Analytics: Whitecaps defying convention in MLS


(Jason Franson/CP)

The Vancouver Whitecaps have just passed the halfway point of their Major League Soccer campaign and they currently sit first in the Western Conference, averaging a league-high 1.78 points per game.

In his second year as manager in Vancouver, Carl Robinson has seen the team take a huge step forward. Despite only making a couple of major off-season acquisitions the Whitecaps have improved dramatically, relying mainly on the same squad that led the team to a fifth place finish in the West in 2014.

Coming off another big win over New England this weekend—the Revolution’s first home loss in 17 games—people are starting to ask, are the Whitecaps truly up there with the best in MLS?

The stats seem to say that they are. Not only are they one of the best teams in MLS, but they are also one of the more balanced, with impressive attacking and defensive numbers.

Vancouver averages the fourth most shots per game in MLS with 13.7. They also average the fifth least number of shots conceded per game with 11.3. This gives them a Total Shots Ratio (TSR)—the ratio of shots a team takes relative to the shots they both take and concede—of 0.55, the fourth best TSR in MLS.

Outshooting opponents is always a positive sign, but it is important to actually look at the quality of chances that a team both takes and concedes. For this we can use the Expected Goals (ExpG) metric.

Each shot has a certain probability or chance of being scored based on its distance from the goal, its angle to the goal, whether it was taken with the head or the foot, the speed of the attack and several other factors. If a shot has a 20 percent chance of being scored—based on these factors—it is said to be worth 0.2 ExpG. So a team’s ExpG in a game is calculated by adding up the ExpG values of each shot it takes.

Vancouver averages 1.17 ExpG per game and concedes 0.96 ExpG per game (using the American Soccer Analysis model). This gives them an average ExpG difference of 0.19 per game, which is the fourth best in MLS.

It’s often useful to compare ExpG numbers to actual goal numbers to see if a team is getting lucky or unlucky. If a team were overachieving their ExpG numbers than we would expect their form to be unsustainable. The good news for Vancouver is that their ExpG numbers are almost identical to their actual goal per game numbers.

The Whitecaps average 1.22 goals per game (relative to 1.17 ExpG) and concede only 0.94 goals per game (relative to 0.96 ExpG conceded). This tells us that the Whitecaps’ good form is probably sustainable and they deserve to be where they are.

What is really interesting about Vancouver this year, though, isn’t just that they are a good team; it is the rather unconventional way in which they’ve found success.

First, Vancouver averages only 46 percent possession per game, the lowest in MLS. There are some teams that play very well without the ball, Atletico Madrid is a classic example, but it is very rare for a side to have as good numbers as Vancouver does paired with so little possession.

MLS has often been described as a non-possession-based-league, but it is still puzzling that the team averaging the most points per game also averages the least possession. On top of the low possession numbers, they also average only 26 percent of the time in their opponent’s third of the field—the sixth lowest amount of time in the league.

When they do move forward with the ball Vancouver has one of the least balanced attacks in the league in terms of pitch position. The Whitecaps attack down the middle of the pitch 29 percent of the time, down the right 31 percent and down the left 40 percent. No team attacks down the left side more than Vancouver. This seems to suggest that Robinson’s team has a lot of faith in Kekuta Manneh, their focal point on the left.

Despite attacking so often down the left flank, the objective of the Whitecaps attack doesn’t seem to be overloading the opposition with crosses since they only average 16 per game, the fourth least in MLS.

So what to make of Vancouver? They are a strange team that doesn’t see much of the ball and has a very unbalanced attack. That being said it is working for them, the results thus far have been fantastic and the shot and Expected Goal numbers back up the fact Vancouver is among the elite teams in MLS.

Data courtesy Opta. Expected Goal Numbers courtesy American Soccer Analysis.

Sam Gregory is soccer analytics writer based in Montreal. Follow him on Twitter

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