To start, this is not an analytics post. I’m aware of sample size issues and such, but this post is mostly meant to use Opta data in tandem with basic game statistics and common sense to look into Montreal’s approach to the 2013 MLS campaign.

Major League Soccer is a fascinating league in that it appears to be somewhat of an outlier compared with Europe. I recently ran a TSR/PDO analysis on the MLS 2012 season and there is very little correlation between table position and total shots ratio. There is some discretion here: it’s only one season. But there are other examples of MLS being “weird.” Teams with less than 50% possession tend to win more, for example.

There are all sorts of possible explanations for this discrepancy, including the lack of promotion relegation leading to less emphasis on defense, the higher importance of individual skill over team play, the state of officiating etc. Until we get more information on this topic, this is all speculation. But in understanding what makes MLS weird, we might understand a bit more of what influences an overall league “style.”

I have my own hunches as to why MLS is an oddball. For one, I’ve always thought the general lack of coherence sometimes in defense in MLS reduces the need for sending in crosses from the flanks. Direct play may yield higher dividends in front of goal (again, if someone wants to run the numbers here, please do).

Anyway, Montreal in some ways reflects the odd MLS norm with regard to both possession stats and shots ratio. In three of their four matches, Montreal enjoyed less possession (they had 50.2% possession against Toronto). Additionally, in all four of their victories, they took fewer overall shots but had more shots on target.

However, the statistics on crosses stands out:

Oppostion v Montreal Open Play Crosses For MTL Open Play Crosses Against MTL
Seattle Sounders 6 27
Portland Timbers 5 25
Toronto FC 9 20
New York Red Bulls 3 20

Some of this can be explained by Montreal’s stalwart central defense, strong enough that teams may be forced to play down the flanks. But it’s clear from the Opta passing/shots data that Montreal is working their attack through the middle. Often it comes on the counter attack (which we here love for obvious reasons). Here, here, here and here are Montreal’s key pass, through ball, and shots data from Montreal’s last four matches.

Montreal may know something its opposition doesn’t about the nature of play in MLS. Crossing needlessly in this league is a waste of possession, and defenses are porous enough to play effectively on the counter through the middle to win (a philosophy that may or may not coincidentally matches the current Italian preference for narrow formations). Again, this is not hard science, but a guess based on four games so far.

Comments (7)

  1. could this also be a lack of quality/experience on the attackers in the league who are aweful at getting on the end of crosses that can be scored on?

    Similar reason for why corners are not much of a concern in MLS (unless you are pre-2013 TFC)

  2. Some MLS teams look like they can’t handle the counter attack. It was pretty clear watching MTL @ NY when Di Vaio kept finding space between the centre backs down the middle. MLS is really a weird league to watch. Plus the age of this team shows that MTL is built to get results in the short term. Could be that a lot of these older guys simply know how to win in the most effective way.

  3. It’s a good discussion to have.

    Personally, I think the impotence of the flank play is partially down to how poorly the league is officiated. Obstruction is not called properly at all. Usually the first thing you see when a wide player touches the ball past the defender, is the defender throwing his arm out and holding the player back by any means necessary. This is sometimes called in Europe depending on how excessive it is, it is practically never called in MLS. Guys get knocked to the ground, have their shirt held on to or what have you, and the referee keeps his whistle in his pocket. Otherwise, you have to admit there aren’t very many high caliber wing players in the league. All the talent seems to be through the middle, GK, CB, DM, or striker.

  4. I think a full pre-season for all the players who formed the core of the 2nd half of last season was key. Even without bringing in tactics, for everyone to be able to get off the starting blocks at the same time and progress forward together has made a big difference.

  5. As an added note (not to dismiss the tactical side of it) but somebody should write a big piece on Bernier. He came back from Europe and got off to a rough start with Marsh, but after about 10 games into last season he’s been something really special.

    The balls he’s putting onto the feet of the attacking players are absolutely ridiculous and (if memory serves) he’s yet to miss a kick from the penalty spot.

    Imagine five years ago stating that JDG will come back to MLS and suck balls while Patrice Bernier will absolutely dominate. People would think you crawled out from under a rock.

  6. I wonder if part of these statistical anomalies has to do with the unbalanced rosters. With DPs largely tasked with scoring goals, it could be that the teams that sacrifice more salary cap space in midfield have more money spent to get quality finishers. Alex touches on this kind of phenomenon too above when he says there aren’t many good wing players in the league, so the crosses into the middle aren’t as dangerous as they could be.

  7. MTL will swoon come the dog days of summer. Older Euro players transitioning to the unique cross-continental travel demands and the potential of a crowded fixture schedule (especially if they win the Vs Cup) will all add up down the round.

    As for Bernier: he didn’t come in with the same expectations that JDG came in with at TFC. This was a journeyman Euro player and an inconsistent MNT performer as opposed to a key MNT performer and former La Liga club MVP. Significant difference. The similarity is that both are role players except that in Bernier’s case his talents are enhanced by the talent around him. Until Koevermans and Frings arrived, JDG was a role player amongst role players at TFC. He resurged at FC Dallas because he came in without the weight of expectations from the fans there and his arrival coincided with the return of club talisman and former league MVP David Ferreira.

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