Steve Davis' weekly column, drilling down on five hot topics in American soccer
1. Let’s talk about Giovinco and MVP
Every year, someone somewhere will get the “snub” when it comes to end-of-year MLS award balloting. Opinions and voter criteria can differ, which means someone’s idea of Coach of the Year or Goalkeeper of the Year will not sync up with everyone else’s – and that’s OK.
But you’d have to work pretty hard to find a more perplexing (or some might even say “outrageous”) omission than Sebastian Giovinco’s. Soccer’s social media went red with outrage when the finalist list for Most Valuable Player was announced. It included three outstanding candidates in Bradley Wright-Phillips, Sacha Kljestan and David Villa – but none named Sebastian Giovinco.
That certainly seemed counter intuitive when considering the question of “Who is Major League Soccer’s best player?” A high percentage of folks who watch the league regularly would surely answer “Giovinco” – and would get there quite quickly, without needing to make comparative lists, phone a friend, seek higher counsel or any of that.
Is it just voter fatigue, the reflexive desire for “something new?” That seems like as good an explanation as any.
Here’s one possible explanation that really needs to tossed in the dumpster: In talking about this over a big plate of poutine and Champions League watching on Tuesday, one friend theorized that Giovinco had “lots of help” around him, suggesting that all this help dented his MVP worthiness. Perhaps. But by very definition of “lots of help,” wouldn’t that eliminate a pair of teammates (Wright-Phillips and Kljestan), who had such swell seasons that they are both MVP candidates?
We could fuss and fight about it all day and dive into academic debates about what makes an MVP. But the numbers are the numbers, and there are some compelling ones to consider with Toronto’s do-all attacker:
Giovinco directly contributed to 63 percent of his team’s goals. The percentage of contribution from the three finalists are all just peachy, but they don’t come close to Giovinco’s. Wright-Phillips is tops at 48 percent, followed by Villa (44 percent) and then Kljestan (43 percent).
The other highly relevant number here is Toronto’s record with and without the “Atomic Ant.” When he played in 2016, the Reds were 13-8-7 and scored at a clip of 1.54 goals per game. The record without him (Giovinco missed a month and change late in the season) fell to 1-1-4, and that scoring rate saw a reduction to 1.3 per game. Also consider that his absence coincided with a big run of games at home, which makes that poor record stand out even more.
Here is one final number to consider, although it’s not about Giovinco: subtract Villa’s penalty kicks and the Spanish striker is left with 18 goals and 4 assists, which is certainly a fine season. Is it an MVP season? Maybe. Or maybe not in a year with so many other deserving candidates.
2. Seattle’s wily tactical scheme
There are plenty of reasons why a result goes one way or the other. Sometimes it’s about errors on the back line. Sometimes it’s just finishing – as in, “one team do and one team don’t.” Or maybe a clear talent disparity tells the tale. Obviously, it can be a mix and mash of any these and lots of other factors.
When we look at Seattle’s decisive win over Dallas, this much seems clear: Seattle won the tactical battle.
FC Dallas manager Oscar Pareja, attempting to compensate for Mauro Diaz’s injury absence, reconfigured his basic arrangement. FC Dallas’ major tactical tweak was employing a 5-3-2 seen previously only in CONCACAF Champions League. The idea, of course, was to patiently absorb pressure and look to sneak the valuable road goal off the counter or a set piece. It’s something Dallas has done quite well at times (although in a four-man back line). With Matt Hedges as solid as ever and Walker Zimmerman finding another level in 2016, successfully absorbing pressure is a big reason Supporters Shield rests in the Toyota Stadium case.
The Sounders, meanwhile, did some tactical scheming of their own – and claimed the day largely because of it.
They relentlessly attacked left – pretty much abandoning all attempts to push up their right side. Neither Nico Lodeiro nor Erik Friberg actually “played” on the right, which was just a “set-up” area to maintain possession, draw a few defenders and then push back to the left. Look at Lodeiro’s passing (left) and you’ll see that. Almost all of his passes are either lateral, negative, diagonals to the left or vertical along the left.
If you look at fullback Joevin Jones’ heat map, it shows he was a busy, busy man down Seattle’s left flank. Opposite, along the right, Tyrone Mears may as well have had a sandwich and chips to munch on whenever the Sounders got the ball. He was a non-factor on the attack as, again, Seattle just wasn’t interested in going that way.
They were only intent on overloading the left side, and then finding Nelson Valdez, Friberg or Lodeiro sneaking in from the middle or right. The result? Well you know it. Here (right) is all of Seattle’s successes on attack – all the home team’s successful open play crosses, successful dribbles, key passes and assists. See where they all come from?
Jones, Lodeiro and of course left winger Jordan Morris were bound and determined to create overloads along the left, pressure Atiba Harris and pull one of Dallas’ center backs out of the middle. Eventually, the scheme paid off, and now Seattle is in control of the home-and-away conference semifinals as a result.
3. Breaking down playoff seedings and who has an edge
Playoffs are part of American sports. MLS will have playoffs. These have been among the immovable cornerstones since league founders dreamed up the league more than two decades ago.
Since the bad old days where 80 percent of the teams qualified for playoffs, the exercise has been a balancing act: keep the playoffs and the drama they stir up while making the regular season as valuable as possible. It’s a tricky balance to nail down.
But every year brings a little more evidence from which to work, more data that can assist in creating that balance. And here we are again.
A growing body of evidence is demonstrating which spots (that is, first place in the conference, second place, third place, etc.) are most beneficial in the basic framework of this current system. (That framework being: an initial single-elimination knockout round that morphs into later rounds of home-and-away aggregate goals series.)
Here’s what seems to become increasingly clear each year: finishing 1-4 provides a big boost. If you must play in the elimination round, you absolutely, positively want to play at home; home sides are 13-3 in early knockout-round contests.
So in the 12-team current format, that means clubs are fighting and scratching for points in the regular season so that they finish 1-4. They avoid the knockout round altogether (first and second place) or they host the knockout game (third and fourth).
Got it? Finishing 1-4 is a significant benefit initially.
From there: evidence is slightly less compelling that where you finish among the top four matters. Of the last 10 MLS Cup finalists, six were second-place finishers in their conference. But there were also first-, third-, fourth- and even one fifth-place finisher.
Which brings us to the annual debate about which team actually has an edge in the conference semifinal round? The team that gets home field first or the higher seed, who travels for the first leg?
Knockout round survivors are back on the field with short rest, which seems like a sizable disadvantage. On the other hand, they generally don’t have to travel. And by playing at home they get a juicy opportunity to seize series control. All four home teams won over the weekend, although some margins (and therefore “control” in the series) is slimmer than some others.
This is the second year in this specific, 12-team construct. And the basic format has been around since 2011, when the 10-team format (with one elimination-round match per conference) was created. As the “who benefits” debate becomes more informed, the league’s competition committee may see the need to adjust the format, all with the intent of tweaking that tricky balance, ensuring maximum relevance to the long regular season while retaining playoff pizazz.
And that brings us to the next little morsel of MLS playoff ”news” …
4. The 12-team format seems here to stay
MLS commissioner Don Garber seemed unsure recently when I asked him about the staying power of this current 12-team format. After all, MLS will grow to 22 teams next year, and then to 24 soon after. As MLS has generally favored a higher percentage of qualifiers, it seemed reasonable to conclude that adding more playoff teams was a possibility, at least.
But MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche, in an email last week, told me the 12-team playoff format was constructed with a 24-team league in mind. That was news to me, although it certainly makes sense.
It does in that it brings MLS more or less in line with other U.S. professional sports in percentage of playoff qualifiers. In NBA and NHL, 53 percent of the teams qualify. The NFL (37.5 percent) and Major League Baseball (33 percent) are slightly more selective about their post-season.
If the 12-team field is indeed retained as MLS grows to 24 clubs, it does something else important: the reduces the chances of playoff qualifiers that finish at .500 or below. That doesn’t happen every year in MLS, but has in most years (including this one).
5. The Little Five
5a. Random observation watching the playoffs last weekend: If an MLS club isn’t getting its center backs from Belgium (Laurent Ciman, Jelle Van Damme) or from the college draft (Matt Hedges, Walker Zimmerman, Axel Sjöberg and a bunch of others), they are doing it wrong.
5b. I kind of feel like the Mix Diskerud tale – the young U.S. international is practically in witness protection around Yankee Stadium – is among the most underreported MLS stories this year. His fall from relevance is fascinating.
5c. For everyone wondering about Carlos Ruiz and his capability in efforts to help FC Dallas overturn this big series deficit: I asked FC Dallas manager Oscar Pareja specifically last week how many minutes Ruiz could plausibly offer if the situation called for it. His answer: “60 minutes.”
5d. There were times Sunday in a tightly contested Montreal-Red Bulls first leg that the game looked a little “big” for referee Robert Sibiga, who debuted in MLS only in 2015 and was officiating his first playoff contest. But it illustrates an issue for PRO, North America’s professional refereeing assigner and overseer: If they don’t push big-game experience on referees, when will they get it? They have to start somewhere.
5e. There was a time when the professional refereeing assigners used the U.S. Open Cup as an on-ramp for experience in these tighter, frequently more contentious elimination contests. But it only took a couple of shaky performances (and the questionable outcomes they might have helped to create) for U.S. Soccer and its allies to get beat up over that practice. The lament went: “Why are you using inexperienced referees in this important, elimination matches?” So, sometimes there’s no winning in these things.
Steve Davis has covered Major League Soccer since is first kick in 1996. He writes on-line for FourFourTwo and co-hosts the weekly radio show/podcast ESPN Soccer Today on 103.3 FM in Dallas. Davis is also the radio play-by-play voice for FC Dallas on 100.7 FM.