As we trudge through the offseason, let us not forget through all the player acquisitions and scheduling announcements that the 2019 season will be built from a baseline that was established this Summer.
Certainly everyone is entitled to an opinion about the relative quality of certain players (and I have mine, too), but as I’ve tried to do in the past, some sort of objective measure of contributions is always worthwhile. No single statistic or group of statistics can tell the whole story, but the larger the body of data we build, the clearer the picture we have.
One measure that I find potentially useful – with some significant caveats – is a hockey-style plus/minus number. The calculation is pretty simple: goals when a given play is on the field minus goals against when that player is on the field. Unlike hockey, there are limited substitutions in soccer, so it’s both a little easier to calculate and carries a slightly different meaning (and can also be normalized to a number per 90 minutes played). Since man-up and man-down statuses are rarer in soccer, I also ignored those situations rather than excising them from the number like they’d be on the ice.
Without further ado:
Ramone Howell’s team-leading +6.66 per 90 is a small sample size distortion: with only 27 minutes on the field, he was playing during game-tying goals against Cincinnati in the regular-season finale and the opening round of the playoffs.
With 3,180 minutes played for the team (35 matches plus 30 minutes of extra time in the playoff match), your mileage may vary in terms of how many minutes a player needs in order for the number to be meaningful. I would handicap it at about 1,000 just based on the eyeball test, even in the situations where the expectations somewhat match up to the observed value.
Ryan James probably falls into that range (at least for me), as well. James’s situation does point out one of the weaknesses of a plus-minus in soccer, especially with limited substitutions: especially late in the year, he was mostly coming onto the field late in games with a lead, so his team wasn’t trying to score in most of his time on the field. Obviously that they got scored on in some of those situations is less than ideal, but the leading game state doesn’t lend itself to a positive plus-minus.
Indeed, game state is something that I’d be more interested in exploring – and would have, but the spreadsheets were going to get really complicated really fast, and quite honestly I wasn’t sure how I’d like to handle it. Certainly it’s fair to say that a defender who is getting a bunch of +/-0 while playing mostly when his team had a one- or two-goal lead is a heck of a lot better than a striker ending with +/-0 coming onto the field when his team is down by a score and looking for a goal.
So, who are some of the other surprises? Ish Jome certainly stands out to the positive, and I’d say both Bradley Bourgeois and Bolu Akinyode are lower than we’d have expected. Jome’s season did include a silly red that may have cost his team a result against Bethlehem Steel, and he faded after that – including being benched over the next four contests. In his first several games, though, he was a very solid performer. It’s possible that the way we remember his quality over the course of the season is unfairly tainted by the way it tailed off.
Bourgeois to some extent suffered from the same condition as James, making only late-game appearances early before supplanting London Woodberry, and then for a couple games late when he was working his way back to fitness after injury. A fully healthy Bourgeois who begins the year in the lineup is probably a little higher up the chart.
Akinyode’s low number is interesting to me because he played so much of the season that his plus-minus is pretty representative of his time on the pitch (with the caveat that he’s not the sole driving force behind a number ending up where it did, of course). He also happened to miss one of the worst results of the year – a two-goal loss to Ottawa, which Michael Reed also missed the action in with an early injury – due to international travel issues. He finished +5 on the year, so his number is hardly damning, but per-90, it’s the lowest of any returning player.
James was only joined in the negative by London Woodberry (I’d say his negative number was fairly reached, with a red card in the Ottawa game that facilitated the Fury’s second goal, and the only own-goal of the year, in a one-goal loss to the Tampa Bay Rowdies), along with Robin Shroot and CJ Cochran, who both suffer from small sample size, though you could also say they didn’t earn a larger slice of playing time with their performances.
Going forward, it’s worth noting that, aside from Jome and David Edgar (or depending on how you want to look at it, Jome and Akinyode’s finish below Edgar), every returning player finished with a better number per-90 than every player who will not be back with the team in 2019. Nashville SC has consolidated the best performers on the roster – with the same caveats about the limited meaningfulness of the singular number – and let the other guys seek other opportunities.
The players added this offseason are safely assumed to be upgrades: the top two scorers in the league, an all-USL defender, and two highly successful guys who didn’t quite earn league honors. That’s pretty solid. Building on the core that was established last season, trimming those who don’t play up to expectations, and adding highly successful talent to the top of the roster could just be a recipe for an exciting 2019.