Son of Forward Perspective!

By Benjamin Massey · September 23rd, 2014 · 3 comments

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

Last year, when I wrote about the Whitecaps a bit more often, people were prematurely jazzed about the Whitecaps’ forward corps. Seeing signs of human happiness around me, I chugged a bottle of Haterade then sounded the horn of perspective. Sure, Camilo was the real deal, I said, but Kenny Miller probably isn’t. (The very next day, Martin Rennie signed Miller to a contract extension. Max lulz were had.) I also had a word or two in defense of Darren Mattocks[1]. My statistical predictions were largely overtaken by events, with Camilo fucking off to Mexico and Miller heading back to the United Kingdom.

Now, I haven’t watched 400 minutes of Whitecaps soccer this year so I’m not the most qualified son-of-a-bitch to repeat that exercise. But clearly nobody else is going to do it. When not excreting clickbait bullshit about women daring to be soccer fans while having breasts, our mainstream soccer writers have banged the “omg teh fukking witecaps forwards!!!!” drum like Keith Moon on speed. I even braved the Vancouver Southsiders Facebook page and forum to check the mood and came back with eye herpes. People, it is fair to say, are unhappy, crying things like “why didn’t we keep Camilo by offering him a bigger-money contract, like the one he walked out on?” and “why didn’t we sign Leo Messi?” and “how can I blame Vancouver conceding field goals every other week on Darren Mattocks?” and “I’m seven years old and can’t remember before mid-August, why have the Whitecaps never scored?”

So fuck it. How terrible are the three young forwards, Erik Hurtado, Kekuta Manneh, and Darren Mattocks, who are causing this drama factory to run overtime? I have no idea, I don’t watch the games, but here’s a table anyway. All statistics from MLSSoccer.com.

2013 2014
GP MIN G A PKG SD SoG SoG% S% SD/90 SoG/90 GP MIN G A PKG SD SoG SoG% S% SD/90 SoG/90
Hurtado, Erik 15 489 0 2 0 13 3 23.08% 0.00% 2.392 0.552 25 1493 5 2 0 42 17 40.47% 29.41% 2.532 1.024
Manneh, Kekuta 20 764 6 2 0 38 15 39.47% 40.00% 4.476 1.767 24 1009 3 1 0 47 18 38.30% 16.67% 4.192 1.606
Mattocks, Darren 20 911 3 1 0 45 14 31.11% 21.43% 4.446 1.383 26 1664 6 3 1 51 23 45.10% 26.09% 2.758 1.244

We have three players who saw fewer than 1,000 minutes last season. Short sample sizes suck. But at a glance two guys are trending as expected.

Erik Hurtado is still sort of crummy. Nothing like a hot streak to make a coach think you might be the real deal, but luckily he’s cooled off in time to not get a big raise. 1.0 SoG/90, a forward who’s doing that might be tolerable as a depth guy, but why bother when there are so many underappreciated NASL and USL Pro players around with something to prove and a modicum of technical ability? Long Tan just made the USL Pro All-League Second Team[2], but there’s probably a decent forward around there somewhere.

Only Darren Mattocks has genuinely regressed, losing 1.7 shots directed per 90 minutes. He’s dropped an entire Gershon Koffie in offense! Admittedly, this is with Canadian Soccer Jesus, one of MLS’s leading playmakers last season, having dropped back to d-mid to keep Matty Laba from getting lonely. But this is also with Pedro Morales existing and somehow not straining a hamstring for weeks. I suspect that, looking at Mattocks’s 2012 figures and bearing in mind his nasty case of shoot-from-anywhereitis at points last year, the SD/90 we’re seeing now is in line with Mattocks’s actual skill.

Even Mattocks’s season has been acceptable. Not great, not what you want from a first-rank striker, but 0.325 goals per 90 minutes runs 43rd in MLS among players with at least five goals. That sounds worse than it is: there are a lot of Max Urrutis/Luis Silvas/Michels who are banging in penalties, shooting over 60%, and having the one good goal-scoring season they’re going to live off for the rest of their hilariously overpaid careers. There’s no reason to think Mattocks’s percentages aren’t sustainable, and this level of performance is well worth holding onto. Not that they suggest any danger of a 20-goal-carrying-the-team-on-his-back season.

I’ll tell you one thing I am pretty darned confident of. Kekuta Manneh is a serious soccer player. He’s still the youngest on this list. He turns 20 in December. He’s not progressing by the numbers, but the team’s exploded so much around him and his playing time has been in such fits and starts I’m not sure what we could expect. Anyway, his current level of performance is fine, he just needs the shots to start going in and that’s only a matter of time.

If it were my team, I’d throw Manneh at the top for the rest of the season as long as his body could take it, have Mattocks as my second guy, and send Erik Hurtado to a nice house in the country where he could play every day and eat all the kibble he wants.

(notes and comments…)

Forward Perspective

By Benjamin Massey · July 23rd, 2013 · No comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

If readers were to take one lesson away from this website’s many rambling posts, I hope that it would be “perspective is key”. A few games is not a long enough time to draw any conclusions. Even a full season is, in statistical terms, not long at all. An MLS season is only 34 games; seasons in other leagues with 82 or even 162 games are still impacted by luck and other non-reproducible non-skill factors which make players and teams appear different from what they are. Why would MLS be exempt with its shorter, unbalanced schedule? Sometimes a player is on a season-long hot streak, sometimes he has improved but not as much as it looks like he’s improved, and sometimes he’s unlucky. We’ve seen it time and time again, with one-hit wonders getting undeserved money and teams giving up on slumping talents who come to life in their new homes. The wider a perspective we take, the shorter the odds we make such a mistake.

This year, the Vancouver Whitecaps have gotten great performances from two of their key forwards. Camilo is turning in a career year, fighting for the MLS scoring lead while delivering a fistful of chances every game. Whereas last year he was allegedly one-dimensional, always trying to cut back and shoot or hammer it from a free kick, this season he’s been mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Meanwhile, Kenny Miller isn’t in the same race for the scoring title but he’s also trundled in six goals, some absolutely spectacular, while in 2012 much of the Vancouver fanbase (including me) wouldn’t have minded seeing him released. A Daily Mail report saying Miller may sign an extension with the Whitecaps[1] has been greeted with almost unanimous support.

On the other hand, after a promising rookie season Darren Mattocks has fallen into the tank. He scored a gem of an insurance goal against the Seattle Sounders but, otherwise, there hasn’t been much to speak of from him beyond a series of misses and getting passed by everybody on the depth chart. A knee injury has ruined his chances so far to exploit that Seattle appearance but, prior to that, he has struggled just to get playing time. Mattocks’s preseason target of a 20-goal season[2] has been quoted for all the wrong reasons. Plenty of fans, and not a few pundits, want Mattocks traded. The dominant analysis these days seems to be that he’s a one-dimensional speed merchant, one who will never reach the lofty projections so many made in 2012.

So three Whitecaps forwards whose fortunes have turned around 180 degrees from 2012. Camilo and Miller on the rise, Mattocks in the basement. How about some statistical perspective, a look at a somewhat larger picture? Below is a comparison of the major offensive statistics for these three players in 2012 and to date in 2013. As always, regular season only. This table reflects only first assists (for more on my fight with second assists, see this June article)[3].

2012 2013
GP MIN G A PKG SD SoG SoG% S% SD/90 SoG/90 GP MIN G A PKG SD SoG SoG% S% SD/90 SoG/90
Camilo 28 1719 5 7 0 64 24 37.50% 20.83% 3.351 1.257 19 1319 13 3 3 71 31 43.66% 41.94% 4.845 2.115
Mattocks, Darren 21 1300 7 0 0 39 16 41.03% 43.75% 2.700 1.108 13 623 3 1 0 34 11 32.35% 27.27% 4.912 1.589
Miller, Kenny 13 716 2 1 0 11 4 36.36% 50.00% 1.383 0.503 12 1021 6 0 0 22 9 40.91% 66.67% 1.939 0.793

So if you’ve been watching the games this year and thought “I think Camilo and Miller have definitely improved this season,” you’re right. See, statistics aren’t so complicated.

Let’s look at Camilo first. His shooting rates have gone through the roof. If he kept it up through the end of the season, Camilo’s 2.115 SoG/90 would be the best shooting rate among players with over 1,000 minutes since Yura Movsisyan’s 2.417 in 2008[4]. Extreme values are always hard to maintain and this is a considerable improvement on Camilo’s previous career best, 1.341 SoG/90 in 2011[5]. With an extremely high 43.66% of Camilo’s shots attempted being on target, it’s fair to say luck is on his side. That said, Camilo’s historically a fairly abundant shooter and there are reasons why he’d generate more offense this season. Another year’s maturity (he’s 25 and entering his prime), more MLS experience, and most importantly a far improved midfield which, between Nigel Reo-Coker and Russell Teibert, is capable of generating the ball movement and accurate passing through the middle third so important to a forward like Camilo who can’t really do it all himself.

Camilo’s high shooting percentage is inflated by going 3 for 3 on penalties. Remove them and Camilo is shooting 35.71%: still too high, not outrageous. A more reasonable shooting percentage still has Camilo on eight or nine goals this year in a relatively-modest 1,319 minutes. That would be among the league leaders (including high-percentage guys like Mike Magee and Jack McInerney) but with hundreds fewer minutes than his rivals. He is, in short, having a first-class season, one which can be trimmed but not cut down by any of the statistical tools at my disposal. It may still be a “career year”, he may still be unable to repeat it, but what a year it is. It is between Camilo and Marco di Vaio for the title “best forward in the league in 2013”.

So when we talk about perspective with Camilo, we’re not demolishing his 2013 season but building up his 2012. Playing frequently off the bench and seldom getting a good run of starts, Camilo scored only five goals in 1,719 minutes, not good enough for the team-leading striker he looked like he could be in 2011 and has been in 2013. However, his shooting percentage of 20.83% provides a clue to what went wrong. If Camilo had his 2013 non-penalty shooting percentage of 35.71% that year he would have scored eight or nine goals: enough to be considered a respectable team scoring leader, as well as doubtless earning him more minutes which may have pushed him into double digits. Add in those seven assists and we would have been very pleased with Hypothetical 2012 Camilo. Instead, his shooting percentage was in a funk so people could post, quite seriously, on message boards that they didn’t think Camilo was an MLS-calibre striker.

Perspective, people. This may be the best year of Camilo’s career, but it’s his third good year in MLS and he’s proven his quality. We were fooled in 2012 because his shooting percentage was in the dumps. I hope that, next time Camilo hits a slump, we shall not be fooled again.

On the other hand, we have Kenny Miller. His shooting rate has improved, but from “very bad for a striker” in 2012 to just “bad for a striker” in 2013. His respectable goal haul is on account of a remarkably high shooting percentage. Miller has a 61.54% shooting percentage in his MLS career, and that MLS career amounts to 1,737 minutes. Just eight minutes more than what Camilo played in 2012, when his shooting percentage was so unsustainably low.

Some readers will be tempted to argue that Miller is a unique player, one who can sustain a shooting percentage which would mark him as the best finisher in the recent history of Major League Soccer. Please don’t. I remember hearing Seattle Sounders fans, after last season, saying Eddie Johnson would maintain his 56.00% shooting percentage because he’s a natural finisher who scored a disproportionate number of goals with his head and didn’t really have any “lucky” shots trundling across the line. This year Johnson is shooting 26.67%[6]. I saw it coming, not because I’m an expert on the Seattle Sounders but because 56.00% is too much to be sustained. The same, I’m afraid, applies to Kenny Miller. We may love the guy, we may think he has a lot to offer besides his shooting (and he does), but if he wants to keep scoring goals he has to generate more shots. If Miller keeps up such a percentage over the long term, it will be unprecedented. There is no grey area here: either Miller is due for a decline, or he is such a great finisher that he is 50% better than the next-best, that otherwise-inalienable statistical laws do not apply to him.

I think he’s due to decline. Which, again, does not subtract from the other things Miller does well. His ability to hold the ball up, his high work rate in midfield and defense, and the quality of his positioning opening up more room for players like Camilo, all of these are real contributions which will not show up in his SoG/90. I think Miller gets some credit for Camilo’s career year. He also scores some beautiful goals, which do not help the Whitecaps win games any more than ugly ones but are worth a hell of a lot to us fans. Of the three forwards I am assessing today Miller is certainly the best all-rounder. But he is not shooting at the rate of a quality MLS goalscorer.

Having gotten the obligatory Maple Leaf Forever! pessimism out of the way, let’s move on to Darren Mattocks. Poor Mattocks. He’s a victim of the NCAA soccer development model, one which let him coast on his speed and his remarkable foot-eye coordination rather than develop the technical skills and soccer smarts which could have made him into a star. Yet for all that he sure piled in some goals in 2012. This year, though, he has shown next to nothing. What’s gone wrong?

You can see immediately, as I have pointed out in this pages before, that Mattocks was never going to keep up his 2012 shooting percentage. 43.75%, with no penalties or free kicks helping him out? Forget it. And sure enough he hasn’t (indeed, if you hear one complaint about Mattocks this year, it’ll be all the gilt-edged chances he’s missed). The laws of the statistical universe have avenged themselves upon young Mattocks, at a time when Camilo is tearing the league apart and guaranteeing Mattocks a place on the bench.

So here’s the good news. Firstly, although it’s a staggeringly small sample, Mattocks has improved his shooting rate. 1.589 SoG/90, if Mattocks could keep it up (he’s only played 623 minutes this year so who knows?), would be very respectable. Had Mattocks gotten the same minutes as Kenny Miller this year he’d have five goals. Not twenty, for sure, not among the league leaders, but reasonable enough for a playoff team’s second-best striker in his second professional season. If that improvement in his shooting rate is legitimate (a massive “if”), Mattocks would be a worthy MLS starter.

Second, while last year Mattocks’s shooting percentage was too high to conceivably be sustained, this year it is unreasonably low. 27.27% is bad enough (it was much worse before that nice Seattle goal), but it’s down with speed merchants like late-period Omar Cummings and Sanna Nyassi and might, reasonably, be excused. However, high-level MLS scorers tend to have shooting percentages above 31%[7] and, with a powerful shot and the aforementioned foot-eye co-ordination I believe Mattocks belongs around the average rather than with the extreme low end. He’s also getting only 32.35% of his shots attempted on target this year, another low figure. In short, luck hasn’t been on Mattocks’s side this year, and it was way off before that excellent goal against Seattle.

If he gets playing time, Mattocks should rebound. Not to the level of his luck-driven 2012 season but certainly to respectability. Minutes look hard to come by with the way Camilo is playing but injuries, slumps, and squad rotation happen; patience is the key.

My advice to Martin Rennie, and my notes to the fans who’ve gotten this far, is as follows. First, if you want to extend Kenny Miller at designated player money, think twice. Long-term you will not get an elite number of goals out of him unless he’s got another 0.7 SoG/90 hidden in his other boots. Probably he won’t even generate enough goals to be considered a good second-line striker. So ask yourself how much you think Miller’s many other abilities are worth. If what he does besides score is worth a designated player slot to you then Godspeed, but definitely do not give him major money for the sake of his scoring.

Second, be slow to trade Darren Mattocks unless a great offer comes in. Right now we would be trading Mattocks at the bottom of his value. He’s almost nowhere to be found on the goalscoring charts and his reputation is probably lower than it has ever been. At some point he’ll get into a rich vein of form and the luck which has so far eluded him will come back; when he’s banging a few goals in and people are impressed rather than disappointed, that’s the time to make a move. You may even want to keep him depending on Camilo’s fate. The numbers suggest that Mattocks is due to rebound, given time, and while the best day to trade him may have been the last day of 2012 he’s still better than he looks at the moment. Selling low and buying high is bad strategy.

Third, this season is such an improvement on Camilo’s past two that I won’t believe he can keep up this level of production until he proves it. But his 2012 wasn’t nearly as bad as some fans thought and, of course, we remember his quality in 2011. If anybody on the Whitecaps is an established MLS asset it’s Camilo Sanvezzo. 2011 Camilo was probably worth designated player money, 2013 Camilo definitely is, and only his shooting percentage was keeping 2012 Camilo from the league elite. He’s only 25 years old. If the only way to keep Camilo in Vancouver is to make him a designated player then I’m fine with that.

(notes and comments…)

Our lord swears fealty to the Kings

By Roke · June 2nd, 2013 · No comments

Ben_VoyageursCup

Whitecaps Perfect: Let’s Not Start Sucking Each Other’s Dicks Just Yet

By Benjamin Massey · March 11th, 2013 · No comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

So, how about them Whitecaps? After a 2-1 victory over the Columbus Crew, ESPN has Vancouver #3 in their MLS power rankings[1]! MLSSoccer.com’s John Bolster praised Vancouver’s “results in style” while ranking the Whitecaps among the league overachievers[2]! All around, fans and pundits are impressed by Vancouver’s perfect start, and why not? You can’t get seven points out of six.

Well, they did the same thing last season and look where they got us. I’m pleased but not wholly impressed.

I don’t actually like sounding the brown note of pessimism, but in 2012 we saw why somebody has to. Last year’s Whitecaps weren’t nearly as good in the first half of the season as their record made them look: when they regressed towards the mean ill-informed writers looking only at a list of results seized upon this as evidence of some systemic problem or failed mid-season rebuild. As we’ve discussed, it was actually a lucky team ceasing to be lucky. Part of the problem was that those of us who knew better, and I include myself among them, either fooled ourselves into thinking the Whitecaps’ luck was skill or simply failed to put our doubts in print. So if the Whitecaps are going to get off to a lucky start in 2013 then I’m damned well going to say so, early enough that if we slip in the standings we can claim foresight rather than just hindsight.

Let’s begin with an obvious point. It’s been two games. 180 minutes. That’s basically no time at all. If you’re drawing vast, sweeping conclusions based on two games, regardless of team or result, regardless of whether they overturn or maintain your previous ideas, then you are a moron. Of course the entire premise of things like power rankings is “let’s take ridiculously small sample sizes and pretend they mean something without any sort of rigorous criteria” so this point is always implicit: still, it’s worth stating.

First, a 1-0 win over Toronto FC. Toronto was everyone’s pick for dead last in the Eastern Conference, so this shouldn’t be impressive, but they have since beaten Sporting Kansas City, allegedly quite a good team, at home. Their win had a bit of a stink on it on account of the unusual circumstances (home opener, Rogers Centre), the winning goal being drawn on a dive by John Bostock, and wonky shooting numbers (Sporting Kansas City had sixteen shots directed and one on target?! Oh fuck right off.[3]). Now, in Toronto’s defense a half-full Rogers Centre wasn’t exactly an intimidating atmosphere and because they had the lead from the third minute onward Kansas City would have benefited from score effects, but while the FCs are probably out of “worst team in the world” territory I’m not calling them playoff contenders based on that one game. Neither should anyone else, as pleasing as that win was for Toronto fans.

The Whitecaps were not convincing. Gershon Koffie’s goal was excellent but Vancouver generated few quality chances against a patchwork defense and midfield with a career backup in Toronto’s goal. Vancouver won the stats battle (led shots on goal 3-2, shots directed 13-9, and was just behind in possession 49.2%-50.8%) but not by much. The first half, in particular, was a picture of dull soccer as the Whitecaps failed to get around a Toronto team that really didn’t know what to do with each other, while Robert Earnshaw attacked the Whitecaps defenders all alone for lack of any better ideas. I didn’t think Toronto was better than expected, so much as Vancouver was a bit worse. In the end the Whitecaps held the balance of play but by a disconcertingly close margin.

Then on Saturday a 2-1 win over the Columbus Crew. Both Whitecaps goals have some odor: Daigo Kobayashi continued a Whitecaps tradition of making Andy Gruenebaum look incompetent from range with a mid-height thirty-yarder Gruenebaum utterly slept on (not quite as bad as Lee’s free kick howler from last year but still[4]), while Kenny Miller picked poor Gláuber’s pocket and scored one of the more opportunistic goals of his career. Against this are the chances missed by Miller and Nigel Reo-Coker, but those still aren’t the types of goals you can count on scoring every week. Worse, Columbus won the stats battle (shots on goal 3-5, shots directed 8-15, possession going Vancouver’s way for once 52.4%-47.6%). Again, score effects: Vancouver led for 73 minutes plus stoppages. But wouldn’t you expect the Whitecaps to be able to batter the Crew down all the same? Notwithstanding the obviously-excellent Federico Higuaín, Columbus has far more potential than actual ability, and I had them battling with Philadelphia for eighth and ninth in my preseason rankings.

Playing at home against two Eastern opponents who appear to belong in the bottom third of the conference, you’d be disappointed if the Whitecaps got fewer than four out of a possible six points. Home field advantage is a major factor, and thanks to home field advantage against mediocre out-of-time-zone opposition the Whitecaps probably had the league’s easiest schedule in the first two weeks. Last year the Whitecaps claimed far more impressive scalps at BC Place: San Jose twice, Dallas, Houston, Salt Lake, very nearly Los Angeles. That team, we know now and should have known at the time, wasn’t good enough despite those wins. Wins over Toronto and Columbus don’t mean a thing. The Whitecaps haven’t overachieved, they haven’t sent notice to anyone, they haven’t blown any doors off. They have done more-or-less what you’d expect a team competing for the playoffs to do in their position, they did it without a resounding victory, and if it had happened in the middle of the season nobody outside British Columbia would have noticed.

People think that the Whitecaps losing DeMerit was “a huge blow”[5] (it wasn’t[6]) from which the Whitecaps did miraculously well to recover; this overrates DeMerit while simultaneously giving the Whitecaps too much credit for good save percentages against iffy offenses. They think that Daigo Kobayashi has proven he belongs; well, a lucky goal and a gem of an assist is a pretty good haul from your first two MLS games, but how many times have we seen highly-touted attacking players come into this league and look like they have all the potential in the world until the league caught up to them? Go back to late April 2011 and you’d find dozens of people ready to swear on their lives that Eric Hassli was going to win an MLS scoring title someday; now he’s on the bench in Dallas.

Now, the good news. First, the Whitecaps didn’t play badly in either game. They probably had the all-round better play against both Toronto and Columbus, with the latter maybe edging things but score effects making that unclear. If the Whitecaps had neutral luck we’re talking about one win turning into a draw, not turning into two losses. Last year the Whitecaps also won their first two games against unimpressive opponents, but they did it with an ass full of horseshoes (Montreal peppering Joe Cannon but the Whitecaps winning 2-0 thanks to Tyson Wahl losing his footing against Le Toux and a Camilo wondergoal, and a 1-0 win at Chivas where Vancouver had one decent chance and it went in). The 2012 Whitecaps and 2013 Whitecaps took the same number of points from their first two, but the 2013 Whitecaps also had reasonably good performances.

Moreover, there are few particular areas where the Whitecaps are struggling and these may improve with time. Brad Rusin got snookered by Ben Speas on the Columbus goal when Speas shoved Rusin off the ball with a clean-in-MLS challenge; that’s a matter of adjusting to a new league (though you’d hope Rusin would have known better from his Carolina days). Darren Mattocks isn’t adjusting too well playing up high. As we saw last year, when he’s just putting his shoulder on the centre back and sprinting for shooting opportunities Mattocks has something to offer; when he’s trying to play a well-rounded game befitting a professional forward he does less well. The NCAA American development model which said “fast guy run fast!” rather than teaching him the skills necessary to contribute for 90 minutes is letting Mattocks down this year. But he might learn, and even if he doesn’t Camilo is available. Nigel Reo-Coker has no idea how to play with some of his midfielders, particularly Gershon Koffie, yet. But he’s linking up well with Lee Young-Pyo, he’s putting the effort in, and Koffie is a bit of a tricky one to read, so again, no reason to believe Reo-Coker won’t figure it out. We said many of the same things about the Whitecaps hopefully improving in 2012, too; they didn’t. But it looks like the 2013 Whitecaps are at least starting from a superior position.

The Whitecaps aren’t gunning for the leaders yet and that’s not so bad, really; last year the Whitecaps didn’t deserve their early results and this year they were close. The real test comes in two weeks when the Whitecaps are in Houston and we see how they handle a real opponent away. If that game sees an impressive Whitecaps performance, then I’ll let you start getting worked up.

(notes and comments…)