Archive for the ‘Montreal Impact’ Category

Toronto FC v Montreal Impact

The Montreal Impact had, up until June 20th, 2013, a 9-3-2 record in the MLS Eastern Conference. Of their last four games however, they’ve lost two and drawn two. Their latest game was a 4-0 loss to top-of-the-table rivals New York Red Bulls, and the two preceding draws came against Chivas USA and Toronto FC, two of the worst teams in the league. If you were a writer under deadline tasked with writing a story on the Montreal Impact season to date, what would you have to say about the team?

One very attractive option would be to use the two draws against bad teams and the big loss against a very good team as evidence that Montreal are “dropping down” to their level of true talent. After all, Montreal don’t have the players of the Red Bulls, nor do they have the “experience” of Sporting Kansas City in fighting for top spot. Finally, they didn’t make the playoffs last season, finishing 7th in the East on 42 points. This all feels vaguely like a sign Montreal must be overachieving.

You see this argument made often in the Premier League, for example, particularly when applied to teams like Spurs. I don’t want to be uncharitable, but it seems often that this argument rests on nothing much more than, “Spurs don’t regularly qualify for the Champions League, don’t tend to finish above Arsenal, and certainly never challenge for titles, ergo, the best they can hope for is 5th place.” And when the prediction comes true, even when it comes down to a matter of a single, solitary point, everyone feels pretty vindicated.

This past weekend I wrote about the Impact (and other teams) for the Guardian, and prefaced my little blurb with this:

What’s the difference between a great team going through a temporary slump, and a mediocre team regressing to its true level of talent after a “lucky” streak? If you know the answer, you should consider taking up a career in sports gambling.

Long-time readers and analytics enthusiasts will know that we have a pretty good indicator of a team “luck” in PDO, which is just shot percentage plus save percentage times (perhaps arbitrarily) 1000. Because these statistics regress heavily to the mean, they seem to be, for the most part, random noise. That means they’re not great at measuring an underlying baseline of skill or talent, but they’re pretty good at making a judgment call over whether a team might be under or overachieving (insert your own pedantic caveats here).

I’m not privy to a lot of MLS shot data, sadly, but I can reverse engineer a rough answer from whoscored.com game averages. What follows therefore should be take with a grain of salt. It doesn’t take into consideration quality of competition or game states or any of that shit, for example. And, so far as I know, no one has done a historical linear regression between PDO and points totals in MLS, but I would guess they regress just as quickly as anywhere else.

Anyway, Montreal’s shot percentage is 13.2%. Their save percentage is 89.24%. This yields a PDO number of 1024. Is this high? I don’t know the context in the East, but Ben Massey has done a little work on this in the West as recently as June 20th. Seattle were rocking a sky high PDO of 1119, and Vancouver was in the basement at 952. Seattle were clearly set for a correction (and recent results suggest as much), and Vancouver were going to improve (five wins and one draw in their last six games ain’t bad!).

And, again, while we don’t really know if Total Shots on Target Ratios have as high an R squared correlation to points totals as they do in the Premier League, Montreal maintains an impressive TSotR of .625.

So, while the picture isn’t definitive (had I the resources I would isolate for GS and qualcomp), there’s some evidence that Montreal is just about where they should be. That’s not to say the picture may not drastically change between now and then. But if I were Joey Saputo, I might want to give a serious think about the wisdom of replacing head coach Marco Schällibaum with Juan Carlos Osorio at this delicate stage.

I’m writing this because of something I read by the great sabermetrician Tom Tango this week, on Bill James and the importance of recognizing and appreciating random variation when you’re looking at things like streaks. Tango quotes Bill James:

So, Bill says:

The question is, to what extent, in watching the games, are we seeing what is real, and to what extent are we seeing an illusion created by random clusters? … But for the most part, those studies always show that the variance in the real-life performance is identical to the variance that would be expected if nothing was operating except the normal randomization.

Now, I wouldn’t say “identical”, but the spread in real-life performance is only slightly larger than you’d expect from random variation, and so, makes it a virtually unactionable property. The Book does document the existence of real streaks (cold hitters, hot pitchers, clutch skill, etc), but it’s barely visible in the most extreme of conditions that for all intents and purposes, you’d only be able to use this information in tie-breaker-type scenarios.

So, Bill is right that the question is not whether something exists, but by how much. And that’s what the job of a saberist really is about, to figure out how much signal is in all that noise. Because humans are involved, there’ll always be a signal.

The problem of streaks is usually applied to individual player actions, like hot streaks and that sort of thing, but I think it should also be applied to winning streaks as well. That’s again why I think that, despite the enormous strides being made, this area of football analytics still needs to be further explored, and shots data needs a better marriage with CMS for us bozos to be able to quickly judge, say, a team’s tied GS PDO against a particular quality of competition, without having to stare at an Excel table.

2008 Pepsi MLS All-Star Game - West Ham United v MLS All-Stars

It’s not a new debate. In fact, it’s one of the oldest debates in world football. However, in Canada, fans and media are just now coming around to discuss it.

Since Canada didn’t have a separate national cup competition until six years ago, the debate about how to best balance league and cup competition has never been addressed. It has been now, with one high profile columnist for the Toronto Star, Cathal Kelly, lambasting the Amway Canadian Championship last week. Kelly called the event the most useless competition in Canadian sport and suggested that the teams didn’t really want to win it.

Understandably (and correctly) his column was attacked as being needlessly critical, inaccurate and provincial—it was written in such a way to make it seem like Canadian teams were unique in having to deal with the burden of parallel competitions. Additionally, anyone that saw the reaction of both players and fans last night in Montreal following the Impact’s 6-0 thrashing of TFC would instinctively understand that any notion of team’s not wanting to win is absurd.

It’s also unlikely that there will be many celebrations at TFC training today—extra running drills, perhaps, but no celebrations.

Few reading here need to understand this lesson, but it bears repeating: rotating a squad is not the same thing as not trying to win. The best clubs in the world take different approaches to different competitions and Canadian clubs should be no different. It should go without saying that a team can prioritize league play while at the same time giving younger/less used players a chance to prove themselves in the cup play.

That understanding also allows one to have a balanced discussion about whether a team has the right priorities. Should Montreal have dressed a mostly reserve side in the first leg against Toronto (with a win on Saturday and last night’s result the answer would seem to be yes)? Was Toronto right to let the kids mostly play in the cup this year (time will tell)?

Make no mistake, Toronto did not make the cup a priority this year. There had been rumblings since late last year that from top to bottom the organization understood that improving league play had to be priority No 1 in 2013 and, with that, a reluctant understanding that participation in the CONCACAF Champions League would make that more difficult.

To be very clear, saying that Toronto made the Canadian Championship a lesser aim in 2013 in no way justifies the 6-0 loss last night. Losing that heavily reflects poorly on the club and is a sign that the problems that have plagued TFC for years are far from being fixed. Put another way, Toronto likely loses yesterday even if they favoured the competition and they probably are bad in league play over the last four years even without CCL play.

But, CCL play made it worse—especially in 2010 when they were closer to a playoff spot than they were in 2011 or 2012. The disastrous start last year was at least partly because of the extra burden of playing four intense CCL games in a month. Evidence of the “CCL-effect” in MLS can be seen beyond Toronto. Of the four teams that have gone to the semi-finals or beyond in the last three seasons only one, this year’s Galaxy, the defending MLS Cup champions, have managed to play up to expectations in league play. Two of those four teams—Toronto and this year’s Seattle Sounders—were downright train wrecks in the league.
Which brings us back around to a point in Kelly’s article—is participating in the CCL worthwhile for MLS clubs? The answer isn’t as simple as many fans want to believe.

Yes, on a philosophical level, of course it is. If MLS wants to improve its standing in North America and the world it needs its teams competing internationally. Although the importance of the event is overstated by its fans, an appearance in the Club World Cup would be a significant step for the league.

The thing is the majority of MLS teams aren’t even close to good enough to compete against the top Mexican teams. Not when the Mexican teams put in a full effort, anyway. That fact essentially makes MLS CCL participation a mirage. They’re not really in the competition in a significant way, but participation in it does significantly put a drain on resources. Adding insult, participation in the tournament does very little to increase MLS teams’ profile in their home community. Few outside of the hardcore audience care—at all—about the tournament.

Over the last four years, Toronto has learned that lesson, which is why the club was more than happy to take a chance with younger players this time out. It’s hard to argue with their reasoning.

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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.”
Read the rest of this entry »

Montreal 2-1 Toronto

Toronto FC v Montreal Impact

Game in a sentence

A couple of controversial calls evened out, as Montreal send their rivals home with no points and some solace.

Observations

  • TFC’s amazing supporters set another MLS mark, breaking their own record–at Columbus–for traveling supporters. There would’ve been more if not for a highway accident that left bus loads of Reds fans in limbo on the 401.
  • Montreal started in a 4-1-4-1. A formation made viable by the presence of Patrice Bernier behind Montreal’s midfield. TFC’s starting lineup went unchanged from their home opening win against Sporting KC.
  • Alessandro Nesta played back to back 90 minute games for the third time as a member of the Impact. He lasted 12 minutes (hamstring) before making way for Dennis Iapichino.
  • The visitors came close to opening the scoring in the 28th minute. Excellent work from John Bostock on the left flank played Hogan Ephraim through. The QPR attacker’s first touch was solid, but his cross to Robert Earnshaw was intercepted by Jeb Brovsky. It was a terrific play by the Montreal defender. Read the rest of this entry »

New England Revolution v Montreal Impact

So I think Grant’s survey speaks for itself, and while it’s perhaps not entirely representative—he spoke to 18 anonymous players out a league with 19 teams with a max roster of 30 first team players on each team—it’s interesting to pretend it is so as to make broad extrapolations to “prove” a point. It’s called blogging, friends.

So what therefore can we conclude from a pan-Canadian perspective?

Well, along team management/ownership lines, Canadian clubs don’t really warrant much attention either positive or negative. Vancouver’s pitch sucks a bit. But neither are Canadian clubs particularly attractive destinations. Toronto tied with Chivas in clubs players would not want to play for. Perhaps the fact no other Canadian clubs stood out is proof that the whole problem of attracting foreign players is a myth? No because the sample size is far too small.

Oh and no Canadian clubs headed the best MLS stadium atmosphere vote, so you can stop playing that card. And players were equally neither hot nor cold on any of the Canadian club ownership groups, including MLSE. So again, perhaps players around MLS don’t see the club like Toronto fans do? Again, no, because 18 players is just not enough to draw conclusions about widespread attitudes in the league.

As for the intangibles like “most fun road city in the league” which could be translated as “most fun city to get loaded in and do drugs prolly,” Toronto got two votes out of 18. No other Canadian clubs made the list. Montreal—Montreal—got two votes for least fun road city in the league, which just goes to show that athletes are hella stupid. Also, sample size problem.

Montreal Impact v Colorado Rapids

Duane Rollins has done a bit of translating from La Presse‘s Patrick Leduc, who discovered some of the reasons behind Jesse Marsch’s departure from the Montreal Impact.

It really comes down to a misunderstanding, presumably on the part of Marsch, of just how much authority he had in making key decisions on player acquisitions. At some point in the middle of the 2012 season, it appears Impact’s sporting director Nick De Santis took over deciding which players the team would go after. Hence the Italian invasion, with players like Marci Di Vaio and Alessandro Nesta joining the club.

Things apparently came to a head with the sacking and replacment of Marsch’s picks for fitness and goalkeeping coaches.

Here is my brief sermon on the situation, and similar situations in Major League Soccer (or indeed anywhere I guess). If you are going to have a sporting director with a clear vision of how a club should be run, what it’s players are like, what style of football it emulates, you need a first team coach that very much shares that vision.

In the music world for example, the people picking the orchestra need to do so in complete tandem with the person running the actual rehearsals, i.e. the conductor. It seems incredibly bush league for the Impact to hire an “MLS guy” and then chide him for using MLS trading strategies and picking MLS veteran players.

Marco Schällibaum should take careful note here; if things come to a head, it appears Joey Saputo would side with De Santis. Perhaps they are already on the same page. If they’re not, Impact fans should be concerned…

While Santi’s dive — post forthcoming — is occupying most of the bandwidth this morning, some strange news has emerged out of the Toronto FC camp.

Via Patrick Friolet:

Jesse Marsch had received an offer to lead Toronto FC in the MLS. The former coach of the Montreal Impact has met with leaders of the training Toronto, who are very interested in his services.

For the moment, Paul Mariner is still the head coach, but behind the scenes, it seems that Kevin Payne has approached Marsch. Payne is the president and general manager of the club since the end of November and is a good friend of Bob Bradley, with whom Jesse Marsch, a native of Wisconsin, has worked for the U.S. team. Bradley would have recommended the 39 year old man for the job.

CSN’s Ben Rycroft has more:


After Kevin Payne lauded the efforts of Paul Mariner during his press availability the past week(s), this morning’s jolt comes as a bit of a shocker. Again, nothing is confirmed and the fact Marsch has multiple offers should be taken into consideration. We’ll update this story as more news becomes available. Never a dull moment with this club.