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Revisiting How CPL Scoring Translates to MLS

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MLS: Canadian Championship-Pacific at Toronto FC Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Last summer I wrote an article that explored when MLS teams should be interested in CPL players. The main thesis of that article was that we don’t know how CPL performance translates to other leagues so decision-makers should be careful about what players they consider signing. But the Whitecaps got brutally owned by Pacific F.C the next day so I don’t think the world was very receptive to that message at the time. But we have now completed the CPL’s second full season and, by my count, 12 players have played significant minutes in both leagues. So I thought it might be a good time to re-visit the concept.

Specifically, we’re going to be looking at scoring (as measured by xG+xA/90, not including penalties). Mainly because it is easiest but also because knowing how much a player directly contributes to scoring can be surprisingly informative about how much you want them on your team. If a player is providing little or no direct scoring then they had better be pretty amazing at something else.

So by my count, 10 players played at least 500 minutes this season who have played at least 300 minutes in MLS. In the interest of getting a big sample, I also added Julian Büsher and Joel Waterman’s 2019 seasons, giving us a total of 12 players. On average players put up about 59% of their CPL xG+xA/90 in MLS. This means that if a player perfectly performed to his expected goals and scored 10 a season in CPL then he could reasonably be expected to score 5 or 6 a season in MLS. Now, we have to be very careful drawing any hard and fast conclusions about a sample this small. But after a time, adding more players was having a smaller and smaller impact on the average.

So, what can we do with this tentative information? Well firstly, 59% is not a very good number in this context. USL players score about 75% of their USL total in MLS. This suggests that the gap between CPL and MLS, despite the many foibles of the Vancouver Whitecaps, is kind of huge. I think, also, it shows that you should be a bit suspicious of anybody claiming that X CPL player is definitely good enough to play in MLS. For example, to simply be an above-average starting striker in MLS, a CPL striker would have to be contributing to a goal almost every single game. There may be outliers who can translate their scoring but at this stage, it looks like you can expect a hefty drop-off.

Let’s apply this logic to some specific players. Firstly, a player people frequently say should be in MLS, Mohamed Farsi. When Farsi announced he would be leaving Cavalry F.C to pursue other opportunities a lot of people wanted the Whitecaps to sign him. But as always you could rely on yours truly to b̶o̶l̶d̶l̶y̶ ̶t̶e̶l̶l̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶t̶r̶u̶t̶h̶ ̶be annoying about my opinions on the internet. I reasoned that, although Farsi had decent attacking numbers, he was getting shredded defensively. I didn’t think the trade-off was worth it.

Data courtesy of @canpldata

But if Farsi’s offensive production wouldn’t even reach the average for an MLS fullback then the tradeoff definitely isn’t worth it. Players from the CPL whose main attraction is scoring become less interesting unless they score at such an insane rate that they simply can’t be denied.

On the other hand, players who are more well-rounded can also have their stock hurt by the drop-off in scoring between CPL and MLS. Let us consider Marco Bustos, a player people seem to be constantly suggesting somebody in MLS should sign. Say what you will about Bustos, nobody could ever accuse him of being a one-dimensional scorer. He does a lot of good dribbling and pressing work.

Data courtesy of @canpldata

But his 0.43 xG+xA/90 would translate to 0.25/90 in MLS if the 59% conversion is accurate. This would make him one of the lowest scoring regular players at his position in the entire league. At that point, I think you would probably be better off finding a player who can press dribble and score or just giving those minutes to an academy graduate.

But what about my assessment of CPL players? After all, I just suggested a bunch of them. How do these data points affect my assessment of the players? Well, for the most part, my assessment is the same. I did make those suggestions assuming a significant drop-off in production. But there are a few players I might downgrade my interest in slightly. I remain very interested in the long-term potential of Kunle Dada-Luke, for example, but maybe if I were re-doing my article I would have him on the honourable mentions list. Is well-rounded game paired with his offensive abilities still makes him very attractive but if those offensive abilities are going to translate to being below average at the MLS level then maybe it’s best to hold off a little bit. I also find myself a bit less convinced by Diyaeddine Abzi, even though I still like him overall. He’s got some defensive fragilities and if you can’t rely on his offensive production to translate as well then he becomes a bit less interesting.

But on the other hand, I think Jeremy Gagnon-Lapare and Zach Verhoven still come out remarkably well. Both would still be above the average levels of offence for their position and offer some other things besides. In particular, I want to draw attention to the fact that Zach Verhoven was tied for 3rd in assists in the 2021 season while playing as a right-wing-back on the worst team in the league. I think the magnitude of this achievement isn’t appreciated enough.

Lastly, I must be clear, that this data is still limited. As more CPL seasons are played and more players who have played in it play in other leagues our perception of what CPL performance means for a player’s prospects at a higher level might change. But for the time being, we have the information that we have. So I continue to urge caution when it comes to hyping up CPL players. There’s no guarantee that simply being good is good enough at this point.