Columbus Crew SC struggles to score goals. This isn’t anything new. It’s a fact those who have watched the team the last two years have seen become an unfortunate trend.
In 2018, the Crew only scored 41 goals (the team had two own goals, bringing the total to 43), tied for second to last with Orlando City and only better than the Colorado Rapids. This season, the Crew have only scored 12 goals in 13 contests. That 0.92 goals per game is in the eighth percentile in Major League Soccer since 2011. Not so great.
However, we also know that process matters, a team can create good chances and just not score, something that Caleb Porter addressed when asked about the Black & Gold’s sputtering offense.
“Do you know our expected goals statistics? Right, well I know our expected goals statistics,” the head coach said when asked about being shutout for the fifth time this season. We’re in good spots, we’re in good spots to score. I had the GM in D.C. tell me that based on expected goals, we should be third in the League after that game. So, these are the things that are realities, that I have to look at and analyze and figure out what’s happening, and it is not for lack of chances or being in good positions.”
Let’s take a minute to talk about expected goals (xG). xG is a model of the likelihood a shot will be scored based upon where and how the shot was taken. It’s basically a way of quantitatively assessing what we all know to be true, some shots are better than others. Generally, the closer a shot it to goal, the more likely it is to be scored. There are other factors such as whether it was from a cross, a through ball or a header that then modulate the probability. Sum up a team’s shots across a game or season and you get a handle on how a team is performing beyond the sometimes seemingly random nature of shots being converted to goals.
Back to Porter’s comments. He is arguing that, while the goals are lacking, the team is creating chances at a high rate, amongst the top teams of the league. Is this true though?
Fortunately, there are a couple of publicly available xG models available for MLS, American Soccer Analysis and Five Thirty Eight. So what do they say about the Crew’s goal scoring? Well, fifth-worst in the league. At least better than FC Cincinnati. Barely. A far cry from third best in the league. Five Thirty Eight also has a non-shot xG model, where Columbus fares slightly better, but the team still ranks 15th in MLS. Taking into account the defense to get an expected goal differential, the Crew is still towards the bottom of the table this season and they haven’t even been particularly unlucky.
Now perhaps there was some miscommunication with D.C. United General Manager Dave Kasper that led to Porter’s statement that the Crew was near the top of the league using xG. But a potentially troubling issue is that Porter may believe that the Black & Gold are playing well enough to be near the top of the league. The fact is that any way you measure it, the Crew’s offensive production has been lacking this season. Goals scored and xG are near the bottom of the league.
Furthermore, the defense that led the league last year is now in the middle of the pack measured by xG against. The good news is that it is still relatively early in the season, reinforcements may be coming in the summer and that, in MLS, getting hot in time for the playoffs is often more important than dominance over an entire season. However, the Crew can’t look at their results and underlying numbers and be happy about the performances so far.
If the Black & Gold are going to bring another massive championship to Columbus, they will have to play better than they are now, both offensively and defensively, and that needs to be recognized within the organization.