When Nashville SC and Inter Miami CF square off in Nissan Stadium a week from tonight, each will be without one* of its Designated players. Rodolfo Pizarro is on international duty with Mexico – and won’t be eligible to compete for the Cranes after returning and quarantining, whereas Randall Leal is in Europe to play with Costa Rica, and his 10-day quarantine upon return to Nashville will see him out for at least the play-in round.
In a battle of expansion teams, which will miss its star player more?
* Both also will have one player who they may not have been expecting: Nashville’s Aníbal Godoy suffered a hamstring injury on the even of his departure for Panama’s camp, while contact tracing after a positive coronavirus test on Miami’s roster ruled Alvas Powell out of traveling with Jamaica, though he is not the affected player.
Let us begin with a quick look at the overall stats. They play similar positions – Pizarro is a central attacking midfielder often drawn into duty on the wings, while Leal is a winger often drawn into duty centrally – so the numbers should be reasonably comparable
|Rodolfo Pizarro||Randall Leal|
|Minutes played||1759 (76.7% available)||1684 (75.3% available)|
|Touch% when on-field||9.9%||9.6%|
|xG (%team total)||5.04 (16.2%)||2.07 (8.1%)|
|xA (%team total)||2.22 (10.7%)||2.62 (14.8%)|
|xG+xA (%team total)||7.26 (14.0%)||4.70 (10.9%)|
As the stats make clear, Pizarro has been a much more crucial piece to his team this season. There are multiple reasons for that (not least of which is that Miami is a worse team, so they need that type of individual contribution more). Pizarro plays a role that has been far more goal-oriented than Leal, and more offensively productive overall. You’d often – though not always – expect a central attack to be charged with setting up teammates, while a winger who is not a cross merchant would be more a finisher. In both cases, you get a little bit of the opposite of what you expect.
Certainly Leal’s early-season tendency to go bombs-away no matter where he was in the attacking third skews the advanced stats a bit – he actually took 41 shots to Pizarro’s 31, they just weren’t from quite the same dangerous positions. Leal also had fewer key passes than Pizarro (20 to Pizarro’s 24), but similarly, his ended up putting teammates into better spots to shoot.
Overall, Pizarro’s four goals and four assists barely outstrip Leal’s three and four, respectively. Plenty of that is the simple nature of being on a worse team, and asked to carry a bit more of the load.
One corollary to Leal’s comparative lack of production? Aside from the fact that his actual output was nearly level with Pizarro’s (skeptical though the advanced stats may ultimately be), Leal was a far superior player when it comes to getting defensively involved. Of course, some of that is the nature of the position – Nashville SC’s offensive wingers defended like 4-4-2 wide midfielders – some of it is the nature of being in a Gary Smith system, and once again, plenty of it is just being on a better team, and being able to impact the squad differently.
There are plenty of drawbacks to knowing how impactful an individual player’s presence on the field is to his team. That’s true in the best of circumstances, and in a pandemic-affected year, with both squads adding a striker late in the season, it’s even more difficult to quantify for sure. However, the name of the game is that we have to try, right?
Pizarro went wire-to-wire in 15 of Miami’s 23 games this year, and didn’t appear at all in four of them (he was subbed on twice and subbed off twice, as well). Leal had only six full-90 appearances, and two contests in which he didn’t appear at all (Gary Smith is a big fan of cycling offensive personnel late in games – Leal started and was subbed out 13 times, and made two substitute appearances). What were the respective performances of their teams like depending on the role each played?
|Rodolfo Pizarro||Randall Leal|
|Full 90||+0.41 (+0.55)||-0.20 (-0.21)|
|Started (subbed off)||+0.48 (+0.85)||-0.70 (-0.22)|
|Subbed on||-0.04 (-2.12)||+0.09 (+0.13)|
|DNP||-0.25 (-0.09)||-0.13 (+0.29)|
There are obviously tons of confounding factors here: lineup and substitution decisions can be made for a number of reasons, both performance-oriented and not, and the sample sizes are small enough here that any variation can be a result of other confounding factors, like opponent, who’s on the field, etc. Lastly, the numbers for Miami overall look a ton better than those for Nashville, but we know how the final table turned out. Indeed, part of the problem with IMCF all year was that they weren’t achieving at the level it seemed they should have. Pizarro is responsible for plenty of both the positives and negatives in that department.
All that said, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that IMCF was at its worst creation-wise when Pizarro was previously out on international duty with his country (even though his team went 2-1-1 during that stretch).
What it all means
As you can see from all the above, both Pizarro and Leal appear to be important to what their teams do. There also isn’t enough information to speak in absolute terms about how much each individual absence will be felt.
For Miami, the addition of DP striker Gonzalo Higuaín has impacted how crucial Pizarro is. Meanwhile, winger Lewis Morgan has been the more-important player over the course of the season under any circumstances. For Nashville, a more-variable injury situation – both for Leal, who has had a few minor issues over the course of the year, but also the players around him, including Hany Mukhtar – makes things even more complicated.
While both Diego Alonso and Gary Smith would certainly love to have their players available next weekend, assuming both are under the same circumstances – unavailable as they quarantine upon return from their international duty – Miami may very well be harder-hit.
Pizarro and Leal photos courtesy Major League Soccer. Graphic art by Tim Sullivan, for whom graphic design is a pasión.