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Can We Start Grading Angelo Rodriguez?

It’s too early to fully assess Angelo Rodriguez’s potential to contribute to the Loons. It’s not too early to probe initial findings.

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August 4, 2018 - Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States - Minnesota United forward Angelo Rodriguez (9) looks for the ref to signal a foul against him during the Minnesota United vs Seattle Sounders match at TCF Bank Stadium. 

(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)
Minnesota United forward Angelo Rodriguez looks for the ref to signal a foul during the match versus Seattle August 4th at TCF Bank Stadium.
Seth Steffenhagen

On the We Call It Soccer podcast a few weeks back, I suggested giving Angelo Rodriguez until the end of the season before making a true assessment of his skills. In large part, this was because there was little data to go off of. When he signed, it was frankly hard to figure out how many appearances he had made recently, whose number to use to count how many goals he had scored in which competition, and just how much stock to put in the team’s highlight reel that included him scoring penalty kicks.

As a result, some fans slotted him in, sight unseen, as the best striking option on the team. Others looked on with skepticism sharpened from the past couple years of international signings, wondering how exactly a Designated Player can have a Wikipedia article that should be flagged for being a stub.

As an analytical thinker, it’s hard to feel too comfortable with making sweeping generalizations given everything that goes into the adjustment to Major League Soccer—”Can he go from practice to apartment shopping before flying commercial three hours into a different time zone to play on turf” should be the new “Can he do it on a rainy Tuesday night in Stoke”—but the four games he’s appeared in are instructive to some extent. So, with the caveat of an excessively small sample size, how have his performances looked from that analytic perspective?

Not great yet. In 353 minutes, Angelo Rodriguez has zero goals and zero assists. He’s taken seven shots—three on target—and has gotten three key passes. Using the model from American Soccer Analysis, Rodriguez has accounted for 0.193 expected goals and 0.054 expected assists per 96 minutes. His 0.247 xG+A/96 puts him tenth among the 25 outfield players who have appeared for Minnesota this year, including Christian Ramirez (7th) and Sam Nicholson (11th). ASA lists 138 MLS players as forwards or attackers with greater than 350 minutes this year; Rodriguez comes in 133rd in xG+A/96.

There are a couple of significant digits in the scouting report. Among those listed as forwards, Rodriguez has taken a higher than average proportion of shots from non-assisted balls—28.5%, the same as teammate Darwin Quintero, and only behind Miguel Ibarra among Loons attackers. For illustration, consider the percentages for Christian Ramirez (24.4%), Mason Toye (18.2%), and Abu Danladi (10%); it’s clear that Rodriguez, when he takes chances, is creating them himself.

However, it’s not clear that those shots are a good thing. Rodriguez is averaging 0.102 xG per shot, placing him in the bottom quartile of MLS attackers clearing the minutes threshold and second last among attackers who logged minutes for the Loons this year. If you take a lot of shots, you can still get goals—Sebastian Giovinco, for instance, is behind Rodriguez in xG/shot but has 10 goals—but Rodriguez is also in the bottom quartile of attackers in shots per 96 (1.904).

In short, neither the top line nor advanced numbers are all that kind to Angelo Rodriguez so far. This isn’t shocking given the results of the last few games—if a primary focal point isn’t scoring, it’s likely that your offense will sputter, as Minnesota has only scored three goals since he came into the side. It is at least worth a look, though, to see what things he’s doing aside from scoring to see if there are positives to be gleaned.

Opta Chalkboard for Angelo Rodriguez, August 4th vs. Seattle
Matchcenter.MLSSoccer.com

It’s hard not to look at the debut performance against Seattle in the same lens that I addressed in an article about Christian Ramirez’s performances. Rodriguez got a pair of shots off—one off the far post—but was largely relied on for the same type of outlet passing that Ramirez was tasked with during his time with the Loons in 2018. The new striker has only registered 2.18 meaningful plays (dribbles, passes, shots) in the box per 96 minutes so far. The passing was certainly tidy and helped to open Darwin Quintero, but much like in Ramirez’s case I find it hard to think Minnesota will be too pleased with a striker being that far back from goal.

Opta Chalkboard for Angelo Rodriguez, August 11th at Los Angeles Galaxy
Matchcenter.MLSSoccer.com

The short passing struck again versus the Galaxy, and while he was more active in the final third, Rodriguez still failed to make an impact against a weak back line, having a shot blocked in the box, one go over, and a stopped dribble at the top of the box. Of primary concern from this game is the fact that Rodriguez only completed four of nine forward passes, one of which was on a set piece clearance. There are role-specific considerations at play with having 14 of 23 passes go backward, but in a game where Minnesota could have worked the ball into a porous defense it’s a bit frustrating to see the passing go that wastefully.

Opta Chalkboard for Angelo Rodriguez, August 18th at FC Dallas
Matchcenter.MLSSoccer.com

Aside from food shortages and exhaustion, the game against FC Dallas was marked by Rodriguez needing to play as the primary focal point offensively with the absence of Darwin Quintero. While he had one key pass, his 50% passing accuracy and zero shots taken were a microcosm of how frustrating that night was. The activity was there in the final third, but once again Rodriguez was a non-figure in the box, with his only move in the 18 coming on a failed through ball to reset play. With performances like that, it’s not surprising to note that Rodriguez’s average distance from goal when completing a key pass is nearly 21.7 yards; of the 62 MLS players with more than three assists this year, only nine are averaging a further distance from goal on key passes.

Opta Chalkboard for Angelo Rodriguez, August 25th at Sporting Kansas City
Matchcenter.MLSSoccer.com

Rodriguez was actually at his most productive against Sporting KC, stringing together a number of passes both at midfield and closer to the box and doing well to complete dribbles twice. His three shots all hit the target, and he contributed key passes to two decent scoring chances, a first-half shot by Ibson and Mason Toye’s sitter in the second half. The issue that Rodriguez personally had was twofold: first, an inability to latch onto passes in the 18-yard box; second, a lack of truly clinical finishing. Much like the rest of the team—only Ibson’s shot off the bar could be described as well-placed—Rodriguez gave ample but easy work to Tim Melia by shooting directly into the center of the goal. Since joining the team, Rodriguez has only once been in reasonable range of the target without shooting dead center: his shot off the post against Seattle.

With those four games spoken for and with the initial data coming in, it seems like the skepticism was warranted. Rodriguez has shown elite dribbling skills, looking more like Bo Jackson as he trucks through midfields on numerous occasions. He’s shown the propensity to follow the tactical command to hold up the ball and pass to someone who can then move it around. But the shot selection he’s taken so far—not just where he’s taking them from, but also where the aim is going—and the lack of presence in the box has been a problem to say the least.

Here’s the part where I introduce some silver linings: his performance last Saturday might have been his best so far. Had Mason Toye not skied a shot, Rodriguez would have an assist on his score sheet; his three shots on target were the first ones he’s had in MLS; he was active in zone 14, the central part of the field at the top of the box. He did those things against a resurgent SKC defense and without Darwin Quintero giving him service and drawing defenders away. Should he get the direction to play a more forward focal role for the Loons in the upcoming eight games, the production and stats will come.

The other silver lining, however, might not truly be a positive thing. I mentioned that Angelo’s early performances with Darwin Quintero closely mirrored how Christian Ramirez was sent out. In that article where I dissected Christian’s performances, I noted the exact same prescription: get in the box versus being the distribution hub in the center. The way that Adrian Heath sets up his forwards tactically is designed to help someone like Quintero—accurate shooter who can get through defenders—pad his stats. The drawback is that withdrawing the center forward takes a body out in most offensive situations from where higher percentage shots can be taken.

If such a tactic is effective in getting the team more goals, play it. The evidence so far, despite bringing in two DP-level attackers, is middling: Minnesota has scored .07 fewer goals per game in 2018 than they did last season. It’s why I find a silver lining. Maybe Angelo Rodriguez is better than the role that he’s playing, and Rodriguez’s slow start comes from the same reason certain outlets pilloried Christian Ramirez: the tactics are repressing the natural scorers.