From year to year, teams rarely stay the same. Some may stay remarkably similar in terms of their on-field style and even in terms of their underlying numbers, but most teams have at least some sort of ebb and flow from one season to the next.
That’s certainly true in MLS.
So far in 2021, a handful of teams have drastically improved their underlying numbers from last year to this year. With the help of Second Spectrum’s data, I wanted to use my column this week to give some credit to three clubs that are on the rise.
Let’s get into it.
D.C. United struggled in their final year under Ben Olsen. They gave up the seventh most open-play expected goals (xG) per game last year (1.36) and only put together 0.74 xG per game themselves, which was second-to-last in the league. They also tended to defend deep in their own half and rarely won the ball while pressing high up the field.
After ending the Olsen era and hiring Hernan Losada, we’ve been treated to an entirely different D.C. United. The 39-year-old Argentinian manager has revitalized the Black-and-Red.
You can see that revitalization in the Eastern Conference standings. In 2020, D.C. finished 13th in the East, with the joint second-lowest points total in the entire league. Heading into Week 25, D.C. are sixth in the East and are only three points outside of fourth place.
You can also see D.C. United’s revitalization in their statistics. They’re averaging the seventh most xG per game in the league (1.23) and they’re allowing the third fewest xG per game (0.85). Those are both remarkable reversals from their 2020 xG totals.
It’s not just the xG that’s looking up, either. Under Losada, D.C. have become an incredibly aggressive and effective pressing team. D.C. United are currently fifth in terms of team presses per game in the final third (13.1), up from 11.4 last year. And when D.C. press, they end their opponents’ possessions quickly. They have the shortest time between their high-presses and the end of the opponents’ offensive possession in MLS with 5.8 seconds, which is much more efficient than their 10-second figure from 2020.
By solidifying his team’s work in the defensive phases and subsequently giving them an attacking foundation, Losada has D.C. United playing some truly impressive soccer – and his team has the ability to continue pushing higher up the Eastern Conference standings.
Gary Smith’s Nashville SC just keeps on chugging along, don't they? Second in the Eastern Conference, they’ve only lost once in their last 15 games and twice all year. Smith’s midseason change from a four-at-the-back shape to a three-at-the-back setup certainly helped MLS further its trend towards more three center back formations (which I wrote about last week), but it has also apparently helped his team improve upon their expansion season.
Last season, Nashville were a strong defensive team and a relatively poor offensive team. They only allowed 1.0 xG per game, which was sixth in the league, but they also only created 0.94 xG per game for themselves, which was 22nd in the league.
This season, Nashville have kept up and even improved their already impressive defensive work – and they’ve boosted their attacking production as well. In 2021, Smith’s squad has only allowed 0.74 xG per game, which is the best total in MLS over the last two seasons. And looking at the attack, Nashville are 11th in MLS in xG this year with 1.18 per game.
To recap: Nashville’s defensive numbers in 2021 are even better than they were in 2020 and their offensive numbers are significantly better, too. Nashville’s primary attacking methods aren’t all that aesthetically pleasing at times – they’re third in MLS in xG created from crossing per game and third in xG created from dead-ball situations – but it’s hard to argue with their effectiveness.
Nashville SC aren’t all about brute-forcing their attacks, though.
Playmaker Hany Mukhtar has looked much more like a Designated Player this year than he did in 2020. In 2021, Mukhtar is creating shots at a higher rate than he did last season and is also finding more dangerous shooting positions in the attack. Only six players in MLS have more xG than Mukhtar this year and only six players have more goals.
With Mukhtar’s increased production and his team’s improvement around him, Nashville SC could be very hard to beat – both in the final stretch of the regular season and in the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs.
CF Montréal were in a difficult spot. With the regular season less than two months away, Thierry Henry had just resigned as their manager. The club needed a replacement and they needed one quickly.
Enter: Wilfried Nancy.
A longtime member of the club, Nancy had coached in Montréal’s academy before joining the first team as an assistant in 2017. Officially taking over as head coach of the senior team on March 8, Nancy has improved CF Montréal in a number of different areas.
Under Henry, Montréal lacked defensive stability. They allowed 1.38 xG in 2020, which was the fourth-worst total in the league that season. This year, that number is down to 1.09 xG allowed per game. In terms of their pressing efficiency, Montréal were the third-worst team in MLS last year, only winning the ball within five seconds of applying pressure 37.8% of the time. This year, that number is up to 40%. When Montréal are back defending in their own third, they’ve also become better at keeping the ball in front of them. They've had fewer defenders bypassed per possession in their own defensive third this year (0.8) than they did last year (0.93).
Offensively, Montréal have seen an uptick in their attacking numbers under Nancy. Their xG per game is up from 0.95 in 2020 to 1.11 in 2021, they’re receiving more passes between the lines, bypassing more defenders themselves and moving the ball into the box and Zone 14 more than last season.
Montréal aren’t a perfect team at this point in their lifecycle – they aren’t consistently effective on set pieces, they lack a consistent goalscorer and they can still improve their defensive work as a team. Still, it’s worth looking past their imperfections to see just how much Montréal have improved from 2020 to 2021 with Nancy at the helm.