The other day former Vancouver Whitecaps goalkeeper coach Marius Rovde tweeted something that caused me to reconsider the question posed in the title of this article.
Froese, Adekugbe, Hurtado the season he scored 5 goals? In 12 games...more then Montero and Rivero did the whole season if you took away their penalties...6/7? @Etado19 would have been sensational with 12-14 goals... we swapped him out with 5 open play goals in 29 games+ $?Mill— Marius Rovde (@MariusRovde) March 22, 2019
Now this flies in the face of everything I’ve ever thought of Hurtado. I, like many, have always considered Hurtado a hard worker who lacked the technical skills to be a true impact player in MLS. The notion that he could have been a double digit goalscorer feels totally alien to me. But that’s what makes it interesting. Could the Whitecaps have molded Erik Hurtado into a double digit scorer in MLS?
How much of a difference do penalties make?
The crux of Rovde’s argument is that other Whitecaps strikers have had their goal totals artificially inflated by taking penalties. Here’s all of the Whitecaps top scorers since 2013 and how many of their goals were penalties:
2013| Camilo: 22 (5 penalties)
2014| Pedro Morales*: 10 (7 penalties)
2015| Octavio Rivero**: 10 (3 penalties)
2016| Pedro Morales*: 9 (6 penalties)
2017| Fredy Montero: 14 (2 penalties)
2018| Kei Kamara: 14 (3 penalties)
*Wouldn’t have been the top scorer if penalties were discounted
** Would have been tied for top scorer if penalties were discounted.
As we can see, penalties can (though don’t always) inflate a player’s goal tally. But, Hurtado not getting a chance to take penalties hurt his goal tally and make him look less valuable than he was? Let’s say there was an alternate universe where Erik Hurtado took every penalty between 2013 and 2018. Hurtado has never taken an MLS penalty so we have no idea how good he is at them but most resources I could find had the expected goals rate of penalties at 0.75. For the sake of argument let’s assume that Erik Hurtado scores 3 out of 4 penalties and round down to the nearest whole number. These would be his MLS goal totals each year:
This certainly looks better than what actually transpired but apart from that 2014 outlier he’d still mostly be a below average striker. Not many team’s who’s main striker scores 3-8 goals are going to make the playoffs. But perhaps this isn’t the fairest way of breaking things down. After all in some of these years he was plastered to the bench and when his playing time did come it came with players who weren’t going to provide much in the way of service. Perhaps it would be more fair to look at what an average season was for Hurtado and then add what you’d expect him to score based on the average number of penalties the Whitecaps were awarded (does that make any sense?).
Hurtado has 13 goals and 8 assists in 4795 MLS minutes. This works out to just shy of 0.4 goals+assists per 90 minutes. Assuming he played as much as Kei Kamara did in 2018 (which is to say as much as a first choice striker would but without assuming he plays every minute of every game) this would work out to 9 goals+assists in a season. Not all that impressive. But if you give him the average of 7 penalties the Whitecaps win a season and assume he scores 75% of them then that gives him an extra five goals. This is 14 goals+assists in an average season. This isn’t terrible but is still less than what Kamara and Montero got in 2017 and 2018 even if you discount their penalty goals. So even in this very generous hypothetical he’s still not as good as the DPs.
Standing up for Penalty Goals
I’m resistant to the notion that penalty goals are freebies. Yes, they are much easier to score from than from open play but there is an art to them. They count the same as a regular goal, some players are clearly better at them than others, and at the end of the day someone needs to put them in. If you had to pick a player take a penalty with a goal resulting in you living and a miss resulting in your death, you’d be kidding yourself if you said you would be equally confident in Erik Hurtado taking that penalty as you would be in Pedro Morales.
The other aspect of Rovde’s tweet is that in 2015 the Whitecaps dropped 3 million on a player (Octavio Rivero) who only scored one more goal from open play than Hurtado in 2015. So what if the Whitecaps had accepted that Hurtado was an average striker and thrown that 3 million into some midfield quality to give him such good service it didn’t really matter. There is some precedent for this. The Columbus Crew managed to turn Gyasi Zardes, a player like Hurtado who was maligned for lacking technical skill, into a 20 goal scorer because their system was built around getting their striker shots in the six yard box and frankly you don’t have to be that great to put those in. Could this have worked with Hurtado? Maybe. It’s hard to measure that. But I doubt that it would have because the season Erik Hurtado had the most shots in the six yard box was 2016 and he only scored twice in MLS. He also got his second highest ever tally of shots in the penalty area that season. Two goals.
I just don’t buy it. Not for that player. Even with giving him all of the penalties in the last 5 years he only reaches double digits once. Hurtado was 24 the year he scored 6. There are exceptions but for the most part once a player hits 24 what you see is what you get. That is to say, suddenly doubling your best ever goal tally is unlikely for players in their mid 20s.