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Talking Tactics: Is RSL's 2016 record sustainable?

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Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Real Salt Lake has been like a well-oiled machine this season. The club sits third overall in the league taking 1.77 points per match. Having a fairly even 3-4-2 away record has been an admirable trait of the Claret-and-Cobalt this year, especially when compared to the 4-11-2 of 2015. Still more impressive is the club’s dominance at home taking all available points in the four matches at Rio Tinto.

Concerns about the club’s performance, however, continue to emerge.

Most common is the concern that RSL is not getting enough shots off, nor creating enough chances. This itself is not new anxiety for fans of the club as these concern has just carried over from the previous two seasons.

For a quick baseline, Leicester City FC won the Premier League creating 10.2 chances and taking 13.7 shots per match.

2016 MLS Season Stats (as of 14 June 2016)

Rank Club Games Played Key Pass Assist TOTAL Chances Inside Shots Outside Shots TOTAL Shots Shot Accuracy Goal from Inside Goal from Outside TOTAL Goals Outside Conversion Inside Conversion Overall Conversion Goals/ Chances Shots per match Chances per match
1 COL 14 121 14 135 105 83 188 52% 16 1 17 1% 15% 9% 13% 13.43 9.64
2 FCD 16 137 14 151 111 99 210 47% 20 4 24 4% 18% 11% 16% 13.13 9.44
3 RSL 13 92 14 106 95 49 144 51% 20 3 23 6% 21% 16% 22% 11.08 8.15
4 PHI 14 112 14 126 109 67 176 49% 17 4 21 6% 16% 12% 17% 12.57 9.00
5 VAN 15 122 10 132 115 72 187 58% 22 1 23 1% 19% 12% 17% 12.47 8.80
6 LAG 13 97 17 114 98 43 141 50% 25 2 27 5% 26% 19% 24% 10.85 8.77
7 SJE 14 94 12 106 86 61 147 43% 14 2 16 3% 16% 11% 15% 10.50 7.57
8 NYRB 14 135 18 153 138 58 196 51% 21 3 24 5% 15% 12% 16% 14.00 10.93
9 MTL 13 119 18 137 99 74 173 53% 18 4 22 5% 18% 13% 16% 13.31 10.54
10 PTFC 15 143 11 154 118 80 198 48% 20 3 23 4% 17% 12% 15% 13.20 10.27
11 SKC 16 151 12 163 129 100 229 37% 12 2 14 2% 9% 6% 9% 14.31 10.19
12 NYCFC 15 145 17 162 142 91 233 45% 19 3 22 3% 13% 9% 14% 15.53 10.80
13 SEA 13 115 7 122 93 76 169 49% 11 2 13 3% 12% 8% 11% 13.00 9.38
14 TOR 13 103 12 115 84 84 168 48% 12 2 14 2% 14% 8% 12% 12.92 8.85
15 DCU 14 125 7 132 99 81 180 39% 10 1 11 1% 10% 6% 8% 12.86 9.43
16 ORL 13 99 14 113 113 43 156 46% 23 0 23 0% 20% 15% 20% 12.00 8.69
17 NER 14 131 13 144 113 72 185 49% 15 4 19 6% 13% 10% 13% 13.21 10.29
18 CCSC 13 128 14 142 124 60 184 45% 18 0 18 0% 15% 10% 13% 14.15 10.92
19 HOU 13 101 14 115 98 61 159 45% 14 6 20 10% 14% 13% 17% 12.23 8.85
20 CHI 12 95 9 104 84 53 137 36% 10 0 10 0% 12% 7% 10% 11.42 8.67
AVERAGE - 14 118 13 131 108 70 178 47% 17 2 19 3% 16% 11% 15% 12.81 9.46

NOTE:  T-Tests performed found no statistical significance to suggest that RSL overall 2016 data was not similar to the rest of the clubs in MLS.  Similarly, T-Tests found no statistical difference between RSL's subsequent data over the last four years and that of the other clubs.

First, let’s address the number of key passes.

In 2016, RSL is creating a statistically significant lower amount of key passes than the league average. While the Claret-and-Cobalt are Leicester-ing their way through the 2016 season in regards to assists per match (1.1), the squad is far below the league average of 8.4 – and even further behind Leicester’s nine – with a measly 7.1.

Real’s 2016 key pass average is not far below last year’s 7.3, but both of those numbers pale in comparison to Jason Kreis’ RSL which averaged 10.2 key passes per match.

Take for instance the San Jose Earthquakes. Historically a counter-attacking team, the Quakes were about a key pass below the league average, despite coming up with some big moments when it counted. The New York Red Bulls, another historical counter-attacking team, also found success underneath the league key pass average in 2013 – in fact, they went on to win the Supporter’s Shield.

As the team has moved away from the traditional possession-oriented style to an increasingly counter-attacking one, match tactics change, as well as statistics. Therefore, just because Real finds itself below the league average, there is no reason to assume that they are not or will not be successful – particularly when the club’s assists (a stat that demonstrates actual dividends) is higher than the league average. If the number of assists take a nose dive, that is when fans should start to worry.

Second, there is the case of the outside-the-box shot.

The Claret-and-Cobalt is 34 shots taken behind the league average. While the amount of inside-the-box shots demonstrated no statistical difference, outside-the-box shots did.

RSL averaged 3.8 shots from outside the 18-yard box per match. The league on the other hand averaged five.

In other words, a larger percentage of RSL’s shots are being taken from within the box than most other clubs in the league (60 percent). The Claret-and-Cobalt leads the league with 66 percent of their shots being from within the box. This could easily explain why the squad’s overall conversion rate is much higher than the league’s.

We should not disregard this statistic, because it is much harder to get into a shooting position within your opposition’s box than outside it. For instance, only 46 percent of Leicester’s shots – or 6.3 per match – came from within the box and, as a result, they obtained a 45 percent shot accuracy. RSL, on the other hand, takes 7.2 shots a match from within the opposition box and maintains a 51 percent shot accuracy.

Getting shots in higher percentage areas has played a huge role in RSL’s transformation this year. Historically converting about 11 percent of their shots, the Claret-and-Cobalt’s increased work rate within the 18 has increased their conversion rate to the second highest in the league (16 percent) – only behind the LA Galaxy (19 percent).

Lastly, let’s touch on the chances to conversion ratio.

Reader Chodilicus has this to say on the subject:

Chodilicus rightly points out that Joao Plata and Yura Movsisyan are RSL’s top shot takers, both with 22 attempts. He then points out that David Villa from New York City FC has taken 88 shots alone – 62 percent of RSL total shots. Still it is prudent to point out that NYCFC only has 22 goals and a mere 9 percent overall conversion rate.

Despite these numbers seeming bleak, there is more to this story.

At a brief glance, it is clear that both the goals per shot (conversion rate) and the goals per chance ratio are quite a bit larger than the 2016 league average. Boasting a 16 and 22 percent quotient, respectfully, the club is once again at the upper echelon of the league – second to only the LA Galaxy (24 percent), again. Leicester won the Premier League with 13 and 18 percent by comparison.

So, are these numbers sustainable?

As it appears to me there are three things that could happen throughout the season.

Games Played Key Pass Assist TOTAL Chances Inside Shots Outside Shots TOTAL Shots Shot Accuracy Goal from Inside Goal from Outside TOTAL Goals Outside Conversion Inside Conversion Overall Conversion Goals/ Chances Shots per match Chances per match
RSL AVG 34 258 29 287 207 167 373 49% 37 7 43 4% 18% 12% 16% 13 10
Anticipated 34 241 37 277 248 128 377 51% 52 8 60 6% 21% 16% 22% 11 8
Tapered 34 252 32 283 223 152 375 50% 43 7 50 5% 19% 13% 17% 11 8

One, RSL becomes a mirror image of their past three season average. In this scenario, RSL has already scored 53 percent of their goals in just over a third of their season.

Similar to the first scenario, RSL could regress to the mean for the remainder of the season. As part of life in general, there is usually some regression towards the mean at some point in the season for any soccer club, therefore this scenario seems more likely.

The third option, and in some cases the most hopeful option, is that the club will continue their trend thus far or maybe even improve as squad chemistry grows. In this scenario RSL will reach the 60 goal mark – mark that has only been achieved or surpassed by four teams the past three years (the New York Red Bulls, the LA Galaxy, the Seattle Sounders, and the Portland Timbers). With respect for those squads this seems like an obtainable goal for the Claret-and-Cobalt.

While no club has managed to maintain a 22 percent goal to chance quotient, it is actually not that far off from the recent leader. In 2014, FC Dallas finished sixth in the MLS regular season with a 19 percent goal to chance ratio. This is the highest recorded number this category in recent history. On average, MLS clubs finish the regular season with a 14 percent quotient in this regard, but truly exceptional teams find a way to surpass it.

In other words, it is about how clinical the strikers are on the squad with the ball at their feet. For years RSL had decent strikers with the likes of Alvaro Saborio, Fabian Espindola, and Robbie Findley, but none of them were quite what RSL has now. Because of the talent and technique of Movsisyan, Plata, and Juan Manuel Martinez, the Claret-and-Cobalt has become a terror near the opposition’s goal and the conversion rate supports that.

So while RSL might not be able to retain a 22 percent goal to chance quotient at the end of the 2016 regular season, a 17 percent quotient still puts them in the vicinity to earn a post-season appearance with 50-some odd predicted goals.

Many people believed it was "fool’s gold" to even suggest that Leicester City could win the Premiership, but they did. While it is good to be skeptical of any statistic thrown at you, RSL fans can take heart in knowing that it is possible to retain a high goal per chance quotient with clinical strikers in the squad – and thus lessening the workload of the creators.

Too often talent and skill is mistaken for mere luck in sports – once again see Leicester’s 2015/16 season – especially when it is quite literally these players’ jobs. Instead of chalking up stats to luck, I believe it would be sensible to view them as achievements by seasoned professionals in their respected careers. Whether or not RSL can maintain the numbers is all speculation at this point, so we should simply enjoy the moment and worry about the future when we get to it.

What do you think? Share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below.