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Aaron Herrera v. Danilo Acosta (2018): RSL’s left back battle

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With the two earning similar minutes in 2018, what are the differences?

MLS: Los Angeles Galaxy at Real Salt Lake Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

The relegation of Danilo Acosta to Real Salt Lake’s bench has been somewhat of a mystery in 2018.

I think it’s fair to say that at the beginning of the year, there were clear reasons, even if they weren’t spoken. There were consistent rumors about attitude, and it seems the likely explanation that RSL coach Mike Petke had been exercising some of his favored prerogative to handle players of that sort.

Those rumors were never officially confirmed, but when he played nine consecutive games — 90 minutes in each — from May 26 to July 14, it seemed he was out of the doghouse.

The very next game, Aaron Herrera started, and he hasn’t let up his grasp on that position, playing a full 90 minutes in the last eight games.

Is this a case of Herrera winning the spot through natural competition? Was Acosta dropped? Is it some combination of the two? It’s clear that Herrera is doing well, and he’s been a consummate professional. He’s showed himself to be one of the hardest working players on the pitch.

With all that in mind, this is the question I’d like to pose: In their similar sets of minutes, how have the two players been similar, and how have they differed? Is one of them clearly doing better in comparison to the other?

Obviously, with neither playing over 1,000 minutes, we’re dealing with small sample sizes. These comparisons, necessarily, aren’t scientific, but they’re something to consider.

All statistics will be shown as Acosta vs. Herrera for consistency’s sake. We’ll just look at passing and defense.

Stats are from WhoScored.

Passing

  • Passing success rate: 80.7 percent vs. 87.1 percent
  • Passes per game: 34.1 vs. 37.2
  • Long passes per game: 2.4 vs. 3.1 (51.1% vs. 59.6% success rate)
  • Crosses per game: 0.3 vs. 0.2
  • Key passes per game: 0.4 vs. 0.9
  • Assists: 0 vs. 1

Defense

  • Interceptions per game: 1.1 vs. 1.1
  • Fouls committed per game: 1.4 vs. 0.7
  • Fouls suffered per game: 1.1 vs. 0.4
  • Clearances per game: 1.1 vs. 1.4
  • Success/Total Tackles per game: 2.3/3.1 (74%) vs. 1.8/2.6 (69.2%)

Conclusions

Here’s the thing. I actually don’t know which of these two is playing better from a simple eye test. I’ve watched both of them this year, and I’ve watched Acosta last year, and neither really seems that much farther ahead than the other.

From a statistical look, it’s largely the same thing. The only really big thing that jumps out at me is that passing success rate. 87.1 percent is very good. It’s closer to what Tony Beltran did year after year — and that’s a positive in my book.

So really, outside of passing accuracy, I think we’re looking at a near-dead-heat for these two players. They inevitably have different styles, and there is a bigger discussion we can have at some point on the differences in their respective styles. We might also have a debate about Brooks Lennon moving from right back to forward, Herrera moving to right back, and Acosta stepping it at left back — but parsing through that would require a great deal more thought, given the ripple effects that would have. (Side note: I’d argue that Lennon has really, truly come around since a shaky start to the season, and I wouldn’t drop him.)

I do know this: Herrera hasn’t looked at all out of place in the starting lineup. He’s had one or two shaky moments, which I think is to be expected. It’s not as if Acosta hasn’t had those moments himself. For a rookie to not look out of place — even right at home — is saying something about that player.

So, whether Acosta has been dropped or Herrera simply won the position, I think we’re in a good situation with two capable full backs battling it out.