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MLS Statistical Preview: Behind the Timbers Turnaround

Using advanced statistical tools to break down the quality of chances that teams create, I consider the improvement of the 2013 Portland Timbers and what the next season portends.

Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Spo

Michael Caley of Cartilage Free Captain, SB Nation's Tottenham Hotspur blog, does wonderful things with statistics and has lent us his expertise by taking a look at what we can expect from the Timbers in 2014.

How did the Portland Timbers do it? In 2012, they were one of the worst sides in the Western Conference, and in 2013 they finished first. There are various explanations, from smart roster moves like adding Diego Valeri and Donovan Ricketts to the tactical changes implemented by new coach Caleb Porter. All of these surely made a difference.

But I suggest another possible explanation. Maybe the Timbers weren't that bad in 2012 in the first place. While they took a decidedly unimpressive one point per match and were outscored by 22 goals, the underlying statistics were not that bad. The 2012 Timbers attempted 421 shots and conceded exactly the same number to their opponents. This was not a case of the Timbers taking a ton of low-value long-range attempts, either. From the "danger zone," the central area of the 18-yard box from which most goals are scored, the Timbers attempted 166 shots and their opponents 165. They were not overly dependent on crosses from wide areas to create these shots either. By the numbers, the 2012 Timbers were much close to a league average side than a bottom-dweller.

This is not to say that Portland didn't improve, or that the only thing that mattered was "luck." My question is whether this is a terrible team that finished first the next season or a capable but unimpressive side that developed into conference champions. It appears by the numbers that this latter feat is the one Porter and his side accomplished last year.

Advanced Football Statistics

So what are these underlying statistics that suggested the Timbers might be better than their 2012 table position indicated? As Richard Whittall lays out, recent studies in soccer statistics have focused on one key idea, that shot conversion rates are prone to wide and random swings. If a team has scored ten goals on only fifteen shots, whatever the context of those goals, it's very unlikely they can maintain that rate of conversion in the future.

Does this mean all shots are equal? Obviously that cannot be right. Shots taken from the center of the six-yard box are obviously better chances than speculative attempts from thirty yards. To account for chance quality, we need to log the location of shots taken, as well as other pertinent information. Was the shot taken with the head or the foot? Was it assisted by a through-ball or a cross? Was it a direct free kick? These characteristics, the quality and volume of shots created, are much more persistent at the team level. So the shots a club creates or allowed, adjusted for the quality of these chances, tells us a lot about how well that club is likely to play in the future.

The Improvement of the 2013 Timbers

If we focus on the underlying stats, we can see a few key indicators of the improvement of the 2013 Timbers. First, the Timbers massively improved their rate of shots created by through-balls. In 2012 they attempted only three shots assisted by a through-ball all season, in 2013 that increased to 22. Shots assisted by through-balls are among the highest quality chances a club can create, as the pass by definition splits the defense and leaves an attacking player through on goal. By increasing the rate at which the club plays through-balls and successfully completing this many, the Timbers created better chances.

The majority of the improvements were on the defensive side. The Timbers allowed 20 fewer shots from the danger zone than in 2012, but more importantly they made it harder to attack through the middle. Where in 2012 Portland could be broken down through the middle of the pitch, in 2013 their opponents were reduced mostly to pinging in crosses from wide areas. The 2013 Timbers forced their opponents to a 55% cross rate, the highest in MLS. With the solidity to force their opponents away from the central channels, the Portland defense both limited opponents to fewer shots attempted from the highest expectation areas and limited the quality of chances their opponents could produce.

  • DZS: Shots attempted from the "Danger Zone," the central area of the 18-yard box.
  • DZS Def: Shots conceded from the Danger Zone
  • %TB: Percentage of shots from inside the box assisted by a through-ball.
  • %CR: Percentage of shots from the danger zone assisted by a through-ball.
Club DZS DZS Def %TB %CR %TB Def %CR Def
2012 Timbers 166 165 1.5% 40.4% 4.4% 43.0%
2013 Timbers 163 146 9.4% 42.3% 2.8% 54.1%

These improvements in chance quality created added up to real improvement for the Timbers. But I'm not sure that all of the club's improvements are likely to be maintained. As you can see, the Timbers didn't create that many more chances, but still improved their goals scored from 34 to 54. Some regression seems likely. I have the Timbers "expected goals" from last season closer to 45 than 54. (For more of these statistics, you can see my MLS Advanced Statistics page on the SB Nation / MLS site.)

Notably, the Timbers' offseason suggests they were skeptical of these goals scored numbers as well. The club's big changes in the attack, allowing striker Ryan Johnson to leave in the offseason and bringing in Gaston Fernandez to play a forward creative role, suggest that Parker and GM Gavin Wilkinson saw weaknesses in the attack which are also reflected in the stats. If these transactions can improve the club's attacking force while Porter's tactical changes keep the defense humming along, the Timbers may just be able to repeat.

I would not bet on the Timbers in the West, as my statistics rate the LA Galaxy as the conference's best club from last season by a good margin. The Timbers stand second, in good position to make a move given the wide year-to-year swings common in the contemporary MLS era.