For Carl Robinson and Gregg Berhalter, 2016 has seen its fair share of adversity.
The managers of the Vancouver Whitecaps and Columbus Crew SC respectively are in unfamiliar territory as their third season at the helm comes to an end. Year one and year two saw these two sides evolve from playoff also-rans to legitimate championship contenders. In Columbus’ case, they came within a win of taking MLS Cup in 2015.
But this season has been markedly different. Take one look at the MLS standings and that fact becomes crystal clear. The Whitecaps currently sit ninth in the Western Conference and are four points out of the playoffs with six games left. It’s an even direr situation for Crew SC, who find themselves dead last in the East and eight points below the red line with eight games to play.
Carl Robinson and Gregg Berhalter Enduring Trying Times in Year Three
It’s amid this less than stellar outlook that the two clubs get set to face off against one another on Saturday (6 PM ET, MLS Live, TWCSC-OH, CW Columbus, TSN2) in Columbus. Both cling to increasingly faint playoff hopes and are fully aware that getting the full three points and no less are of utmost importance. That sentiment is even more pronounced for the home team considering the amount of ground in the standings they need to make up.
But the fact that they are where they are is one of the big surprises of the 2016 MLS season. It makes sense to recap Robinson’s and Berhalter’s first two seasons in order to truly gauge how quickly things have turned south this year.
Oh, How the Mighty Have Fallen
In Robinson’s first season with the ‘Caps, the club finished fifth in the West and were eliminated in the knockout round of the playoffs by FC Dallas. A year later, they were the West’s second best team and lost in the playoffs to the eventual champion Portland Timbers.
For Berhalter, his Crew SC side seemed to peak at the right time in both 2014 and 2015. His first season as head coach saw the club win eight of their last 11 games to finish third in the East. They would fall in the conference semifinals to eventual MLS Cup finalist New England. Last year, they went on a 6-3-1 run in their last ten and, much like Vancouver, had their postseason come to an end in front of their home crowd against Portland.
Fast forward to the present and both teams’ fortunes have turned on a dime. That’s not a good thing at all, as their postseason prospects hang by a thread. Using American Soccer Analysis’ playoff odds in which they ran 10,000 simulations for the rest of the season, we find out that Crew SC currently have a 4.85 percent chance of qualifying for the playoffs. Vancouver’s chances aren’t much better at 5.77 percent.
So what’s been ailing these teams? Is there something in particular that can be pinpointed indicating why they’re languishing in the proverbial basement of their respective conferences?
Continued Issues on the Back Line
For one thing, both the ‘Caps and Crew SC have had their fair share of defensive issues. Vancouver’s 44 goals allowed is tied for fourth worst in MLS. Columbus isn’t much better at 42, tied for seventh worst.
And the concerning thing about those stats is that the deeper analytics lead to the conclusion that both defenses essentially are what they are. Using ASA’s expected goals model, this appears to be the case. Generally speaking if the difference between actual goals against and expected goals against is at or around zero, your defense is pretty much performing according to expectations.
It appears that the Whitecaps should be giving up more goals than they have as well. Their expected goals against is 46.62, meaning their GA-xGA comes out to -2.62. Another way to look at that is using the old adage “they’re lucky they’re not giving up more goals.”
For Crew SC, it’s pretty much what you see is what you get. The Black and Gold’s GA-xGA comes out to -0.17, meaning the analytics and actuals so to speak are fairly congruent. Opposing teams are, for all intents and purposes, scoring when they’re supposed to.
Low Percentage Shots Causing Whitecaps to Languish
For the most part, if a given team is able to convert more of their chances into goals, it’s much more likely they’ll realize success on the field. A good way to track this is by looking at goals as a percentage of shots, key passes and shots on goal. These sets of data for MLS can be found by observing the following three graphics.
In all three of these categories, you notice that no less than ten of the top performers would qualify for the playoffs if they started today. In fact, 11 of 12 teams above the red line are also among the top 12 in goals as a percentage of chances created. What really catches the eye, though, is Vancouver’s spot in these three metrics.
The Whitecaps are fairly respectable when it comes to converting overall shots and key passes. But when it comes to how many of their shots on target result in goals, you find out it’s a completely different story. Vancouver’s 147 shots on goal leads MLS, but only 34 have actually beaten the keeper. As a result, they own the worst shot on goal conversion percentage in the league.
This would indicate a “quantity above quality” issue with shot selection on the part of Robinson’s team. The attempts are certainly there, but are they in high percentage areas? The one below from Erik Hurtado, not so much.
Whitecaps fans will tell you, Hurtado has had his share of finishing issues this year. And that was a potential golazo in the making against the Galaxy on August 27th. Hurtado settled the ball well and nailed it on the full volley. But given the location of the shot as well as Brian Rowe’s positioning, this one only goes in if the keeper makes a mistake.
Having said that, Vancouver’s expected goals for is 34.43. So excluding own goals, their GF-xGF comes out to -2.43. This indicates they’re not underperforming what the analytics anticipate out of their goalscoring output by too much. The same can’t be said about Columbus.
Crew SC’s Inability To Finish Chances a Major Factor
The Black and Gold have 34 run of play or set piece goals (minus one own goal) in 2016. That’s 12.7 less than what ASA’s expected goals model predicts (46.7) which is the biggest discrepancy among all MLS teams. If anything, it speaks to a less than stellar effort in the finishing department.
This missed opportunity from playmaker Federico Higuain against the Philadelphia Union on August 24th pretty much epitomizes the club’s finishing woes.
Those types of shots where you’re trying to one-time a square ball at the top of the box are always difficult. And Pipa did have Philly defender Josh Yaro anticipating his run well and closing him down. Nevertheless, the effort has to be better and even Higuain can be seen showing his frustration after that shot sailed way above the goal.
The dearth of finishing is concerning to Berhalter and he’s well aware it’s one of the reasons for the teams struggles this year. The club’s style of play leaves them vulnerable at times defensively, but it shouldn’t be too much of a problem if you’re outscoring your opponents. That clearly isn’t happening this season.
“Our conversion rate this year, on chances we’ve been creating, is extremely low,” the Crew SC boss told Scott French of FourFourTwo Magazine in a recent interview. “Now you’re not converting your chances, now you’re giving up chances, and then it’s going to be an issue.”
Robinson and Berhalter have certainly hit a rough patch this season. Both were forced to jettison star strikers mid-season. The saga that led to Kei Kamara‘s departure from Columbus for New England in early May is well-publicized by now. And Vancouver parted ways with Octavio Rivero on July 6th, transferring him to Chilean club Colo Colo.
Despite that and everything else that has occurred this season, the two managers believe their respective teams are better than what the standings indicate at this point. With time running out to get back into playoff contention, it will become apparent soon enough if the play on the pitch will confirm that sentiment.
Expected goal data obtained from americansocceranalysis.com.