The Numbers are Absurd: An Examination of the Success of the Vancouver Whitecaps

Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

I mentioned in my match review for the game against the Columbus Crew that, considering the underlying stats of the Vancouver Whitecaps, it’s absurd that they are currently in first place in the Western Conference. I thought it would be a good idea to expand on that thought.

I want to start by giving a huge shout out to the guys at American Soccer Analysis. This article is based almost entirely off of the stats they provide so check out their website, follow them on twitter, and just generally send them some love. Anyway, back in 2014 they did an analysis of the areas in which Major League Soccer teams excel.

I think you can see where this is going, but let’s forge on and see how the ‘Caps do in these categories

1. Slightly More Possession

The Whitecaps have the worst average possession in MLS. Not a great start to the list. I know that possession isn’t everything and the lack of it, in isolation, is not necessarily a problem but bear with me here as I am building a case.

2. Have Better Passing Accuracy

Back in July AtlantisB wrote an article on the Whitecaps’ passing. At the time they had the worst passing accuracy in MLS. Sure that data is a tad out of date but I doubt it’s improved much. To their credit the Whitecaps have tried to improve this area of their game with the acquisitions of Aly Ghazal and Nosa Igiebor. However, moving up from the worst in the league, even just to being average, is a tall order.

3. Have More Patience in Penetrating the Final Third

The Whitecaps are doing alright here, considering their woeful rankings in the previous two categories. The Caps are mid-table when it comes to long balls. Unfortunately, their passing accuracy detracts from this area of relative strength.

4. Take Slightly Fewer Shots

A win! sort of. The Whitecaps certainly take fewer shots, but it’s a lot fewer. They are currently 3rd from the bottom in the West for total number of shots. They are not exactly in good company down there either. The only two teams with fewer shots are Minnesota United and bottom feeders the Colorado Rapids.

5. Put More Shots on Goal

The Whitecaps are 4th from the bottom in terms of shots on goal with 111. However that’s 33% of their total shots on target which is not awful. In comparison, 39% of Toronto FC’s shots are on target while rival Portland Timbers have about 32% of their shots hit the target. So, while the total number of shots on goal puts the Caps near the bottom, their ratio of shots taken to shots on target is comparable to the tops teams in the East and West.

6. Score More Goals

The Whitecaps have 45 goals, which is 3rd in the West. Not too bad. However, this statistic might be a bit misleading as they are one of the biggest over-performers in terms of expected goals.

Of course, we must consider that these categories were chosen in 2014, when the footballing landscape was a little different. Everyone was trying to play possession football so naturally the best teams bought the best players for that kind of system. These days a pressing counter attacking style is more en-vogue and so possession may not be as important as in the past. AtlantisB’s series on what leads to success in MLS supports that potential change. That being said I doubt you can be abjectly failing in four of six ‘traditionally’ key categories and maintain any kind of long term success.

Some More Reasons For Alarm:

The Whitecaps have given up more shots then everyone else in the West except for Minnesota United. You could say that the Whitecaps’ low block forces other teams to take shots from distance, but the stats don’t really bear that out. Only 57% of shots against the Whitecaps are from inside the box. A cursory glance at other MLS teams suggests that this is about the average.

American Soccer Analysis also keeps track of a stat called PDO. PDO is “The sum of a team's finishing rate and save percentage, scaled so that 1000 is typical.” There is some good news here. The Whitecaps are first in the West and second only to TFC. However, only four teams in the West are above 1000. In contrast only three teams in the East are under 1000. This suggests to me that the Whitecaps are benefiting from a down year in the Western Conference.


I’m not saying the ‘Caps are a terrible team. Their underlying stats may not be great but I think, on paper, this squad is stronger than the other teams down at the bottom. I also think that some of these numbers were probably skewed by the terrible start to the season. If they were over say, the last ten games, then I think the ‘Caps might fare a bit better (I don’t know for sure this is just speculation); And of course as Norwegian Would pointed out the Whitecaps play a lot of “fast breakout passes that are lower percentage.” The thing is though the numbers defy every one of the usual success indicators. So, unless the ‘Caps are about to revolutionize the tactics of world football (which, ya know, I kind of doubt) then this level of success may not be sustainable.


I'm just trying to enjoy the ride

After last year, I wasn’t expecting much at all this season, so I’ve been very pleasantly surprised. I know that we definitely aren’t world-beaters, and that everything might go to shit soon, but at least we’ve been able to watch a team score goals and win games and have some fun moments this year.

We’ve got some exciting players, a deep team, two newcomers (Ghazal and Nosa) and at least a temporary hold on first place in the West. I’m just going to try and enjoy the moment for the rest of the season.

It was painful to watch the struggle last year and so it is very nice to see that they are getting some exciting players and pulling out a few wins. I am still constantly getting frustrated by what seems to be lack of chemistry and consistency, but I guess it’s to be expected with the amount of player and lineup changes. I am looking forward to seeing how Ghazal and Nosa might changes some of these stats.

The name...

…Icarus comes to mind – and no he’s not a midfielder for Panathinaikos!

Reminds me of this.

P.S. Craig Ferguson is AWESOME!

Defensive strength

All of those stats skew towards the offensive side of the game. Doesn’t the imbalance between the results and the stats just imply that we have a better-than-average defence?

Not when you concede as many shots and especially ON target as the Caps do (the shot differential is not small either). …. That isn’t good defence …. that’s relying on bad shooting of the other team. It does lead to a win or two here or there in soccer …. not generally consistent win percentage though.

There goals against is also pretty average.

I would say that the defense is pretty average while the offense is not very good. And yet, they sit in first.

Total Shot Ratio is less accurate than expected goal differential

And we’re ok in that regard which suggests we’re giving up poor shots and taking better ones. We’re at -0.06 expected goals/game which isn’t great but for reference, Toronto is top with 0.44 and Minnesota is last with -0.82.

Being in the negative on this stat ....

Suggests our record of winning far more than losing …… is in fact absurd. A number in the negative on that statistic means we should be losing more than winning, or at best .500.

The numbers are absurd. I am amazed that anyone would argue against that ….. However, the success with those absurd numbers is also undeniable. My only question is, is it a one season phenomenon like so many other questionable teams of the MLS past, or is this strategy sustainable?

Either way, it isn’t attractive football … not as attractive as winning the more conventional ways. ….. I know my preference ….

The Numbers are Absurd ......

Lower possession + lower passing % + lower shot attempts + lower shots on target does not generally lead to high points per game numbers much less win percentages, especially when your team does not generate a lot of its own scoring chances without the aid of the rare set pieces you get, or capitalizing on massive gaffs by the opposition that gets over confident with the amount of ease they have moving the ball around and maintaining possession. If it did … more teams around the World would be doing it and finding success ……. very few manage it beyond a game or two when they are massively overmatched … none over a full league schedule.

It is all very exciting to win or draw a game in a HUGE nail biter, as you watch the opposition encamped in front of your team’s 18 yard box getting shot after shot away. Even more so when every game you watch hinges on just one bounce going against your team, but that bounce never seems to come. I do not believe that it is a recipe for long term success.

Icarus indeed. …. but the MLS does burn as bright as the Sun ….. perhaps that Caps can fly like this for as long as Robbo is here? I don’t know if I would draw pride from it though.

First off:

Another fine piece. I love your ability to stake out some small encampment of humour no matter how dire the situation. And it does look dire.

Which gets me asking: is there a way to define the strange success the ‘Caps are having? Are there different stats that account for this weird run to the top or a different way to break them down? For instance, in the 12 games before Columbus the ’Caps goals against was far better, nearly on par with TFC, than previously. I know Vern has it figured out – luck – and he may be right on and Robinson is just as shitty a manager as he believes. I just think that would show up in other ways, like Rosales refusing to return and warning his friend Montero to stay away or Manneh slagging him or some frustration and discipline problems in the dressing room but he appears as popular as ever and the team remarkably cohesive through thick and thin. Are these guys all idiots? You’d think Bolaños would know a thing or two. He’s playing here for a pittance.

So I’m still intrigued by the what’s happening. If it can only be explained by luck and it really is just a stinking pile of shit, so be it. It’s better smelling shit than last year.

The latest MLS power rankings article has this to say about SEA:

Seattle fans invented being upset during a 13-game unbeaten streak.

I think...

…the term persistent statistical anomaly will do just fine… As to what’s causing it, or how to maintain it… ya got me — no clue.

At what point do you stop saying an anomaly though and accept it for what it is?

I guess, technically, you can have both. But, what I mean is that maybe the Caps found a way to make their way of playing successful. It might be an anomaly. It might be that the West is quite poor this year. Or, it might be that they have found a way to make their style successful FOR THEM. Hard to tell.

They are unified ....

You can tell that they are all working very hard ….. as a unit. That really IS what soccer is about. And winning/drawing more than losing builds confidence ….. I have no problem with what the players are doing with the system they have been given. I just think they could do even better than they are playing a game that looks less beer league.

Forgive me...

…for going with another historical reference, but all of our greatest lessons necessarily lie in the past.

Ever hear of the Dutch tulip mania of 1637? In short, tulip futures became wildly popular, with speculation reaching a frenetic levels, and prices soaring to 20x nominal value for no fundamentally solid reason. Of course, the bottom fell out, in short order. History’s first economic bubble.

While not exactly the same situation as the Caps almost 400 years later, it’s still a reminder that on this mortal coil what goes up generally comes down — and that what goes up without any foundation absolutely comes down. This, of course, leads to the question of whether or not the Caps do indeed have a foundation for their "absurdity".

I believe that certain measurables are at least helpful in determining whether or not a soccer team is performing well. Time of possession not being one of them. Event-driven stats seem more useful, such as shots taken, shot differential, crosses completed, set pieces taken, etc.

But while it would appear at first blush logical that a team that musters more shots per game than an opponent would have a better shot at winning, this isn’t necessarily so. One has to account for the quality of those shots – taking accuracy, range, and power into consideration. A scrub can fire 100 shots at Ousted from 20 yards out, and maybe score once simply because the Dane got too bored to bother with the last attempt. A young Darren Mattocks could unleash a dozen shots from inside the box, and sky 10 of them into row GG.

As pointed out in a thread several weeks ago, game situation also needs to be taken into account. A desperate team trailing in the second half is going to push, and perhaps succeed in taking more shot attempts… but from how far out? And are they bona fide chances, or merely "snatches" at loose balls? Conversely, the desperate side could wind up actually giving up more shot attempts if their opposition can gain possession and break out quickly on the counter.

In isolation, the usual statistical metrics don’t appear to be overly helpful in judging soccer success — at least in the Whitecaps’ case. But I’m pretty confident that if the average Joe was given a data set corresponding to all the teams in MLS, but without team labels, he could rather successfully sort the top half of the league table from the bottom with a few exceptions. Actually, that sounds like an interesting exercise for the stat gurus here.

To close out a rather long-winded post, I suppose the real question is this: Does the statistical quirkiness of the Caps on paper necessarily mean that standard measures of soccer success are flawed? Or does it mean that there is some other contributing factor that we just haven’t identified?

I’ll wholeheartedly agree that the Caps have either figured out or stumbled upon a way to make their style successful. It just bugs me to no end that we can’t identify it.

I agree that various soccer stats have to be taken with large grains of salt, but IMO, that doesn’t make them useless. They are more or less useful depending on the context in which they are being considered. Possession, for example, is far from a perfect predictor of success, but the degree to which it’s imperfect isn’t the same if we’re looking at say one match vs. an entire season. And while I haven’t looked deeply, I’ve yet to see any meaningful attempts to quantify things like individual or team form.

yes, game situation is important, but....

Wouldn’t that then suggest that TFC should be low in many offensive categories because they are playing desperate teams trailing in the second half? I get the argument you are making, however, there are statistics that teams who are successful excel in. The Caps have been successful but are not good in those categories. To then say ‘oh well, it is game circumstances’ seems naive to me because the same argument can be made for other top teams. Yet, somehow, they do not have as poor of numbers as the Caps. So, where do we draw the line between game situation dictates and a team is not good at ‘X’?

I don’t think it’s a matter of drawing a line, which is arbitrarily binary, but rather of recognizing that we’re trying to differentiate between shades of grey, not black and white.

Game Situations do influence playing styles ....

But in reference to the Caps ….. just as an example ….. This Columbus game, the Caps were behind for a big part of the game, and Columbus still beat them in almost every statistical category ….. down the stretch, when the Caps were supposedly pushing for the equalizer, a game situation which should have dictated that the Caps would get the better of Columbus, were some of the worst statistical minutes the Caps played that game.

Detailed stats vs obvious stats

Interesting data, but perhaps the most telling stat is the points on the road. Only four teams have won 5 or more road games, and often these are done by playing a defensive, counter attack, eke out an ugly win style game – not necessarily attractive, but effective. Like "lucky" 4-0 win against Dallas

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