Mon. Dec 11th, 2023
Goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair claims a ball in the box as Micky Tapias watches on.

Image courtesy of Minnesota United

As spring finds its way to Minnesota, the Major League Soccer season pulls into full operational capacity, and Minnesota United themselves must find a way to bounce back from their first defeat of the nascent 2023 season.

The loss, last Saturday in Chicago, marked Minnesota’s sixth game of the season. Each club in MLS has played in either six or seven fixtures to this point, providing an opportunity for the year’s first statistical overview of the league. Six or seven matches each means teams have played either just under or just over 20% of the matches in a given season to date, and while the sample size remains small, it can be telling about the direction a team is headed.

Of course, the numbers could also lie to us, as past years’ results demonstrate. Take 2021 MNUFC, for example: Six games into the season, they were 2-4-0, having won two straight one-goal nailbiters after a four-match losing streak to start the season. The eyes and the stats were likely more drawn to that losing streak and the club’s paltry goal difference, demolished by the 4-0 defeat in Seattle to open the season. The Loons, of course, would go on to take points in 13 of their next 15 games.

So what do the numbers tell us about the 2023 Loons thus far? Let’s dive in.

Defensive Solidity

One could start with Minnesota’s 11 points (3-1-2), but the most eyebrow-raising stat of the basics on the table is the five goals allowed through six matches, less than a goal per match. That puts the Loons with the fifth-best scoring defense in the league to date, trailing Nashville (2), LAFC (3), Seattle (3) and Cincinnati (4). The question of its sustainability can first be assessed by expected goals against (xGA). Minnesota is seventh in MLS by that metric, trailing New York Red Bulls, Orlando and Chicago in addition to the previously listed teams (tied with Seattle).

Their 7.0 xGA (via football-reference) says, on face value, that the Loons should have allowed approximately two more goals than they have thus far. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing by nature: if Minnesota is limiting opponents to low-quality chances rather than opponents just missing high-quality chances, an xGA that far above the actual goals allowed could be the sign of smartly played defense in addition to the favor of luck and lack of opponent skill. As you might expect, sometimes those chances that rate at 0.05 expected goals (xG) go in the back of the net too.

Take Atlanta for the example of the other side of this equation. Atlanta has allowed 10 goals thus far in 2023, but their team xGA is just 7.4, within half a goal of Minnesota. Is Atlanta’s defense quantifiably worse than Minnesota’s? Yes, but there’s more context to be provided.

To dig deeper, take Minnesota’s season-opening 1-0 win in Dallas. In that match, the Loons allowed 11 total shots, but Dayne St. Clair was only required to make one save. Of those 11 shots, just two rated as chances with greater than 0.1 xG (so a 10% chance of scoring): Sebastian Lletget’s 42nd minute header, which forced St. Clair’s only save; and Facundo Quignon’s 30th minute header, the game’s best non-scoring chance.

Contrast that with the 1-1 draw against Vancouver, which by xG was Minnesota’s worst performance of the season. The Whitecaps recorded a whopping 23 shots, and while Simon Becher’s 98th minute leveler was by far the game’s best chance, Vancouver had seven other chances that were greater than 0.1 xG, most notably Brian White in the 72nd minute. One could argue that Becher’s goal was late and Minnesota should have received all three points in that game, but Vancouver wound up with 2.0 expected goals, by which measure they could feel hard done by to only have scored once!

Possessive Case

It has long been a hallmark of Minnesota sides in MLS to play more for the counterattack than for possession. I’ve been writing about this team since 2018 in one aspect or another, and I feel like I’ve written this exact sentence a hundred times. The Loons’ ranks in total ball possession since joining MLS in 2017: 11th of 22, 21st of 23, 23rd of 24, 19th of 26, 13th of 27, 24th of 28. They have had over 50% total possession across an entire season twice: 2017 and 2021. Their lack of possession has not hindered them even in the seasons in which they have achieved their best results!

This season is no different, which is not a surprise if you have watched the games. The Loons are tied with Portland for dead last in the league in total possession at 43.7%. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Right above them at 43.9% is St. Louis City, who have had quite the successful start to the season. At the top of the league possession charts you’ll find LA Galaxy (dead last in the West) and Charlotte (second to last in the East).

Minnesota’s lack of possession is also present in their passing statistics. Via MLS’s stats website, the Loons are second to last in MLS in total number of passes completed, and last in the league in total passes attempted. They have completed just over half as many passes as the top teams in the league in that category (the Galaxy, Miami and Seattle). The statistic that is more troubling is their pass completion percentage, which is also second to last in the league. This doesn’t necessarily prevent success (again, St. Louis is right above them), but the passes have to count.

The passing category in which the Loons are NOT last is the long ball. They are middle of the pack in accurate long balls, which compares quite favorably to their total number of passes attempted. That said, they are trying a lot of them: their success rate of 41.9% is still bottom-five in the league. Micky Tapias is at the center of this: Tapias’ 38 accurate long balls are sixth-most of any individual outfield player in MLS. In a statistic that goalkeepers normally dominate, Tapias has more than Dayne St. Clair.

What Changes Games?

That leads directly into the Loons’ attack, which has produced seven goals thus far to get the results they have gotten. Minnesota is actually over-performing their xG, which at 6.4 is second-lowest in the West. Those seven goals were: rebound from a long shot (Mender against Dallas), set piece (Hlongwane against Red Bulls), penalty (Amarilla against Colorado), set piece (Tapias against Colorado), header from cross (Mender against Vancouver), penalty (Amarilla against St. Louis), set piece (Arriaga against Chicago).

Just two of Minnesota’s seven goals have come from open play. Both penalties came from plays that appeared pretty dead in the water. Arriaga’s goal last weekend should almost definitely have been saved. The attack, as one might expect in the absence of its most creative player from 2022, has struggled for a foothold, but the defense has done enough that the Loons have gotten results in five of their six games. The attacking numbers don’t need deep analysis to tell us that Minnesota is likely going to need more goals from somewhere as the year continues and the fixtures become more difficult and frequent.

The stats, as one might expect, paint a similar picture to what one might see if they watched each of Minnesota’s six games thus far. The Loons are solid defensively and despite a lack of possession, have largely been comfortable without the ball in the games they have played. However, they will likely need more from the attack in order to take bigger steps.

Next week, we’ll take a look through some individual player stats and see what can be unlocked from more data.

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