Columbus Crew SC had an unexpected run into the 2014 playoffs and even looked like the best team in the MLS for a 10 game stretch at the end of last season. The hope for the Black and Gold faithful is that they can improve upon last years performance. Optimism abounds around 1 Black and Gold Boulevard, but are Crew SC fans asking the right questions leading up to the season?
In this weeks 6-Thought Box, I kick off a two-part series outlining what can go wrong and what can go right for Crew SC in 2015. Was 2014 a repeatable performance? Or did the Black and Gold get lucky? Did the many offseason additions do enough to improve the team? Or are Crew SC over reliant on one or two players? This week we analyze what can go wrong. We will start here because in a poll of 12 school aged kids, 11 said they wanted the "bad news first".
I want to go on record as saying I do not want any of these things to happen. They are simply a result of hours of research and discussion amongst smart soccer minds. In some cases, I think they will happen and in some cases they are a worst case scenario. At the end of next weeks two-part series, I will reveal which of the 12 "keys" to the 2015 season discussed I believe will happen and which wont.
Here we go, get those tissues (or adult beverages) ready.
1&2 Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay regress to the mean
I include Meram and Finlay as number one and two for this article because they were the key to least years success and a case can be made their success was a fluke. A wise(ish) man named Patrick Guldan (@GuldanMR, editor and chief) once tweeted that "Your opinion of the 2015 Crew SC season hinges on if you think Meram/Finlay continue to finish above average." I believe this to be the hinge-point of Columbus' season as well. Lets take a look at why.
Both players out performed what advanced data says they "should have done" last year by a considerable margin. The statistic used is called expected goals, or (xG), and it measures goals a player should have scored based on advanced metric data including shots taken, where the shot was taken, defenders in between the player and the goal, and several other data points. Meram scored 8 goals last year but was only expected to score 4.14 and Finlay scored 11 goals last season but only had an expected goals of 5.96. That's a difference of 9 goals between the two players. What does all this mean? That Meram/Finlay almost doubled their expected goals and a regression to the mean (or expectations) is imminent.
If Meram and Finlay perform as expected goals would predict in 2015, Crew SC will need to replace their production in order to merely achieve last seasons success, let alone improve upon it. Soccer is not a sport traditionally immersed in statistics, but statistically speaking the Columbus wingers are bound for a significant regression in offensive production. Imagine the Black and Gold with nine less goals in 2014. Odds are they wouldn't have made the playoffs. If Meram and Finlay regress as expected this will likely be Columbus' fate in 2015.
There statistics aren't everything however, check back for next week's 6-Thought Box: 6 things that can go right for Crew SC in 2015 for reasons why the wingers production may not drop off.
3. Waylon Francis remembers he's a fullback
Francis was tied for second on the team (and led fullbacks league wide) with six assists last year. In the same way expected goals is calculated, expected assists is tracked. Francis was only expected to tally 3.18 assists in 2014. Here we see a pattern starting to develop where Columbus players doubled their expected totals. This can be seen as the reason for the surprising 2014 playoff run.
It is typically not ideal for a defensive player to be so high up on an offensive statistical category. A defender's primarily responsibility is defending and any offensive production should be seen as a bonus, not relied on. That Columbus relied so heavily on Francis to defend and attack is cause for alarm.
Francis gained most of his assists through crosses which are statistically low percentage passes, and have an even lower percentage goal-scored rate. Francis appears to have gotten lucky finding yellow jerseys on the end of so many of his crosses in 2014. If Francis' numbers are cut in half along with Meram and Finlay's (a statistical probability) the only postseason games in Crew Stadium this year will be the high school soccer state championships.
4. Steve Clark can not continue to cover up a porous defense
Next week I will argue that Steve Clark is one of the top three keepers in the MLS as one of the reasons Crew SC fans have to be optimistic for the 2015 season. This week however, it is a reason for pessimism. Of the goalkeepers in the MLS that have seen 149 or more shots, Clark has the best goals against average (1.24) with the next closest being 1.38. And of keepers that have made over 100 saves in 2014, Clark has the second best goals against average. This data proves what those who have watched Clark play already know: Steve Clark is an elite keeper in this league.
So why is this bad news? Because the defense playing in front of Clark was anything but elite. The only reason Clark had the third most saves last year (111) was because his defense gave up the third most shots (153). The Black and Gold were never out of a game last year because they rarely gave up more than one goal. This, however, was a result of Clark's acrobatics rather than a stout defense.
Clark was a stud in goal, but demonstrated a tendency to be inconsistent. He was prone to losing his confidence and putting a run of games together where he missed saves he typically made. The mental aspect of goalkeeping makes consistency elusive and as a result, regression is always a risk. If Clark's save percentage only drops from a fourth best 72.5% to a seventh best 67% (which would still be better than Eastern Conference champion, Bobby Shuttleworth), he will give up nine more goals if he faces 153 shots again. The defense must improve to take pressure off Clark. Combine that with the statistics previously discussed, and it's easy to see that unless the defense improves, 2015 may be a disappointing season.
5. Kei Kamara misses significant playing time
The goal scoring troubles of the Crew SC forwards last year is well documented. Kei Kamara was brought in as the solution but was he enough? If Kamara misses time for any reason, head coach Gregg Berhalter will likely start Aaron Schoenfeld in his place and it will be déjà vu all over again. Schoenfeld will have improved over his 2014 form, but likely only incrementally. The reason Finlay gained so much attention after his "break out" season is because such drastic improvement is the exception, not the rule. Much more often, players marginally improve in their first few years to develop eventually into a quality player.
Any injury to the starting XI will hurt, but an injury to Kamara will leave the Black and Gold with, at best, a minimal improvement over the weakest area in the 2015 club. Schoenfeld can be a serviceable backup for a game or two here and there, but if he is called on to be the lone forward for long stretches, Crew SC fans have little reason to expect any improvement in team's offensive numbers in 2015.
6. The East got tougher. A lot tougher.
New York City FC, Orlando City SC, and Toronto FC's major additions are all obstacles that Crew SC didn't have to face last year. More teams in the conference obviously means more competition for the playoff spots. NYCFC and Orlando City aren't Chivas USA clones either (yet). They are both big budget teams with major stars who will pose serious threats to Columbus' playoff run.
Toronto continually finds ways to not make the playoffs. It is one of the great joys of a Crew SC fan to watch such a free spending team fall flat year after year. This may happen again this year, but the additions of Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco make Toronto a dangerous team. All three of these teams did not make the playoffs last year (two of them because they weren't in the league yet) and odds makers expect them all to be in or around the playoffs this year. Simple math says if these three are in, two are out (because of the additional 6th spot). Crew SC can not afford a midseason slide like in 2014 if they hope to retain their play off berth.
Well, don't hit the bottle too hard folks. Next week we will explore six reasons to expect massive things from this club in 2015.