Just about getting time for the bus to roll out.
Who starts? Who finishes? Who scores? Starting line-ups soon….
Just about getting time for the bus to roll out.
Who starts? Who finishes? Who scores? Starting line-ups soon….
The US looks to put a long-elusive notch on its CONCACAF bedpost this Friday as it heads south to San Jose, Costa Rica for a showdown with the Ticos.
There is no question that this will be the hardest three points for the States to bed in 2013.
Whereas the Mexico qualifier on enemy grounds has long been the most challenging of the Hex gauntlet, this year’s Yanks squad had sufficient injuries and absences against El Tri to make that skirmish a quest to eek out a point. The US’s bend-to-just-about-the-point-of-breaking strategy against Chepo Nation was acceptable and the States, despite being on the wrong side of a lopsided shots on goal tally, were applauded for their valiant effort at the Azteca.
Friday’s game, however, will see a nearly fully fit US squad attempt to wrestle away its first point ever in San Jose. Or maybe just steal a goal from the run of play. The US hasn’t scored in that manner in Costa Rica in over 12 years.
The edict from skipper Jurgen Klinsmann appears clear:
“The Costa Rica game in San Jose is the biggest game in 2013 for all of us because we want to win there,” said Klinsmann. “We want to qualify as soon as possible for the World Cup in Brazil. We want to get the first ever three points in World Cup qualifying in Costa Rica.”
It’s a worthy goal and when the statement is considered within the progressions of the US team in 2013, it’s also the correct milestone to target.
The lineage of 2013 saw the US stay true to its defense-at-all-costs philosophy at the outset. Games in Honduras–a loss–and Mexico were exercises in maintaining shape and defensive continuity at the expense of attacking.
Jamaica away last series saw the US take a few more calculated forays up the field. What then flowed was a string of results by both the “A” team and “B” team where the US successfully managed its attempts at goal and numbers up the field, culminating in an excellent performance against a quality Bosnian side in August.
This Ticos date will be the first time–since a few Eddie Johnson bum-rushes to begin the second half in Honduras in February–that the States
will are expected to take the game to their CONCACAF opponent on the road in qualifying, if you believe the rhetoric.
Of course, the Ticos will enter the game beating their chests with national pride and with more motivation than Katie Holmes on Tom Cruise Independence Day. The Ticos currently sit second in the Hex; their 11 points just two shy of the Yanks’ leading 13. A combination of four points here from the US on Friday in tandem with Jamaica away on Tuesday puts the Ticos just a whisker away from a qualifying berth–a berth they fell short of by the same margin in 2009 when a late header from Jonathan Bornstein at RFK forced the Ticos into an ultimately heartbreaking playoff loss with Uruguay.
But that’s not the most acute prod in this one for the home side.
The US squad arrived late Tuesday in San Jose to chants of “No fair play USA,” a reference to the Blizzard Bowl back in March when the States heisted three points in a controversial home game played with snow pelting the sod.
The rhetoric has been non-stop this week and–with the mystique of Azteca-death-cauldron being seemingly vanquished with a win last year and draw this year–”Costa Rica – Away” elevates to the ultimate CONCACAF trophy win–that elusive “chick at the bar” that both scares and excites you. Moving on….
Do the Yanks got game? How’s that bedpost looking Saturday morning?
Without further Freddy Adu, we get to our customary preview. It goes:
» About the Opponent: Costa Rica
» TSG What We’re Looking For
» Keys To the Game for the Americans
» 11 At the Whistle.
About The Opponent: Costa Rica
This is about as cut-and-dry as a USMNT opponent can get. And the Yanks have faced the Ticos twice this year on home soil; both times the interlopers came out in an exceedingly defensive shell with as much offensive intent as an episode of Sesame Street.
The Ticos bunkered in Denver in The Throwaway/Blizzard/Ice Bowl and then, faced with a talented US junior varsity, was downright negative in the Gold Cup. The Ticos gave the US their best or at least second best Gold Cup test. A little late-game razzle dazzle from Landon Donovan the necessary incision in an otherwise concrete defensive wall effort.
However, when the Ticos are back home, they display a more aggressive and somewhat looser attacking behavior, primarily using their central mid pairing to push the ball up to an attack quadrumvirate that can can match any in the region.
Expect the Ticos to maintain defensive integrity at the back. Like CONCACAF brethren Panama, the Costa Ricans excel at defending centrally in the run of play in their defensive third. The Ticos have given up four goals in qualifying in the past year–two throw 50/50-ball-producing broken plays in the box (Panama, February 2013) an d two via corners (Mexico, September 2012).
Across the back five, the Ticos will probably stay true to their most recent home WCQ, a 2-0 win over Panama in June, with one exception: The squad player Junior Diaz will give way at LB to Everton prospect Brian Oviedo who is expected to see a decent minutes increase at Goodison this year under Roberto Martinez.
Oviedo will play like DaMarcus Beasley will for the States–tasked with possession, pushing forward, and being aggressive in the attack. Centerbacks Michael Umaña and Giancarlo González are strong, disciplined defenders, but both are prone to losing marks on service into the box. Gonzalez as well has a penchant to foul in or near the box–can you say Clinton D.e.m.p.s.e.y.
The front six will be business usual as well. (Note: This is all good news for the Ticos who appear to have finally settled on a reduced rotation of players through the squad, breeding improved chemistry.)
Ariel Rodriguez and Celso Borges will form the double-pivot. Borges is on-form and the one to watch. An average defender at the best, the Swedish leaguer has been instrumental in many of the Costa Ricans chances this qualifying series. He likes to ghost in late after the opponent’s flank has been compromised and gather at the top of the box with a shoot-first mentality. He’s not wholly accurate, but he is wholly able.
The front four will be standard. From the point, Alvaro Saborio will get things going. US players and fans know him well from his time at Real Salt Lake. To use a Panama comparison again, Saborio is the Ticos’ Blas Perez. The home midfield will look for him at all times once across the halfline, both on the floor and through the air. Saborio is equally apt to put a header or volley on frame and he’s well skilled–as RSL man Javi Morales can attest–at receiving and dropping to an oncoming attacker.
Joel Campbell, Bryan Ruiz and Christian Bolanos form the midfield three. Bolanos is the Ticos’s Old Faithful, providing pace and a decent amount of shake-and-bake out right.
As US fans can attest, Ruiz has been the lynchpin of the Tico attack for the past half decade. However, it may become a little more Batman-Robin like on Friday.
The Fulham man has been little used by manager Martin Jol for no clearcut reason in the Prem’s early going. Meanwhile, Arsenal asset Joel Campbell is thriving in his second consecutive loan stint. Last campaign saw the speedy attacker fare well at Real Betis.
This year, Campbell finds himself in-form, already starting, and a critical member of Greek superclub Olympiakos. He plays LFW in a 4-3-3. Campbell is adept at gaining the corner and has improved his service game.
Expect the Ticos to attempt to look for Ruiz early incutting off the *right flank and hope that the US’s defense collapses to help. If the Ticos can manufacture this phenomena then they can get Campbell wide on the left and in space for 1v1 situations. If that fails, you’ll see the two switch (the pattern and tactical progression may be reversed, but you get the picture) sometime in the first half. Regardless of the success here, any chance the Costa Ricans get to find Saborio in space on the floor or in the box through the air will likely be taken.
DEF: Gamboa, Umana, Gonzalez, Oviedo
CM: Rodriguez, Borges
RMF/CAM/LMF: Bolanos, Ruiz, Campbell
TSG What Are We Looking For
» Firehosing Costa Rica’s Left Flank
Once again, Graham Zusi is a pivotal midfielder for the Americans and his fitness–or lack thereof–will be a key tactical piece of Friday’s match.
The US again…going up the left side through the feet of Beasley and Dempsey.
Costa Rica? Many signs point to the Ticos storming down the US’s right and more conservative flank whether it’s Campbell or Ruiz.
Accompanying Campbell will be the forward forays of left fullback Brian Oveida forming the one-two punch.
With the US rightback situation, the best way to provide cover will be through a midfielder–like Zusi or Alejandro Bedoya–who aggressively tracks back.
Steve Fenn with analysis of who can shoot the rock and who can’t.
What’s more important:
» The “moment of truth” when a striker tries to score and the opposing keeper tries to stop him….
» ….or the contributions and failures of everyone on the pitch that conspired to determine the quality of the striker’s opportunity?
A single match’s shots–and whether they are saved–determines the outcome, but the quality of shots earned and allowed is a more reliable barometer of the team as a whole.
It’s a base paradox of observing this game. Because that final moment is so dramatically important, everyone’s memory clings to strikes and saves, lessening the relative value of myriad brilliances and mistakes which create and allow chances in promising situations.
Right now 14 MLS teams are bunched so closely together in the race for 10 playoff spots that it’s difficult to tell many of them apart if you scale their ranking based on points per game.
As Zach Slaton pointed out this week in Forbes, narrow point leads are unreliable markers of relative team quality, so in the present MLS situation we need a better way to gauge clubs’ strengths.
Thanks to shot location data patiently catalogued by American Soccer Analysis, we can see every 2013 MLS club’s shots and shots allowed broken down into 6 zones.
From the data, it’s not hard to get a scoring expectation (xG) from shots in every zone. This is based on the overall MLS averages and the number of shots-for and shots-against in each zone.
So far this season, players score on 32.6% of shots taken inside the 6-yard box (1 in the diagram below), while those attempting their best Gareth Bale impersonation from 25-plus yards away from goal (5) find the net on a measly 2.23% of such shots.
Attempts from inside the box but wide, and those from a little beyond the box are scoring 6.5% and 5.1% of the time, respectively.
Really wide shots have a low 3.64% strike rate, but this is the most troublesome region since it is often hard for stat keepers to tell a bad cross that got closer than intended to the keeper from an audacious shot. 2011 Brek Shea will take it though. Thankfully, this region features the fewest shots this season, lessening its impact on analysis.
Comparing overall xG to each club’s goals and goals allowed quantifies which clubs are likely hovering above their most likely level, and who’s most likely underrated based on points and goals.
Below we have a visualization of all this, with square sizes based on shots per game. The coloring for MLS averages is pretty straightforward with purpleness indicating likelihood of scoring per shot, but the club-level data can be tricky. On offense, the blueness of a square conveys how much it’s strikers have exceeded the expectation for that zone, while the depth of an orange hue signifying how much worse they’ve been versus the MLS average.
On defense it’s the same for the opposing strikers, so a club whose strikers & keepers have over-performed will have some blue squares on offense and orange on defense. This is usually most striking in zone 2, where the average takes 3.9 shots per match, and 17.81% of them have been goals.
A quick note on the predictive value of xG. Splitting the season between March-May and June-present, expected goal differential (xGD) from the first half correlates to Points Per Game and GD in the second at R² of .2504 and .4316, respectively.
For comparison, PPG predicted at .0131 (PPG) and .0430 (GD) and GD yielded R² of .0332 (PPG) and .0509.
For the math-averse who have made it this far: points and goal differential in the first three months of the season have been almost entirely unrelated to results since, but xGD has been immensely more predictive. Since fans and pundits tend to, consciously or subconsciously, use recent points and goal differential as main drivers of their expectations, this has big implications for how would should be observing the game. But don’t go running to the nearest sport book just yet. This is still a relatively small sample and there are certainly other factors at play, but shot location does gives us a better picture of teams’ levels.
As you can see, LA Galaxy and Sporting Kansas City far and away come out best in xGD.
Their offenses regularly shoot from promising positions (mores so for LA Robbie Keane thank you very much), and both of their defenses prevent the same.
In LA’s case, their scoring is very much in line with xG, but they have allowed far more than shot locations would predict. Galaxy optimists would probably dub this The Cudicini Effect, now that Jaime Penedo has sent the shaky Italian to the bench. (Editor’s note: Love Jaime Penedo. See: June 11, 2011)
On the other end of the spectrum are some of the usual suspects in DC United and Chivas USA, but not far above them lurks a couple surprises. The playoff-contending Vancouver Whitecaps and the much-vaunted Real Salt Lake have been surpassing the expectation of their shot locations for & against.
RSL leads the league in scoring, but this data presents a quandary. Are they excelling in every part of scoring that this model doesn’t capture, or are they due for some harsh regression to the mean?
Because it has to be noted that data on the positioning of the opposing keeper and his defenders isn’t available publicly right now. Obviously, that would be a vital ingredient to shot quality, as would be information on whether the strike comes from a set piece, or is struck with the preferred foot or the head.
Specifically, penalty kicks which have a greater xG than even zone 1 shots haven’t been weeded out yet. Also, if we had more detailed shot locations at our disposal it is almost certain we would see further xG variation within each of these 6 zones.
For now though, the most relevant findings of this study are that Los Angeles and Kansas City have been underperforming and Real Salt Lake & Vancouver are flying higher than they deserve.
Some faults and strengths are certainly beyond the scope of this study, but it seems quite likely that the true level of each club is probably closer their xGD than to their points or raw GD. After all, shot locations are determined in small and large ways by many different players on both sides of the ball, while the resultant “moments of truth” are subject to the fickle skills of finishing and keeping, where chaotic bounces and spins of the ball rule the day.
Goalkeepers – Brad Guzan, Tim Howard, Nick Rimando
Defenders – DaMarcus Beasley, Matt Besler, John Anthony Brooks, Geoff Cameron, Edgar Castillo, Brad Evans, Omar Gonzalez, Michael “The Fiscal” Orozco
Midfielders – Kyle Beckerman, Alejandro Bedoya, Michael Bradley, Mix Diskerud, Fabian Johnson, Jermaine Jones, Graham Zusi
Forwards – Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Aron Johannsson, Eddie Johnson
The following pic was tweeted out from an official White House account. President Barack Riquelme Obama take a penalty at Tully High School
Some outstanding questions:
» He’s going left right? 72% of the time he goes left. The other times he dekes it down the middle?
» Who’s the goalkeeper?
» Who fouled him? Or who is he stepping up for?
Editor’s note: We return next week with regular programming.
Each year, MLS asks media to vote on the top 24 players under 24 years-old. They started the tradition back in 1981 when Freddy Adu took the top spot. The jury is still out on that one. Here’s last year’s ratings.
There are four categories to rank the players and it’s an admittedly difficult process as it’s possible to get as few as five observations of a single player–so much can and should be discounted. Further one of the five categories is personality–while the it’s supposed to be judged by things such as “marketability,” it’s again a difficult rating–and one that is weighted equally–because it’s mostly sound bytes and on-field charisma that carries the vote. You can’t go for beers for the players–and some it would be illegal to anyway.
So with best guestimate, here is the ballot that TSG is submitting. It’s sure to be contentious.
**Note: Will Bruin appears to be left off the global list emailed by MLS. He’s in the top 25. He turns 24 in season so that could’ve been it. **
Alex Olshansky is handing out trips across the Atlantic. Amelia Earhart-style, not Titanic.
“When a coach or an agent goes to a chairman looking for money, ‘Well, we’ve got this Argentinian and we’ve got this Brazilian, we’ve got this Spaniard, and oh, we’ve got this American.’ That stigma is still there.“
The American/MLS soccer community has always had a chip on its collective shoulder when it comes to how outsiders perceive them – or perhaps more accurately— how Americans think outsiders perceive them. The “stigma” narrative makes intuitive sense, and for its believers this “stigma” is at least partially responsible for a wide range of ills to befall American expatriates; everything from Landon Donovan’s failed stints in Germany to Tim Howard’s exit from Manchester United.
But in a game where there is so much money on the line can European teams afford to discriminate against players originating from a certain country or league? And even if there was discrimination towards American players in the past, surely things are changing with the triumvirate at Stoke, Michael Bradley at Roma, and Jozy Altidore recently commanding an American record reported $13M transfer to Sunderland. And it is not just Americans in MLS who have attracted interest from overseas. In the last year, young MLS products Roger Espinoza, Andy Najar, and Fredy Montero were snapped up by Wigan (UK), Anderlecht (BEL), and Sporting Lisbon (POR), respectively. The Sporting Lisbon signing of Montero is already looking like a success as he just went off for a hat trick in his league debut. Are MLS players under-valued and, if so, who should European teams be looking at for the next potential bargain?
Before we look into the future, some critical re-assessing of past moves is in order. Below you will find a listing of the most notable MLS to Europe moves of the past ten years. Some of the transfer fee data is—at best—informed internet guesswork, so it should be taken with a grain of salt. The effort has been made, where enough information is available, to try and grade each move a success or a failure for the team making the purchase (from Villarreal’s perspective the Altidore buy was a failure). For a number of players, most notably Bobby Convey and Mo Edu, imposing this binary choice was very difficult. The methodology for determining a player’s success was a qualitative guess based on a team’s financial investment compared to the value the player created for the team over their tenure. Of course, the proverbial jury is still out on a number of the more recent acquisitions.
Given this data set, it is somewhat hard to argue that MLS players are systematically being under-valued by European teams. What does seem certain is that the appetite for MLS players among European teams has picked up in recent years, with three to four significant moves occurring in each of the past two years (not including loan deals).
When it comes to MLS players, European teams have a predisposition towards youth (average age 23.5) and those with international experience. From a player’s perspective, timing and situation is everything. Some players flounder and come limping back to MLS (Eddie Johnson, Robbie Findley, Kenny Cooper) while others thrive and raise their level (Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley). And then there is Jozy Altidore. He managed to be the most expensive MLS player ever sold, lose most of that value just to see his star rise again, all before the age of 24. Given this, who in MLS is ripe for a move?
Omar Gonzalez was originally included on this list, but the Galaxy just locked him up with a DP contract.
Graham Zusi, 26
Zusi’s stock will never be higher than it is right now. The dynamic midfielder can play either on the left or right. He is an international-caliber provider of service and would fit in well on an English team. But, at 26, his European window is already closing.
Landon Donovan, 31
Anyone who saw Donovan do his thing during the Gold Cup knows that he still has what it takes to make an impact in Europe. Perhaps he spends a final year or two at Everton? Or even re-united with David Moyes at Manchester United? Either scenario seems highly improbable, but more absurd things have happened *Cough* Clint Dempsey to Sounders
There are a number of good young MLS players that European scouts are no doubt watching. If recent history is any indication then you would expect at least three or four of these guys to find their way to greener ($) European pastures. But, each of these players must still prove themselves over an extended period of time to warrant a move.
There is one player who, despite being unproven over multiple seasons, deserves a hard look from a European team.
Chris Klute, 23
Yes, this is the first year Klute has really shown anything. But he has been an absolute beast for the Rapids this year. On top of his stellar on ball defense and beyond-his-years soccer intelligence, check out who is among the top 10 MLS assist men.
Most European teams would wait to see if Klute gets a national team call-up before pouncing, but a savvy—perhaps Scandinavian—team would do well to acquire him before any USMNT price inflation hits.