As I watched Maikel Chang score a header to take the lead against FC Cincinnati this weekend, I thought for a moment that it was a perfect microcosm for this season’s attack.
Is this a reliable means of scoring? Has Chang ever scored a header before? Who exactly scores RSL’s crosses nowadays anyway?
Clearly the quality of finishing is down, but are there other elements at play that have contributed to the substantial drop in the goals-for column?
Lack of Arial Attack?
It seemed to me glaringly obvious that without Damir Kreilach lurking the box this season, that the teams headed goals number this year was down. After all, Damir was the top scorer in all of MLS last year in headed goals, numero uno, the best. It reasonably explained why Herrera has taken a huge dip in his assisting numbers as well. Last year he managed 11 assists (#1 in MLS for all fullbacks) compared to a disappointing 2 so far this season.
It made all too much sense. Herrera could sling hopeful crosses into the penalty area as much as he wanted, without anyone there to reliably head them home, it was the equivalent slamming one’s head against a brick wall and expecting it to break before your skull. Insanity, as a certain physicist might call it. Putting two and two together here seemed an inconsequential logical leap. We lost our aerial threat, thus our marksman crosser is handicapped. Of course we’re scoring less.
Naturally over a long season, some players may luck themselves into the right place to score some crosses. It turns out yes, this was Chang’s first headed goal as an RSL player. But just exactly how bad was the dip from last season to this season? Can the random Chang or Meram header over a season fill the shoes Damir wore?
The answer, to my mental dismay, is an emphatic yes.
In 2021, RSL scored 11 headed goals over the season: seven from Kreilach and four from an assortment of players who managed one. This season, we have miraculously managed the exact same tally: 11 headed goals, two from both Julio and Glad, and seven more players chipped in 1 of their own into this pile.
The amount of crosses sent in is also near-identical for each season, so it’s not a matter of putting in more crosses and getting the same amount of production. We are sending in the same amount of crosses and scoring the same amount of goals. If we manage just one more headed goal in our final two games, we will actually have had a more dangerous aerial attack this season compared to last season.
Lack of Penalties?
With one theory more or less dead, I moved onto the next; penalties, or lack thereof.
Going into the weekend, I was fully aware that I had absolutely no idea who the 2022 designated penalty taker was. Ruiz had taken and scored one against Colorado earlier in the year, and that was the only reference point to anything of an idea. It seemed hard to believe the man who, discounting the one PK scored, has a stat line that looks like; (74 games played, 111 shots, 3 goals) was THE guy. When Pablo Ruiz winds up for a shot, you can expect it to end up in the net about 2.72% of the time. Not really the mold of player you’d expect to be taking your penalties. But it’s 2022, and here we are.
That tidbit aside, the idea that penalties are a source of issue for RSL’s goal total also proved to be a red herring. While I like to imagine that Rusnak last year scored most of his 11 goals on PKs, validating a lack of goalscoring prowess, that was not the reality of it. RSL in 2021 only had 3 penalty kicks, compared to the 2 from this year. Regardless of having a less reliable player taking those shots, we more or less never get to the spot enough for that to matter.
There is definitely a case that we have players who don’t create enough PKs. Western Conference teams not named RSL have averaged 6.1 PK attempts on average this year. While some of that comes down to dumb luck with handball situations, many are also created by breakaway opportunities and individual dribbling. A topic for another day.
Lack of Finishing?
The crossing/heading numbers are identical to last year, and there is no real downtick in the amount of PK’s attempted. Is finishing quality the only major issue at play then?
If you fully subscribe to xGoal as an offense metric, we find that the positions RSL are getting shots from is more or less the same to 2021. Last year we managed 44.81 xGoals, this year we have 40.19 with two games left to grow that number. Once again, those figures are near identical, the team is creating just as many quality goal scoring opportunities as last season.
But based on this, we can hone in on the finishing problem at hand. The season before we scored 54 goals from an expected 44.81, this season we have netted 39 from 40.19. A quick glance at our scoring conversion rates from last season and this season further sell the significance of this statistic.
While last year we fired off more shots overall, from what we can garner with xGoal and Scoring Conversion Rates, it’s not the biggest culprit at hand.
Based on the numbers, the clear conclusion may in fact hinge totally on the obvious deficiency: a lack of quality finishing. One of the major points of preseason was if we could replace Rusnak, and I believe that Savarino’s output does make up for that. With only half a season under him, he is about half of Rusnak’s 2021 total in goals and assists. What we are lacking here, is a replacement for Damir Kreilach. Not just his head, the whole player.
The ability to finish off chances at a high rate, higher than xGoals would set the bar, appears to be the biggest missing link. The team could certainly create more xGoals (we are just below the league average in regards to this), but when comparing this year to last year, the difference in goal production seems to rest heavily in regards to finishing quality. RSL are getting just as many quality chances as last year, it’s just the players who are getting the chances this year are finishing them less frequently.
That’s not to hark on the woes of Cordova, who performs relatively close to his expected goals value, but more to sing the praises of Kreilach, who scores WELL above his expected value, second-best in MLS well — and perhaps give Rusnak a little bit of credit, maybe.
There are many theories to increasing offensive productivity going forward. Better players, better coaching tactics, better front office acquisitions, or everyone’s favorite; all of them. Regardless to which of these are actually true or overreactions, this season has certainly highlighted a chink in the armor. RSL, in recent times, have been the beneficiaries of some rather clinical finishing, which has compensated for another issue until now. This season we’ve had a full look at how the team performs when they score at their actual expected rate, and it’s less than impressive.
Here’s to hoping the international break will bring the spark of a re-invigorated team ready to make amends for recent form and sneak into playoffs. If not, perhaps the offseason will bring one of those changes above into next year. At the very least, it should bring Damir back to us, and that alone is worth a bit of optimism.