MLS Eastern Conference Roundup: The Good, the Surprises and the Bad
We’re just past one-third of the way through the MLS season. While there’s plenty of time to put together a run, there’s also enough of a sample size to draw some conclusions about the teams across the Eastern Conference: who’s really good, who are some of the bigger surprises and who need to drastically improve.
First, the East standings with a few additional metrics such as expected goals and expected assists:
The Good: New England, Orlando and Philly
Let’s start with the class of Eastern Conference. New England are off to a fantastic start and lead all of MLS in several statistical categories. They lead the league in non-penalty goals (27), big chances created (37), assists (22), expected assists (19.25) and duels won (853).
The team’s stars are showing up as well. Chief creator Carles Gil leads the league in assists (9), xA (8.01), big chances created (18), dribbles completed (48), and corners/crosses attempted (151). The last is significant, as New England leads the league with seven headed goals, Adam Buksa bagging three of those to himself. Not to be ignored, Gustavo Bou leads the conference with seven non-penalty goals and 0.54 goals per game. This team is an attacking juggernaut and expect to score goals in every game they play.
Orlando City SC is executing extremely well on the opposite end of the field. Their 14 goals against is good enough to be tied for second in the conference. Playing a slightly more conservative style, they keep plenty of bodies behind the ball and tend to frustrate their opponents. They are third best in the conference at winning the ball in their own third (413), including the player with the second-most tackles won in the league, Kevin Smith (29). At their best, Orlando force you into longer and longer shots, resulting in a much higher percentage of shots from outside of the box than opponents are used to.
Most of their wins have come from opponents compiling less than one xG, with rather strange exceptions against poorly performing Toronto FC. Orlando’s defense should be good enough to keep them near the top of the table and well in the playoff picture. When that doesn’t work, they also have Nani, the only player in the Eastern Conference with an xG and xA north of three.
The Philadelphia Union are getting it done with a style all to their own by wreaking havoc against those who want to keep the ball. They’re top three in the conference in interceptions (197), tackles won (166), and duels won (837), and in the top three at winning the ball in the attacking and defending thirds of the field (88 and 418 respectively). In fact, new arrival Leon Flach is the league leader in tackles won (30). Philadelphia are also incredibly formidable in the air, first in the league in aerials won (291) and only three headed clearances away from the league leaders with 125. Combine their aerial prowess with the fact that they lead the league in crosses and corners (334), and. Philadelphia do a great job of making their opponents uncomfortable just about everywhere on the field.
The Surprises: Montreal and Toronto
A pleasant surprise in the Eastern Conference so far has been CF Montreal. After compiling only 26 points in 23 games last season, Montreal already have 22 points from 13 games played. Their home form is an impressive 4-1-2, even if their home is currently in Miami. The defense seems to have settled down quite a bit, conceding only 1.14 goals per game compared to the 1.87 last season. Victor Wanayama looks much more comfortable with his role, bossing the midfield with team-leading duels won, dribbles completed, and second in tackles won. Newcomer Djordje Mihailovic has been a welcome addition as well. He’s compiled the most assists, expected assists, drives into the box, and big chances created on the team.
Instead of scratching and clawing their way into an expanded playoffs like last season, it seems more of a composed march into the post-season at this point in the campaign.
Maybe Toronto should not be in the surprise category. They lost an elite coach in Greg Vanney with his return to the LA Galaxy. Chris Armas had yet to truly prove himself as a head coach in MLS and has already been sent packing. Jozy Altidore was temporarily banned from training with the team. Michael Bradley is 33 years old, yet he has the most minutes played on the team this season. Arguably their best player, Alejandro Pozuelo, started the season out injured.
However, the rate at which they’re conceding goals compared to last season is still a surprise. It’s up over more than a goal per game: 2.21 goals allowed per game this season compared to 1.13. They’ve given up a league most four goals due to self-inflicted turnovers. If their opponents have the ball, Toronto have a tough time doing anything to get it back. They are at the bottom of the conference in tackles won, near the bottom in interceptions, and have a less than 50% chance at winning any ground duels when they try. There was always some sort of drop-off expected to begin this season, but no one expected this team to fall this far. Which is a nice transition to…
The Bad: Chicago and Miami
A team that was supposed to make a major step up this season was the Chicago Fire FC. With the second year after an ownership shake-up the focus was on continuity, bringing back coach Rafael Wicky and a majority of the roster, plus several would-be contributors recovering from long-term injuries. It hasn’t worked. Continuity in this case, simply means the same players are shooting themselves in the foot.
The Fire are tied for the league lead with six errors leading to shots. Only two of these have turned into goals – still above the league average – but that’s only because goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth has been a pleasant surprise at bailing the team out. They’re fourth in the conference at failed passes and have a dismal 86.7% passing percentage in their own half. Ostensibly, the Fire should be an excellent passing team and can play some beautiful soccer. They lead the conference in goals from extended build ups. And yet, it seems CFFC are more prone to errors than pretty play.
Inter Miami are currently leading the race for the coveted Wooden Spoon, have scored the least amount of goals across the league, and have yet to win a game at home. They simply cannot create anything on the offensive end, despite an illegal spending spree that has reaped a hefty fine. They’re last in expected assists (7.64) and non-penalty expected goals (11.37) across the entire league. They’ve attempted the fewest shots per game across the league (9.5).
It’s starting to seep over into what we might call effort categories: Inter have attempted the fewest tackles and duels. Keep in mind that they are a couple of games behind the rest of the conference, but even so, their duel success is second worst with 48.7%. It’s going to take some doing to get Miami out of this six-game losing streak, especially when the players already seem resigned to their fate.