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Checking the ‘facts’ on Caleb Porter; is the Crew actually good?

After back-to-back 1-0 losses, the Black & Gold head coach referenced analytics to defend is his team. Is he right to do so?

Sam Fahmi - Massive Report

Columbus Crew head coach Caleb Porter hates to lose; it is what drives him. This can be a good trait in a head coach of a professional soccer team, driving one to, say, a couple MLS Cups, an NCAA Championship and an MLS All-Star game victory. But when a coach like this loses, it can sometimes provoke emotions and statements that come off as petulant, whiny or seen as blaming others for their own failures.

Back in 2019, after a string of six straight Crew losses, Porter made a statement about how expected goals actually said that the Black & Gold were one of the best teams in the league. I wrote an article showing that this was not, in fact, true.

Fast forward three years and after a game where the Columbus “dominated” Nashville SC at home two weeks ago yet still lost and Porter made another comment along the same vein.

“We are the best team in the league after five games in half-space and zone 14 actions, box entries and expected goals,” Porter said. “So we are creating really good chances. We are getting in great spots to score goals. And, again, it doesn’t always tell the story, but it is the truth and facts. I think we lead the league in expected goals. So we are doing a lot right.”

Unlike in 2019 where Porter was recounting a second-hand report about his team being good based upon the say-so of an opposing general manager, this one has some specifics. The question is are the “truth and facts” that Porter is recounting actually the truth and factual? And, if so, is there some context that can help interpret these statistics?

Let’s take a look

Half space and zone 14 actions

What Porter means here is the Crew leads MLS in on-ball actions — think passes, dribbles and shots in the areas at the center of the field at the top of the penalty box (known as zone 14) or on either side of that area (known as the half spaces). Getting touches in these areas is usually a sign of a dangerous attack and defenses like to prevent an opponent from accessing them. While there is no publicly available direct answer to this question, we can get a few good proxies.

Using StatsBomb data aggregated on FBRef, we can see that in the Black & Gold’s first six games, the team leads MLS in attacking third touches and carries. Using the American Soccer Analysis goals added tables and filtering to zone 14 and attacking half spaces, the Columbus is second in total goals added, trailing only FC Cincinnati (what!?) in accruing value in these areas.

So Porter is probably telling the truth, or close to it, here. The Crew is doing a very good job at accessing these dangerous parts of the field so far in 2022.

Box entries

Here, Porter is referring to moving the ball into the 18-yard box, which, Lucas Zelarayan aside, is usually what you want to do to score goals. It is good to have touches in the areas around the penalty box, but if a team’s attack cannot penetrate into the box, then it may have some of the dreaded “possession without purpose.”

Again, we can turn to FBRef for some stats. The Black & Gold lead MLS this season in touches inside the penalty box and are seventh in carries into the box. Accessing some non-public Second Spectrum data shows Columbus leads MLS in penalty area entries, with Derrick Etienne Jr. and Zelarayan ranking third and fourth, respectively.

So again, Porter’s statement checks out. The Crew isn’t just getting the ball into areas near the 18-yard box, but are doing well getting the ball into the box.

Expected goals

Expected goals (xG) tell you the probability that a shot will be scored based upon where and how a shot was taken. For example, shots taken closer to the goal are generally more likely to be scored, shots taken with feet are more likely to be scored than headers and a through ball is more likely to be scored than a cross. xG models are created using machine learning algorithms from tens or hundreds of thousands of shots and each model can be slightly different.

Regardless of the model, the Black & Gold attack is looking pretty good this season. On average, it is the best in MLS to date, landing in the top four in the four xG models I looked at, as well as being at the top of the Opta model shared by Tom Bogert of MLSsoccer.com.

Of course, there are caveats here. Columbus’ schedule hasn’t been too tough yet, with the first three games against teams near the bottom of their respective conferences. Additionally, game state matters. The Crew has given up early goals in four of the team’s games so far. When this happens, the team in the lead tends to play more defensively and can often invite the opponent (the Black & Gold in this case) to try to score. This can lead to inflated xG numbers for the team chasing the game. Indeed if you filter to only even scorelines on the American Soccer Analysis app, Columbus falls from the top to near the middle of the pack in xG.

In summary, unlike in 2019, Porter’s use of analytics to say that his team is good is actually correct. In attacking (and defensive metrics not discussed as well), the team is among the leaders in the league. Not scoring in the last couple of games is a concern, but the Crew is creating chances that, in the long run, will likely lead to goals.

And again, take these stats with a bit of caution as it is still early in the season and weird things can happen with small sample sizes. But if the Black & Gold continue to perform like they have over the first six games of the season and perhaps get a few more neck tattoos, they should be in good shape come time for the MLS Cup playoffs.