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An Essay on the Dwayne De Rosario Injury for Canada

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We learned this morning that midfielder/forward Dwayne De Rosario will miss the next couple of months with a knee injury. De Rosario was hurt on a tough-but-innocent-looking challenge while playing for the Canadian men's national team against Panama; he gritted it out at first but when the lights went out took the opportunity to seek treatment. A good thing he did too, for his night and possibly his season were both done.

Naturally, DC United fans are despondent; they're fighting for a playoff spot and their second-leading scorer/leading assist man is done for the year after an injury a thousand miles away from where it could do them any good. I would never deny the loss of De Rosario is a serious blow for DC, and the pressure will be on the team's other good playmaking midfielder, Danny Cruz, to pick up an awful lot of slack awfully quickly.

What's more interesting is that Canadian fans are almost equally despondent. De Rosario is currently Canada's leading all-time goal scorer, one ahead of Dale Mitchell; however, over the past several years De Rosario has been a serious underachiever at the international level. While De Rosario certainly deserves to be called to the 22-man squad when healthy, he's not the lynchpin of the offense; hell, he isn't even performing well enough to be a certain starter. His loss is a blow, as Canada is down on depth, but it's also made up for by the fact that Stephen Hart will now have to give a chance to promising young guns like Randy Edwini-Bonsu, Russell Teibert, or Lucas Cavallini.

This isn't just opinion. The numbers prove it.

Since 2008, De Rosario has scored seven goals for his country in competitive fixtures (World Cup qualifying and the CONCACAF Gold Cup). That's very good, although not the lead (Ali Gerba has eight). However, of those seven, four were from the penalty spot.

More than half of De Rosario's offense comes from simply being Canada's best penalty taker. Taking penalties is a skill and I don't mean to write it off; I will feel less confident if Canada (for the first time ever) draws a penalty in San Pedro Sula and it's Atiba Hutchinson or Simeon Jackson striding to the mark. But Canada has benefited from an unusually large number of important penalties in the past couple years and the ability to shoot from the mark is nowhere near as important as the ability to deliver from open play.

So how does De Rosario do in the field? Below is a list of all Canadian players who have scored a goal in World Cup qualifying since the 2010 qualifying cycle, sorted by the number of goals they score from open play every 90 minutes. For the purposes of this spreadsheet, "open play" is defined as anything that isn't a penalty; otherwise accurate recordkeeping would fast become impossible. Players higher on the list score more goals not from penalties than players lower down.

WCQ 2010 WCQ 2014 Combined
Player Min OpenG OpG/90 Min OpenG OpG/90 Min OpenG OpG/90
Gerba, Ali 459 6 1.176 0 0 0.000 459 6 1.176
Occean, Olivier 0 0 0.000 457 4 0.788 457 4 0.788
Jackson, Simeon 0 0 0.000 555 4 0.649 555 4 0.649
Simpson, Josh 0 0 0.000 459 3 0.588 459 3 0.588
Hume, Iain 160 0 0.000 302 3 0.894 462 3 0.584
Ricketts, Tosaint 0 0 0.000 352 2 0.511 352 2 0.511
Nakajima-Farran, Issey 303 1 0.297 0 0 0.000 303 1 0.297
Radzinski, Tomasz 386 1 0.233 0 0 0.000 386 1 0.233
De Rosario, Dwayne 450 2 0.400 773 1 0.116 1223 3 0.220
Serioux, Adrian 450 1 0.200 0 0 0.000 450 1 0.200
Johnson, Will 90 0 0.000 534 1 0.169 624 1 0.144
Hainault, Andre 270 1 0.333 540 0 0.000 810 1 0.111
de Guzman, Julian 409 1 0.220 789 0 0.000 1198 1 0.075

Short version: Dwayne De Rosario is ninth in non-penalty goals per 90 minutes among Canadian players in World Cup qualifying for 2010 and 2014. Among players currently in the national pool, he is seventh; among players who have been called for the 2014 qualifying cycle, he is sixth. Nobody would ever rank Issey Nakajima-Farran ahead of DeRo and neither would anyone else; his good rate is because he snatched a goal against St. Vincent and the Grenadines in 2008, but the rest are legitimate.

Dwayne De Rosario is a player who makes his bones exclusively with his offense and largely with his shooting. He doesn't track back hard or play well on defense; Canada's clean sheets are down to playing poor offensive teams, no goalkeeping blunders, and maybe the best, deepest back four in national history. His playmaking is a serious asset for DC United but, for whatever reason, doesn't translate with Canada; assist statistics for the Canadian men's national team are fragmentary and unreliable at best but, from what we can tell, his assist rates for Canada don't come close to leading the charts.

Many of the players ranked ahead of him racked up goals against minnows. But so did De Rosario: two of his three goals were in one game against St. Vincent and the Grenadines at home on June 20, 2008. Every Canadian attacking player of note does most of their competitive scoring against minnows, because minnows are easy to score against and Canada isn't good enough to reliably score on good teams. (The most glorious exception is Gerba, who in 2008 scored twice against Mexico.) De Rosario's rates are also helped by the fact that, in 2008, he skipped two of Canada's three toughest qualifying games.

For the sake of time and brevity I did not include the Gold Cup. Were I to do so, we would see that De Rosario scored no goals from open play in the 2011 Gold Cup despite playing regularly, while he skipped the 2009 Gold Cup (in which Canada played well) entirely.

Canadian Offense Since 2008 (Competitive Fixtures, Excluding Minnows)
WCQ Gold Cup
Games Goals Games Goals
DeRo 7 5 3 2
No DeRo 3 3 4 4
"Minnows" are all teams from the second round of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying (St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Lucia, Puerto Rico, St. Kitts and Nevis). As De Rosario has played in all such games, including them would skew the numbers.

It's impossible to prove that De Rosario gets Canada offense in a way that doesn't show up in his statistics (by "spreading the field" or whatever you want). Canada actually scores slightly more without De Rosario in competitive games. Even in 2008 World Cup qualifying, after De Rosario left, Canada scored twice against Mexico and once in Honduras. They suffered a clean sheet in Jamaica but that team was missing many more regulars than just De Rosario.

With so few games (ten competitive fixtures with and seven without De Rosario in four years), it is impossible to draw watertight conclusions. But it's hard to imagine how De Rosario could help Canada without getting on the scoresheet: his skillset doesn't involve incisive first passes or brilliant transition play but trying to beat defenders and then shooting hard and accurately. In fact, De Rosario's contributions to Canada's attack in the past four years pretty much amount to his being the surest finisher on the team: the best penalty taker and the man you most want to have the ball on his feet with an easy chance in a close game. It doesn't involve generating chances or making room for his teammates.

On Twitter, I said De Rosario missing Canada's two key matches was "good news". Obviously that's too harsh. De Rosario has some offensive value on a team without much offense. But he's also 34 years old and, when it comes to World Cup qualifying, this is probably his last rodeo. I would rather play a 28-year-old Iain Hume or a 25-year-old Tosaint Ricketts, who'll still have something to offer in four years time, than De Rosario even if I think they're only equivalent talents. That's without getting into young guns who haven't had an opportunity to prove anything yet but are showing early promise.

So while losing Canada's all-time leading scorer isn't good news, in the short term at worst it hurts the team only slightly and in the long term may actually help.