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Who was Portland’s top target man in 2020?

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What the numbers tell us about who was the most productive striker for the Timbers in the 2020 season.

MLS: LA Galaxy at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Who would have thought that after seemingly endless seasons of uncertainty at the forward spot, the Portland Timbers would end 2020 with not one, not two, but three potential starters at the position? Jeremy Ebobisse, Felipe Mora, and Jaroslaw Niezgoda have all shown themselves to be potential game changers at the forward position for the Timbers this season.

One of the biggest questions this offseason will be around how Portland manages all three, and who emerges as the presumptive starter and “leader” of the pack. Much digital ink has been spilled this season trying to preemptively answer that question. A significant amount of time has been spent analyzing who was having the biggest impact on the field for the Timbers, with each forward seemingly having their own time in the sun in the pole position.

So now with the 2020 season coming to an unfortunate but finite end for the Timbers, it provides a convenient opportunity to dive into the numbers a bit. Here’s what the *stats suggest about which of Portland’s forward options had the most impactful season:

*For the purposes of this analysis, we’ll be looking at just games that counted towards league play. So the four MLS is Back knockout round games aren’t factored in here.

All We Really Want Are (Expected) Goals

Goal scorers are brought in to a side to do just that, and all three forwards met that standard. Starting with the basic metric of total goals, the race is essentially at a dead heat. Ebobisse finished the season with 8 goals in league play, followed closely by Niezgoda and Mora, who both had 7 tallies this season.

Additional context can be added to the above stats when you convert those numbers into goals per game. Mora, who wound up playing the most minutes out of three due to injuries to the other two, averaged 0.52 goals per 90 minutes. Ebobisse averaged 0.68 goals per 90 minutes, and Niezgoda (possibility due to his limited playing time) averaged a surprising 1.04 goals per 90. That number is worth recognizing as it is among the best conversion rates in the entire league, and if his season wasn’t derailed due to the ACL injury, maybe Jarek could have bagged even more.

In addition to raw numbers, if you dig a little deeper into the expected goal (xG) stat, it can tells us more about whose goal scoring numbers were above or below expectations. For those who need a refresher, expected goals are an advanced stat that measures the quality of a scoring opportunity and how likelihood a shot would be a goal. In another way, it can be used to measure the quality of looks each forward got this season, and how many of those they converted into goals.

According to FBref.com, Niezgoda was the biggest over-performer. Based on the summary of his opportunities, his xG for the 2020 season was 2.5, meaning that his actual numbers almost tripled his expected goals. Ebobisse also over performed, as his xG for 2020 was 4.0, meaning he essentially doubled his expected tally. Mora performed the closest to what his metrics suggest, as his xG was 5.8 for the regular season.

What does all of the above mean? On the whole, the three strikers were a pretty solid group that made the most of the chances that they received. Without persistent injuries, perhaps Ebobisse could have continued his strong form or Niezgoda could have continued his eye-opening conversion rate, and either of the two could have grabbed hold of the starting spot. As things stand at the end of the season, however, no striker distinguished themselves as the front runner based purely on the score sheet alone.

Fortunately, that’s not the only metric we have to measure the strike force. We also have to consider how effective they all were at...

Spreading The Love

For the style of soccer that the Portland Timbers play, the impact and effectiveness of a striker can’t be evaluated by just goal scoring alone. With impact players such as Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco, and Yimmi Chara also on the pitch, any evaluation of a forward has to include how proficient they are bringing others into the play.

Again, starting with just raw assist numbers, both Mora and Ebobisse tallied two assists through league play. Niezgoda also added one assist in his time on the field. While similar numbers, they don’t tell the full story until you dig into the more advanced analytics.

Thanks again to our friends at FBref, we can see just how impactful each forward was at creating scoring opportunities. Jeremy Ebobisse totaled 25 shot-creating actions during the 2020 regular season, good for about 2.12 shot-creating actions per game. Felipe Mora achieved a slightly higher mark, totaling 32 shot-creating actions and 2.39 per game. Nizegoda, who played roughly 400 minutes less than Ebobisse and 600 minutes less than Mora, totaled only 9 shot-creating actions, good for 1.32 per 90 minutes on the season.

In total, Felipe Mora had a slightly larger hand in facilitating for others than the other two forwards this season, most likely due to his increased playing time. Here he is doing just that for Diego Valeri:

While there are differences in the numbers, no striker truly distanced themselves from the others as better or worse at facilitating for others on the field. The numbers lean towards Mora, but we have all seen how versatile Ebobisse can be while playing on the wing and connecting with his teammates. Niezgoda gets a bit of a pass due to his lack of consistent playing time, and it will be something to watch for when he returns to the field. All in all, creating space for other players will be a key measure to look for in the continued striker battle next season.

The Road Ahead

In summary, you could argue that no single striker fully put themselves forward as the best option moving into next season. All three bring unique talents and promise: Ebobisse has perhaps the highest upside due to his age and continued impact year to year; Niezgoda brings a pedigree and expectations with his Designated Player status; and Mora represents an alternative style that is equally as productive and facilitative for others. So the challenge presenting itself for the Timbers remains a complicated one.

Further complicating the challenge is the current status of the forward pool. As mentioned above, Jaroslaw Niezgoda suffered a torn ACL on November 1, and is expected to miss a significant chunk of the 2021 season. According to a quote from head coach Giovanni Savarese at Portland’s year end press conference, it is looking likely that he won’t make his return to the field until the summer:

A further wrinkle is Niezgoda’s status as a DP. Assuming Portland doesn’t buy down his contract, there will likely be an obligation for him to see playing time due to the club’s investment in him. If, hypothetically, another forward is on a great run of form when Niezgoda returns, will Portland be forced to disrupt it by re-integrating the Polish number 9?

In addition, Mora’s status on the team is, as of writing, still up in the air. On loan for the 2020 season from Liga MX side Pumas, the Timbers are currently negotiating with the Mexican side to re-sign him for 2021. According to Savarese, the discussions are progressing, but there’s still a ways to go. If Portland can’t get the deal done and Mora doesn’t return, that does present a hole in the forward line without an obvious replacement, especially with Niezgoda sidelined.

The one constant is Ebobisse, who presumably will be ready to go for the start of the 2021 season. As talented and consistently productive Jebo has been in Portland, the Timbers organization still sees it necessary to allocate resources to the striker position. Unless Ebobisse blows the doors off of Providence Park and goes on an absolute goal scoring tear, it looks like the powers that be are still reluctant to fully hand him the keys to the starting spot at this stage.

Regardless of how it turns out, having a potential log jam at striker is a good problem for Portland to have. The Timbers showed this season how having a diverse strike force buoyed them to a strong regular season. For that success to continue, and for Portland to take a further step towards success in the playoffs next season, all eyes will be on who becomes the top target man in 2021.