What all our new soccer stats mean almost takes the fun out of it, with the arguments 2019’s numbers seed almost as abundant as the lessons to be drawn. It’s an attitude that says more about luddite views than the numbers themselves, but from a more benign point of view, there’s always fun to be had from an obscure stat or two. (Consider that an ancient StatMan proverb.)
For example, did you now that Opta, Major League Soccer’s statistics provider, breaks down defensive clearances by whether they’re headed or not? I mean, I did, but I still needed to ask, just for the flow of this paragraph. But did you know you could get that level of detail on how players are clearing the ball?
What value that has in evaluating a player, I honestly have no idea, but I’d rather know the numbers than not. And once you start digging deeper on the Portland Timbers’ 2019 numbers, there’s a lot of interesting rather knows among the players’ profiles.
(Players listed in alphabetical order; all numbers include the playoffs)
Sebastián Blanco: 76 open-play chances created (second in MLS)
To call a six goal, 11-assist season a breakout would be difficult to justify, especially if the player in question – in this case, Sebastián Blanco – was coming off double-digit goals (10) and assists (11) the previous season. Beyond those high-profile numbers, though, the 31-year-old Argentine collected a statistical resume that matches the performances we see on the field, depicting him as one of the best attacking midfielders in Major League Soccer.
His open-play chances created, above, were second to only New York City FC’s Maxi Moralez, but they weren’t the only area where Blanco threatened the top of a leaderboard. Blanco was fourth in the league in open-play assists, fifth in passes ending in the opponent’s final third of the field, and seventh on passes played into the penalty area. Without the ball, Blanco was fourth in times he won possession in the opponent’s final third.
In and out of possession, “Chucky” made his impact known.
Diego Chara: 86.97% on passes into the final third (third in MLS)
Go down Major League Soccer’s lists of most efficient passers, and you’ll see three names dominate – and during 2019, they dominated in this order. Whether you’re talking about overall, in the attacking half, on in the final third, MLS’ most-accurate passers were Minnesota United FC’s Osvaldo Alonso; Atlanta United FC’s Darlington Nagbe; then the Timbers’ Diego Chara.
It’s no surprise – those three have been defining accuracy in the middle for a decade now – but equally unsurprising is another of Chara’s statistical strengths: winning possession. In 2019, only four players turned the other team over more times (277) than Portland’s midfield general.
Steve Clark: 76.72 save percentage (first in MLS)
According to MLS’ Goalkeeper of the Year voting, Steve Clark was the seventh-best goalkeeper in the league. Granted, that’s a misleading way of interpreting voting (the electorate aren’t asked to rank players all the way down to seventh place), but it’s a common way of seeing things. A more cumbersome description, though, may be better: In 2019, six other players garnered more regard from the pool of voters asked to select Major League Soccer’s best goalkeeper.
Yet when it came to stopping shots, Clark was the league’s best, saving 76.72 percent of opponents’ tries. His goals against average was (1.08) was also best among league regulars, while the Timbers won 13 of Clark’s 25 starts …
… none of which proves Clark was MLS’s best goalkeeper. They’re just the high-profile, most accessible goalkeeper statistics. Maybe that doesn’t mean he should have been number one, but when it came to the voting, Clark was overlooked.
Claude Dielna: One clearance every 16.72 minutes (eighth, players with at least 1,000 minutes)
Dielna ended up fourth among Portland center backs in minutes played last season, but during his time on the field, he proved one of the league’s best when it came to clearing the ball. Among players who logged at least 1,000 minutes (Dielna had 1,087), the France-born defender averaged 5.4 clearances per 90 minutes, a rate that slotted him between Vancouver’s Doneil Henry (seventh) and Red Bulls’ U.S. international Aaron Long (ninth).
Clearances are difficult to evaluate by themselves once aggregated and deprived of their context, but as an almost truistic justification, you’d rather clear a ball than not. And when given his chance to collect numbers, Dielna made the most of it.
Jeremy Ebobisse: Five headed goals (tied for second in MLS)
Consider this stat in the context of Ebobisse’s play, because for a good amount of 2019, he wasn’t playing at the striker position. At the season’s tail, he was, but in the middle of the campaign, when the Timbers were riding the wave of Brian Fernandez’ arrival, Ebobisse was playing on one flank or the other.
That’s part of what makes his five headed goals more remarkable. “Jebo” wasn’t entirely precluded from being a target when playing as a winger, but his opportunities became more limited, and harder earned. To be tied for second in the league and only two off Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s league-leading total (seven) hints at the value Ebobisse has as a target.
Jorge Moreira: 106 tackles (first in MLS)
When Portland fans think of tackles, Diego Chara likely comes to mind, but as of 2019, with the veteran midfielder becoming more selective about confronting foes, another Timber has taken his mantle. Winning challenges at a 64.1 percent clip, Portland’s new right back Jorge Moreira was the most prolific tackler in Major League Soccer.
With that rate, Moreira’s confrontations were more than a quantity play. Sixty-eight times in 2019, Moreira successfully dislodged possession from his opponent, with only the LA Galaxy’s Jonathan dos Santos (69) eclipsing that total. Dos Santos, however, did his damage in 403 more minutes.
Bill Tuiloma: 1 headed clearance every 37.9 minutes (sixth in MLS)
Championship belts aren’t handed out for clearing the ball, particularly when you narrow your focus to headed clearances. But the ability to read, react to, and deal with an incoming ball is an important skill, one Bill Tuiloma quietly excelled at over his 2019 season.
Among players who logged at least 2,000 minutes, Tuiloma was the sixth-most prolific when it came to heading the ball clear, averaging 2.37 clearances of that type every 90 minutes. Tuiloma also excelled as a blocker of shots, ranking 10th in the league among regular players (2,000 minutes) with a block every 83.7 minutes.
Diego Valeri: 125 chances created (first in MLS)
Even after missing time at the end of the 2019 season, Valeri had a stellar statistical campaign, from the number of passes he played into the penalty box (348, third in MLS) to his pile of secondary assists (eight, tied for second), something which highlighted his contribution deeper in his team’s buildup. The long-time Timber was also second in MLS in assists overall, with his 16 trailing only Moralez’ 20.
The 125 chances Valeri created, though, stood out as much for sure quantity as the gap he had on the field. Split almost evenly between set- (63) and open-play (62), Valeri finished with 13 more chances created than the league’s next most prolific maestro.
Though his status for 2020 with the Timbers remains in flux, Valeri’s 2019 had unquestioned value. He remains one of MLS’ most prolific when it comes to generating goals.