There's been discussion in recent weeks about Real Salt Lake being a better side with Devon Sandoval as the target man instead of Alvaro Saborio, and the talk has escalated with fantastic performances in the playoffs in the last week.
The theory is a simple one: The RSL midfield is deferential to Saborio, and our play suffers as a result. Thus, when Devon Sandoval, who plays a similar role, is in the side, the general quality of play increases because there is less deference to be had.
MLS podcast March to the Match furthered this theory recently (listen here) but it's one that's floated around RSL circles for a few months, so it's worth discussing.
Let's examine the first premise: that we are deferential to Saborio. By this, we mean that play flows through Saborio rather than through other options.
We can see that somewhat by referencing the number of touches each player takes through the match. That obviously won't tell us some things - like whether those touches are effective, or whether they lead to passes, or whether they really mean anything at all. But they do tell us something, and we should start where there is at least something.
In 2013, Alvaro Saborio has averaged 0.39 touches per minute, or about 35 touches per 90 minutes. During the same time period, Devon Sandoval averaged 0.43 touches per minute, or about 38 touches per 90 minutes. This may not dispel the deference, though - we should also wonder how many touches were taken during those matches. During matches in which Saborio plays at least 80 minutes, he contributes 5.27 percent of the team's touches. During matches in which Sandoval plays at least 80 minutes, he contributes roughly the same amount, 5.36 percent of team touches.
This isn't to say that the players are equal, or that one helps more than the other, but to say we are deferential to Saborio doesn't play out when we look at the statistics.
The second premise does have some ground to cover, then, without the first premise, but we can say whether we are better with Sandoval or Saborio when we are looking purely at points. In the 17 matches with Alvaro Saborio playing at least 80 minutes, we have gained 1.5 points per game; with Sandoval in the side for the same timeframe, we have gained 2.625 points per game. However, given both players have not been involved in nearly enough matches for that to be definitive, it's difficult to really say that it makes as much of a difference as the initial statistical reveal might show us.
Surely we have seen that Devon Sandoval is a great talent and that he will only improve, but I might suggest that it is too soon to draw any conclusions about RSL being better with Sandoval than Saborio. With such a small sample size for both, the possibility for confounding variables is high. That should keep us from drawing our conclusions now, but it certainly doesn't make the conversation less interesting.