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What Grades Are The Loons Making?

Embracing all of the numbers to see where Minnesota United are or aren’t making the grade in MLS.

Calvo Card
Francisco Calvo receives a yellow card as Minnesota United takes on NYCFC on 9/29/2018. The Loons rank near the top in the league in yellow cards, fouls committed, and red cards.
Tim C McLaughlin

It’s safe to assume you’ve read team CEO Chris Wright’s various interviews over the last few weeks asserting his confidence in Adrian Heath, Manny Lagos, and the Minnesota United FC backroom team. If not, here’s the money quote given by Wright last Thursday to MLSSoccer.com’s Sam Stejskal:

There’s a lot to unpack here. There’s the moving parts comment, suggesting the headwinds from transitioning to MLS while in a temporary stadium. There are the “circumstances” he mentions, the injured players, the upcoming window, that all combine to give him optimism for the future.

As someone who briefly wanted to be a college professor, I issued enough course grades to say that Wright’s optimism should call for an “incomplete.” However, it also makes me question what Wright’s rubric looks like, as well as what sort of curve Wright is working with.

So, like any good nerd, I took a trip to WhoScored.com’s page of 2018 MLS team statistics, consolidating them down to 66 metrics, either as season percentages or per game numbers. I then pulled the ranking Minnesota holds in each, as well as the Loons’ relation to the average number in the league, with additional coding to note when a category marks higher frequencies of negative actions (i.e. cards, missed tackles, shots blocked by the opposition). Finally—similar to my prior article this year—I ran a correlation function to see which items were linking most directly to points per game in the league this year. Not surprisingly, many of the same aspects are still getting strong correlations—goals scored continue to be tops, as do corner kick accuracy, shots on target, assists, and overall shots.

Also not surprisingly, the Loons aren’t looking too hot.

MNUFC Team Statistics Relative to League Average and Success Correlation

Statistic MNUFC Relative to Average MN Rank Absolute Value of Correlation Correlation Direction Correlation Rank
Statistic MNUFC Relative to Average MN Rank Absolute Value of Correlation Correlation Direction Correlation Rank
Goals Below 16 0.599640042 + 1
Accurate Corners Below 21 0.57351564 + 2
Shots on Target Below 19 0.562614224 + 3
Corner Accuracy Percentage Below 21 0.559687015 + 4
Key Passes Below 20 0.555950424 + 5
Shots Below 22 0.534856064 + 6
Assists Below 15 0.532412881 + 7
Key Short Passes Below 20 0.531873313 + 8
Percent of Shots in 18 Yard Box Above 9 0.458456545 + 9
Goals From 18 Yard Box Below 22 0.44692011 + 10
Open Play Shots Below 20 0.445646308 + 11
Yellow Cards Above* 4 0.443037984 - 12
Percentage of Shots Out of Box Below 18 0.436747139 - 13
Goals Within 6 Yard Box Above 3 0.417809085 + 14
Shots From Set Pieces Below 23 0.398702839 + 15
Shots From Counters Below 8 0.390565819 + 16
Open Play Goals Above 7 0.368676322 + 17
Tackle Success Percentage Above 8 0.357851771 + 18
Pass Blocks Above 3 0.329914655 + 19
Aerial Duel Success Percentage Below 22 0.328650389 + 20
Percent of Free Kicks Resulting in a Key Pass Below 18 0.325318287 + 21
Long Pass Frequency Above 9 0.315535007 - 22
Red Cards Above* 3 0.305318882 - 23
Fouls Committed Above 4 0.28138032 - 24
Cross Accuracy Percentage Below 22 0.261546212 + 25
Goals Per Shot On Counter Below 20 0.237738245 - 26
Key Long Ball Passes Below 23 0.235539994 + 27
Percentage of Shots on Target Above 5 0.203850977 + 28
Percentage of Crosses Resulting in a Key Pass Below 19 0.201585073 + 29
Blocks Above 2 0.181589633 + 30
Penalty Kicks Below 23 0.179024498 + 31
Goals Per Shot Above 6 0.17842007 + 32
Goals from Outside Box Above 9 0.17829668 + 33
Percentage of Key Passes Converted Above 9 0.176284332 + 34
Percentage of Shots in 6 Yard Box Above 1 0.168231692 + 35
Missed Tackles Above* 2 0.165412862 - 36
Percentage of Shots Off Target Above* 7 0.165096514 - 37
Goals Per Shot in 6 yd Box Above 7 0.164564607 + 38
Tackle Attempts Above 1 0.1595636 + 39
Percentage of Successful Dribbles Below 18 0.151808101 - 40
Goals on Counters Below 15 0.147230219 + 41
Ratio of Fouls Suffered Versus Committed Below 19 0.145365999 + 42
Blocked Shots Above 4 0.139198326 - 43
Percentage of Passes Crossed Above 9 0.10973142 - 44
Accuracy on Free Kick Passes Below 17 0.108137011 - 45
Fouls Suffered Below 18 0.103165036 - 46
Percentage of Key Through Balls Converted Below 13 0.100997007 - 47
Percentage of Key Free Kick Passes Converted Below 13 0.096912523 - 48
Percentage of Key Corner Passes Converted Below 15 0.095594946 - 49
Times Caught Offside Above* 11 0.086970995 + 50
Percentage of Short Passes Completed Below 21 0.077628201 - 51
Goals Per Shot Out of Box Per Game Above 3 0.073589449 + 52
Goals Per Shot From Open Play Above 3 0.066200937 + 53
Goals Per Shot in 18 Yard Box Below 18 0.065615001 - 54
Clearances Above 3 0.064725068 - 55
Long Pass Accuracy Below 22 0.061595956 + 56
Blocked Crosses Above 8 0.053998995 + 57
Aerial Duels Above 14 0.052910653 + 58
Interceptions Above 6 0.049326221 + 59
Accurate Free Kicks Below 19 0.048939373 - 60
Touches Resulting in Misplay or Dispossession Above* 11 0.046722452 + 61
Attempted Tackles Above 1 0.046098001 + 62
Percentage of Corners Resulting in a Key Pass Above 12 0.044939478 + 63
Percentage of Shots Blocked Below* 22 0.036980142 - 64
Percentage of Key Crosses Converted Above 9 0.00327665 + 65
Dribbles Above 11 0.000860512 + 66
Relation of different team aggregate statistics (per game, unless specified as percentage) to Minnesota United’s performance in 2018 Data via WhoScored.com

With three games to go in the season, Minnesota United FC rank worse to median in 39 of the 66 metrics pulled, and worse to average in 15 of the 20 metrics with the closest relation to points per game.

Goals per game currently reigns king in terms of stats correlated with success; Minnesota ranks seventh from the bottom. The Loons are also third-worst in accurate corners and corner passing percentage, both in the top four indicators. They’re second-worst in shots per game (the sixth-closest indicator), fifth-worst in shots per game on target (the third-closest indicator), fourth-worst in key passes and key short passes per game (fifth-closest and eighth-closest indicators), second-worst in goals per game from shots within the 18 yard box (tenth-closest indicator), and fourth-worst in shots per game from open play (eleventh-closest). Even with the injuries to the team resulting in significant investment up front, the Loons’ vaunted offense remains relatively anemic.

The Loons are also bottom of the league in generating shots from set pieces, bottom in earning penalty kicks, and worst in getting key passes from long balls. Their overall passing accuracy on low-percentage passes (crosses and long balls) is poor, as is their completion percentage on short passes. They’re failing to get accuracy on free kicks, and thus aren’t generating key passes from them.

Where is Minnesota doing well compared to the rest of the league? There are 19 metrics where the Loons are in the top 10, above league average, and where the metric is neither counting negative information nor negatively correlated to success. The team is generally active defensively, attempting and completing the highest amount of tackles per game, and blocking and intercepting a high amount of balls. They’re also taking smart shots when available, taking the highest proportion of shots in the league from within the 6 yard box and getting the third most goals per game in front of the goal mouth, and converting chances well, with good percentages each of their shots being on target and their key passes and crosses converted.

But Minnesota are also above average in nine indicators negatively correlated to success, five (six, counting raw fouls committed) of which come from being negative counting stats. The team has racked up the fourth highest amount of fouls and yellow cards in the league this year, along with the third highest amount of red cards. They’re also top ten in proportions of long and crossed passes, neither of which are resulting in higher than average accuracy rates (second last in long pass accuracy and cross accuracy).

When taking a systematic look, it won’t surprise you that the teams that rank highly in different metrics—and specifically rank highly in the most determinate of metrics—do well in the league. To find this out, I took each team’s ranking in each of these stats, normalized them into a 50-100 score based on an exam grade, then multiplied each metric’s normalized scores by the metric’s absolute correlation value to points per game to put a lower weight on a team’s performance in less meaningful categories, resulting in a metric we’ll call SUM (Soccer Undertakings Metric). The results surprised me in how close they mirror both points per game and my eye test of a team’s performance:

MLS Teams in SUM Performance and League PPG Rank

Team Sum Rank PPG Rank
Team Sum Rank PPG Rank
Atlanta United 1398.642971 1 1
Chicago Fire 1113.344201 21 20
Colorado Rapids 1012.96028 23 22
Columbus Crew 1200.02413 16 10
DC United 1255.656721 10 14
FC Dallas 1325.303633 6 3
Houston Dynamo 1228.867357 13 16
LA Galaxy 1255.623174 11 12
Los Angeles FC 1386.723381 2 4
Minnesota United 1113.832197 20 17
Montreal Impact 1108.962434 22 15
New England Rev. 1214.961558 15 18
New York City FC 1327.442471 5 6
New York Red Bulls 1354.325006 4 2
Orlando City 1151.136741 18 21
Philadelphia Union 1268.688483 9 9
Portland Timbers 1297.11726 7 7
Real Salt Lake 1283.151317 8 11
San Jose Earthquakes 1165.719772 17 23
Seattle Sounders FC 1144.155961 19 8
Sporting Kansas City 1380.789543 3 4
Toronto FC 1244.399749 12 19
Vancouver Whitecaps 1216.593784 14 13
Rank Correlation 0.816125676
Team rankings according to SUM and points per game Data via WhoScored.com

Indeed, certain teams that seem to be performing well on paper are doing well in the standings. The top seven in SUM are all in the top seven for points per game; Atlanta leads in both categories. The teams that diverge all make sense: Montreal have mainly worked through strong defense down the stretch (a limitation of the data, I’ll confess) but seem to be reverting to what their stats suggest, Toronto and Seattle spent lengths of time playing abjectly due to injuries this year but have been transformed teams at full strength, DC United added Wayne Rooney. Nonetheless, the teams that have been poor to watch are generally in the bottom of SUM, and the better ones rank near the top.

And it’s not a shock that Minnesota rank 20th in SUM, only fractions of a point ahead of Chicago. The Loons simply don’t generate enough offense to be competing with the top teams, and while their defensive record suggests effort, it also underlies the cutting point that the Loons simply don’t have the ball at their feet enough to be in the right position to score. A metric I omitted due to a lack of unrounded available data was the amount of time a team spends in each third of the field. Minnesota spends the second most time in its own third in the league. When a team is pinned back like this, it means that “hero ball” chances rule the roost, kicking over the top to an on-rushing winger or striker, lobbing in crosses at will, and hoping for the best. As a result, higher-percentage chances are at a premium.

To say that many things aren’t going well is an understatement. Minnesota is on track to concede one fewer goal than last season’s history-making 70, with only Orlando’s futility to thank for having a worse defense this year. But the offense isn’t firing enough either. The ideal balance in MLS appears to be a team’s ability to assert itself in the opposition’s third and to generate tons of shooting chances, while maintaining enough rearguard composure to stymie the opposition. The numbers show that Minnesota doesn’t do this, and while the metrics slightly understate the team’s performance in the table, it’s not enough to suggest the playoffs are in the offing with this team as the base for next season.

But are the grades on the field truly passing? Let me leave you with this graph that maps where the Loons stand when taking all 66 of those metrics and directly converting that 50-100 score into a letter grade; while the median grade the team gets borders on passing at a C- to D+ level, that mode is frightening:

Frequency of MNUFC grades in SUM Calculation
Data via WhoScored.com