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“In the box”: The measure of a striker, and Sporting Kansas City in 2022

Just. Revealing. Respectful.

Montenegro v Holland -World Cup Qualifier Photo by Eric Verhoeven/Soccrates/Getty Images

The 2011 Los Angeles Galaxy were rich with attacking talent, beginning with midfielder/forward Landon Donovan and midfielder David Beckham. During the preseason, the Galaxy had acquired Colombian striker Juan Pablo Angel, the marksmen of 58 goals in 100 starts with the New York Red Bulls. And they had Chad Barrett, a good backup striker (though a bit of a journeyman) who had scored 29 goals (.34 goals per 90) for a Chicago Fire side that won a good amount of matches and a few seasons at Toronto FC.

Manager Bruce Arena sent the Galaxy out in a 4-4-2 setup most of the time in 2011. Barrett responded with seven goals (.39g per 90) and four assists in 27 appearances. For Sporting Kansas City in 2021, only Daniel Salloi, Johnny Russell, and Alan Pulido (8g 3a in 21 appearances, .50g per 90) eclipsed Barrett’s total goal production. Barrett’s numbers weren’t bad. Although, it has always been true that nearly any striker in the professional game can build some decent offensive statistics with ongoing effort and by playing within a contending team’s established attacking patterns.

When nitpicking turns right

However, 2011 was the dark days, the days before the advent of advanced metrics in soccer (and sports in general). Now, the numbers are more revealing of a striker’s true impact. In particular, these three metrics highlight a striker’s (or a player’s) traits and tendencies, go beyond the typical raw data, and supplement the eye test: chances created, expected goals, and goals added.

Chances created includes both assists and passes that result in an attempt on goal that does not go in. Thus, the stat is more reflective of a player’s ability to make passes that open opportunities for others or recognize a clever run by a teammate than just assists.

In 2021, no Sporting player was in the top 25 of MLS in chances created. Right winger Johnny Russell was the top chance creator for Kansas City according to the MLS stat of “key passes”. which is described as “total attacking assists” and corresponds very close to the numbers in the chances created link above. A striker who can setup his teammates as the defense draws to him on the ball is certainly valued.

Expected goals are described by American Soccer Analysis as “the number of goals that can be expected to be scored based on where and how a shot was taken.” In other words, expected goals evaluates how strong of a finisher a player is… kind of important for a striker.

Daniel Salloi, Kansas City’s left winger, was 14th in expected goals in MLS in 2021 with an 11.18 measure. Going deeper, Salloi netted 16 goals. So Salloi outperformed his expected goals by +4.82 (11.18xG, 16 goals = +4.82), a number that puts him at #2 of the top 25 xG performers. (Sporting offseason target Robert Beric performed at a -4.65.)

Goals added: Warning, this one is intense! But it is all about what the game is about: Goals! G+ compares “all kinds of plays with the same unit of account: their likely effect on the scoreline.” The stat, then, is not as specific to strikers. Indeed, as Sporting’s left center back Andre Fontas led all of MLS in g+ in 2021. New England Revolution’s striker Adam Buska was second and Daniel Salloi ranked 12th overall. All actions g+ evaluates relate to goals - the name of the game.

Goals win games. There is no point in beleaguering the fact. Defending well is not enough (see Seattle Sounders, circa 2021 MLS playoffs). Chances created (CC), expected goals (xG), and goals added (g+) all reveal a player’s role in delivering and/or creating goals, thus they are indicative of a striker’s performance and value.

Of course, pure goal (and assist) numbers, goals per 90, and shots on goal (If a striker does not at least force a goalkeeper into a save and no chances off a possible rebound are available, that striker is not doing his job.) remain valuable measures.

And all measures complement the eye test. Only the eye test can allow one to perceive how clever and smooth a striker is on the ball. How incisive his runs are off the ball to combine or to create space for others. How strong a striker is on the ball. How quickly a striker is to get the ball off his feet and to recognize opportunities. How well a striker strikes a ball and how it dips and swerves or if it is a “heavy” shot. If the striker has “it.”

The Cartwheel Cometh

By September of 2011, the Galaxy were humming along with 51 points on 14 wins, nine draws, and only three losses. With Angel on the field, the Galaxy were 7-3-7 and a +4 goal differential. With Barrett, 7-2-6 and a +7 goal differential.

Two weeks earlier, though, came the news that The Galaxy had paid a $5 million dollar transfer fee for then 31-year-old Irish striker Robbie Keane. Why? Why would the Galaxy and veteran MLS and US National Team/World Cup coach Arena pay that much money for Keane when they were ‘doing quite fine, thank you?’

Because Keane was an international star who would supplement the Galaxy’s public profile? Eh, not really. Because when you can add a player of Keane’s caliber you pull the trigger? Maybe, but there is more to it than that. Much more.

Keane would elevate the striker position and elevate the team – move the needle if it were. That is why the Galaxy added Keane.

Strikers who move the needle are revealed by advanced metrics. For example, MLS Cup Champion New York City’s striker Valentin Castellanos was in the top six of strikers in CC, xG, and g+ in 2021.

By the time Keane left LA Galaxy, MLS had seen his goal celebration of a cartwheel followed by a forward roll 83 times (plus nine times in the playoffs) as The Galaxy won one Supporter’s Shield and three MLS Cups in Keane’s tenure of 2011 and the five full seasons that followed. Angel was traded shortly after Keane arrived, and Barrett was put out on loan and eventually released by the Galaxy in 2012, going on to score 14 goals in 86 games with three other MLS sides.

The Striker and Sporting Kansas City 2022

A striker’s basic task is to occupy center backs with positioning and movement and to reliably hold the ball up to give wingers and midfielders time and space to get into the attack. If one can combine with those in spaces around him and score (or usually put his shots on goal) with some consistency, he has done well enough to earn the title of “striker.”

At Sporting Kansas City, exemplifying daily Sporting Kansas City’s values – The team is always first. Exhibit a strong work ethic. Be intelligent. Pursue excellence daily. – is being a dutiful servant. It is the basis of all Sporting does and how strikers and all players etch themselves into Manager Peter Vermes’ daily contemplations, more so his daily decisions.

Yet, let’s not kid ourselves that a team’s record when one player starts or plays is anywhere near a complete or accurate indicator of a player’s worth. The truth is: virtually any field player on a consistently winning side is going to have a positive record when he is on the field.

Additionally, all players, of course, should aim to be “good people” and supportive teammates. Many of the best strikers, however, are bastards on the field. Ruthless. Indeed, Vermes’ model striker is longtime talisman Luis Suarez.

Not every striker is going to be Robbie Keane; that’s not the point. There are depth strikers who may bring something different to the position. But every true striker moves the needle, elevates the position, and elevates the team. That is why they are rightfully valued. And why they are paid at a premium.

With first-choice striker Alan Pulido likely out for the season, Sporting needs a striker who passes the eye test, shows well in the usual valuable measures, and moves the needle in the direction of cc, xG, and g+.

Current striker Khiry Shelton and Nikola Vujnovic (whenever he arrives, today btw) should be judged on the true merits of and in the context of a striker. Any true striker would wish to be judged so. That is respect for the profession. Anything less, is an insult to the player that striker is efforting to become.

And anything less than performing well in those measures is ultimately a disservice to a striker’s contract.

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