Spratt on MLS: Whitecaps’ Miller shedding ‘bust’ label

Vancouver Whitecaps striker Kenny Miller. (CP/Darryl Dyck)
June 22, 2013, 9:27 AM

Despite leaking goals at an alarming rate, the Vancouver Whitecaps find themselves in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race thanks to their offensive output.

And if designated player Kenny Miller continues to play like he has in recent weeks, the Whitecaps could be trending upwards.

Much was expected of Miller when he signed with Vancouver last July. He scored 187 goals for Rangers, Celtic, Wolves and a variety of other teams, and Whitecaps coach Martin Rennie was all too keen to bring Miller aboard.

"We wanted to get a little bit more proactive going forward," Rennie said at Miller’s introductory press conference. "And when the opportunity came up to sign Kenny Miller, we really were excited to do it."

But Miller struggled to meet supporters’ expectations in 2012, notching only two goals in 13 appearances and falling behind rookie Darren Mattocks on the depth chart. There were even rumours in March that Miller would be headed back to the UK.

Contrary to the rumblings, Miller stuck around, and the Whitecaps have been better for it. After recording a goal and an assist in the team’s first three matches in 2013, Miller was felled by a hamstring injury that forced him to miss two months. He’s since come back to quite a different situation.

Mattocks hasn’t been able to reach the heights of his freshman campaign, and seemingly fallen out of favour with Rennie. Rookies Erik Hurtado and Kekuta Manneh have shown flashes, but consistency up front is a lot to ask for from most players straight out of the NCAA. And while Camilo is in the midst of a career year, bagging goals at will, he’s not a typical out-and-out striker.

Enter Miller. The native of Edinburgh finally seems to be breaking out — two incredible goals last weekend against New England showed off his capabilities, and while one game surely isn’t enough to silence all the doubters, Miller had another strong outing despite not getting on the scoresheet in a Wednesday win over league doormats Chivas USA.

He’s now scored five goals in just seven appearances in 2013, providing some optimism that he can be the go-to man up top.

What can we realistically expect out of Miller? He’s unquestionably been polarizing during his time in Vancouver, but the reality is he’s in pretty good company in terms of his goal scoring numbers, bolstered significantly by his improved play this year. Below is a list of forwards that have come to MLS as designated players, sorted by goals per 90 minutes played.

Player Games G A Shots Shots on goal MIN G/90
Obafemi Martins 8 4 1 10 6 456 0.79
Danny Koevermans 27 17 3 69 41 1946 0.79
Robbie Keane 39 23 14 117 56 3407 0.61
Andres Mendoza 37 15 2 78 33 2226 0.61
Hamdi Salihi 22 6 0 32 17 945 0.57
Marco Di Vaio 31 15 3 100 42 2499 0.54
Juan Pablo Angel 152 72 15 480 221 12124 0.53
Thierry Henry 76 37 20 232 97 6371 0.52
Claudio Bieler 15 7 1 45 17 1265 0.50
Kenny Miller 20 7 1 25 11 1288 0.49

Though there are issues with the sample size on a few of these players, Miller’s strike rate in terms of goals per minutes played –- a rudimentary measure, admittedly, but a decent marker of a striker’s efficiency — remains reasonably impressive so far.

Next, let’s take a look at accuracy. Below is a comparison of DP forwards/attackers who’ve come to MLS from another league, sorted by the percentage of their shots that hit the target. Miller again finds himself in good company with this measure, well ahead of current DPs who get far more accolades, such as Marco Di Vaio, Thierry Henry and Claudio Bieler.

Player Games G A Shots SOG MIN G/90 SOG%
Danny Koevermans 27 17 3 69 41 1946 0.79 59.4
Cuauhtemoc Blanco 62 16 26 111 57 5083 0.28 51.4
Robbie Keane 39 23 14 117 56 3407 0.61 47.9
Guillermo Schelotto 102 33 41 208 97 8182 0.36 46.6
Juan Pablo Angel 152 72 15 480 221 12124 0.53 46.0
Kris Boyd 26 7 1 63 28 1893 0.33 44.4
Kenny Miller 20 7 1 25 11 1288 0.49 44.0
Fabian Castillo 62 10 7 82 36 4027 0.22 43.9
Andres Mendoza 37 15 2 78 33 2226 0.61 42.3
Claudio Lopez 68 13 15 147 62 4966 0.24 42.2

So we’ve established that in terms of raw time spent on the pitch, Miller is good for about a goal every other match, and also that historically he gets his shots on target at a fairly good rate. But what really stands out when looking into the numbers is that Miller is among the best designated players of all time in terms of converting his shots on target into goals.

It’s not a perfect stat by any stretch, as it doesn’t account for shot location, difficulty and a myriad of other factors. Still, it’s a decent basic measure of who’s able to take their chances. For completeness sake, below is the all-time listing of DP forwards/attackers (minimum 1080 minutes – 12 matches) who’ve come from outside MLS, sorted by goals per shots on goal.

Player G A Shots SOG G/90 SOG% G/SOG
Obafemi Martins 4 1 10 6 0.79 60.0 0.667
Kenny Miller 7 1 25 11 0.49 44.0 0.636
Rafael 1 0 7 2 0.27 28.6 0.500
Blaise Nkufo 5 0 15 11 0.48 73.3 0.455
Andres Mendoza 15 2 78 33 0.61 42.3 0.455
Danny Koevermans 17 3 69 41 0.79 59.4 0.415
Claudio Bieler 7 1 45 17 0.50 37.8 0.412
Robbie Keane 23 14 117 56 0.61 47.9 0.411
Thierry Henry 37 20 232 97 0.52 41.8 0.381
Omar Bravo 9 2 60 25 0.38 41.7 0.360
Federico Higuain 9 10 82 25 0.35 30.5 0.360
Marco Di Vaio 15 3 100 42 0.54 42.0 0.357
Hamdi Salihi 6 0 32 17 0.57 53.1 0.353
Guillermo Schelotto 33 41 208 97 0.36 46.6 0.340
Eric Hassli 15 8 134 46 0.37 34.3 0.326
Juan Pablo Angel 72 15 480 221 0.53 46.0 0.326
Fredy Montero 47 34 411 154 0.54 37.5 0.305
Cuauhtemoc Blanco 16 26 111 57 0.28 51.4 0.281
Fabian Castillo 10 7 82 36 0.22 43.9 0.278
Kris Boyd 7 1 63 28 0.33 44.4 0.250
Sherjill MacDonald 4 5 43 16 0.23 37.2 0.250
Jerry Bengtson 3 0 37 14 0.15 37.8 0.214
Claudio Lopez 13 15 147 62 0.24 42.2 0.210
Milton Caraglio 3 2 46 15 0.27 32.6 0.200
Federico Puppo 0 1 3 3 100
Mista 0 1 13 3 23.1
Mustapha Jarju 0 0 14 3 21.4

Now, while the numbers presented look favourable for Miller, it is not to suggest that he’s in the conversation as an elite MLS forward. Any keen observer of the league would place Robbie Keane, Philadelphia’s Jack McInherny, Henry, Di Vaio and several others above him in terms of raw ability.

But what the numbers do show is that for all the talk of being yet another DP bust, Miller has done pretty well to make the most of his opportunities. Again, while his sample size is still rather small to draw any grand conclusions, he’s been decent value for his salary cap hit.

And with the constant unrest among Whitecaps supporters over the constant lineup tinkering, it seems that the decision to play Miller up top should be one of the simpler ones that Rennie has to make in 2013.

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