries. A giant break in the middle of the season when some of your best players go off to play internationally and may return tired and/or hurt, but will miss a bunch of games regardless. That being said, Seattle is very much the favorites to win the Supporters’ Shield right now, and any reputable prediction model you can find will show them finishing the season as the best team in the league. What else could it do? They’ve already dealt with three of their hardest fixtures, they’re already succeeding despite being hit with what would usually be some more or less catastrophic injuries, and at some point Lodeiro is coming back (I think?). It’s not going to be entirely smooth sailing from here ‘til MLS Cup. Don’t think that for a second, but they’ve given themselves an incredible platform from which to compete for a Supporters’ Shield. It’s a good year to be a fan of the Seattle Sounders.

But let’s not get carried away, right?

Nah, go nuts. If I’ve learned anything from this last hell year, it’s that joy is fleeting, life is short, and there’s no good reason to deprive yourself of a good day now just because you’re worried about how things may or may not go in seven months. I mean, be safe, and maybe don’t go and get any SEATTLE SOUNDERS UNDEFEATED 2021 tattoos just yet. But go ahead and strut on Twitter or to anybody you know who does not support the Seattle Sounders (can’t imagine what that’s like). Go forth and dunk upon any bad preseason takes about the demise of the Seattle Sounders that you can find. But maybe not mine, ok? Soccer is starting to feel well and truly back. The Sounders being awesome? Well, isn’t that just a nice familiar feeling, too.

Ahandleforian is on Twitter (@ahandleforian) and regularly contributes to American Soccer Analysis.