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RSL’s finishing deficit is costing points

The expected goals model shows exactly what we might have guessed.

MLS: Orlando City SC at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

I know I’ve been a little quiet about Real Salt Lake’s tactical approach to last Saturday’s match, and I assure you, that’s not because there wasn’t anything to say.

But at some point, it does get a little old feeling repetitive, and we’re now at the “can’t score” phase of the season.

So let’s not talk about playoffs, because that’s not the most interesting thing we can talk about. I still think we need to win seven of our last 10 matches, and I think that’s possible but very unlikely.

But even if we’re practically out of the playoffs, that’s no excuse to stop playing well. That’s important to remember, because in the last five matches or perhaps longer, we’ve actually played well, and that’s been an excellent change in our fate. Is it everything? Not really. You still want a team that can score. But you know where I’ve seen our current predicament?

Real Salt Lake under Jason Kreis.

You see, for a long time, there was a clear way to shut RSL down. It’s not dissimilar from how you shut any team down, really: Compress the midfield and defense into one bus-like line, push a player — maybe two — forward for counterattacking opportunities, and stay extremely conservative in their playing style. It was the old recipe for shutting down the Kreis diamond, which always fascinated me. We’d end up out wide trying to cross the ball into the box over and over, and that’s where we’re at now when we’re being held back.

With all that in mind, I’d like to take a look at some statistics and charts that might give us a sense of how we’re playing. Here’s a chart of our shooting against Houston Dynamo in the last 30 minutes.

See how many shots we’ve got in the box there? We’re somewhere between three and five. If we zoom out our time scope to see shots across the game, we see a similar pattern.

I could get all into expected goals (xG), but let’s be honest: I don’t really want to at this point. But the one thing we’ve learned from that is that shots from inside the box tend to result in goals more frequently than shots outside, and the closer your shot, the more likely you are to score. Other people do this stuff much better than I do, so do go check out the good work American Soccer Analysis is doing.

If you take a look at those numbers, you’ll see that RSL is performing much worse than our expected goal differential would suggest. We could hem and haw about why that’s the case, but that’s not why we’re here. We’re here instead to talk about why we’re not scoring quite enough, despite having chances.

That’s interesting, because we’re leading MLS in shots taken per game (15.21), and we’re fairly middle-of-the-road in shots against per game. But if we dig into some of their player stats, we can see some interesting things. I know Yura Movsisyan gets a lot of stick, but he’s actually scored about as many goals as you’d expect, given the locations of shots he’s taken. Near the top of the list is Joao Plata, who actually has the highest expected-goals-plus-expected-assists rates in MLS at 0.86 per 96 minutes.

Those are amazing numbers, frankly. We know he underperformed earlier in the season, and it seems like he’s coming around, so there is that to consider. Still, it’s a clear indicator that we are, in fact, playing well — we’re just not finishing. Just like Mike Petke’s said repeatedly. Of course, Plata isn’t the only player on our team, so let’s dig in a little more.

  • Jefferson Savarino is right about where you’d expect, given his numbers — he’s scored three goals and the numbers would expect 3.1; he’s had three assists, and the numbers would expect 2.6. Pretty good stuff.
  • One player who’s significantly overperforming his expected numbers is Albert Rusnak, who has scored five goals (xG 3.11) and has six assists (xA 4.14)
  • Luis Silva has been significantly underperforming in this regard, with one goal (xG 3.84) — but his two assists is past his 1.45 xA.
  • Kyle Beckerman’s three goals land him in excellent territory with the rate, as his xG is 0.95.

There are also some great numbers around expected passing rates (xP) in the final third, so let’s dig in a little there, too:

  • Tony Beltran and Brooks Lennon outperform expectations for passing rate in the final third. Beltran in particular outperforms in the attacking, middle and defensive thirds.
  • Yura Movsisyan, on the other hand, underperforms expectations — he has a 53 percent passing rate in the final third, when his expected rate is 60 percent. That means, more or less, that he’s attempting passes in areas that are less likely for success (compare Chris Wingert’s expected final third rate of 70.9 percent, which he exceeds) and that he’s less often successful than the statistical model would predict.
  • Albert Rusnak has also underperformed in the final third (62.5 percent to xP of 68.7 percent), although his exceeding the expected assists number by some margin alleviates my worry here.

So how does this relate back to last weekend? Thankfully, American Soccer Analysis keeps track of expected goals by match, and we can see what might have been. In fact, we had an xG of 1.75, meaning we took shots in areas from which, on average, you’d score 1.75 goals. Alright. Not bad. Houston Dynamo were stuck at a measly 0.82.

In fact, if you look at our last three draws, we should have won if we accepted the statistical model as a good means of prediction. Interestingly, we also significantly outperformed against Portland and LA Galaxy, our two big wins in the last five games. Until that point, we roughly looked like what you’d expect from our matches — we won when it was expected we’d score more goals, and we lost (much more likely, obviously) when it was predicted we would. That doesn’t mean the model’s necessarily sound, but at least in this case, it’s lining up with reality, so I’ll expect it for now.

Obviously, none of these statistical tidbits mean anything in isolation. But as we look at some of the struggles we’ve had in the last few weeks, statistics can help to shed some light on why we might be struggling, and they might help us to understand what it will take to succeed on Saturday and for the rest of the season.

Of course, that’s also an intuitive answer.