MLS awards season is upon us! MLS announced the finalists for their EOY awards earlier today.
A few weeks back, I wrote about all the Revolution players with a chance to win an award this winter. Since then, voting has closed but the league hasn’t officially announced any winners. In the meantime, we’ve gotten a few trickles of information on how the votes might turn out. Over the past week or so, some media pundits have been releasing their ballots on twitter.
Just submitted my MLS awards ballot. Some really tough calls.
MVP: Carles Gil
GK: Matt Turner
Defender: Andreu Fontas
Newcomer: Ryan Gauld
Young Player: Ricardo Pepi
Comeback: Andy Najar
Coach: Bruce Arena
— Tom Bogert (@tombogert) November 8, 2021
This is just one example, and there are many others that look completely different. No ballot alone tells the whole story on how the voting will go down, so it’s best to take these picks with a grain of salt.
What I found more interesting than the content of the tweet was reading through the comments on this post, and those like it. It’s common on twitter to stump for your favorite player in the comments of tweets like this. It’s natural to want to vent your frustrations if you feel a player on your favorite team is being overlooked. Trust me, I can relate as a Revs fan.
What surprised me wasn’t the calls for Hany Mukhtar to get MVP, or Franco Fragapane to get Newcomer of the Year.
What surprised me was how much people thought Matt Turner had no business winning Goalkeeper of the Year.
Thanks for letting me know you stopped taking it seriously. A really important tweet and update, I had been wondering about that all day, if you were taking it seriously or not but now I know
— Tom Bogert (@tombogert) November 8, 2021
How should we analyze goalkeeper position?
The argument I saw in the comments here and elsewhere against Matt Turner’s candidacy essentially boils down to the following. He conceded a lot of goals. He didn’t keep clean sheets. He didn’t have a great save percentage.
That’s all true. Using these metrics, it makes total sense to rank guys like William Yarborough, Carlos Coronel, and Joe Willis miles ahead of Turner. In fact, Turner’s 5 clean sheets in 2021 is a full 8 behind the leaders in that category (a three-way-tie between the GKs mentioned above).
Matt Turner allowed the 9th most goals, t-12th most clean sheets, and had the 5th best save percentage. If you look at only these stats, it makes sense that people are annoyed that the New England netminder is getting as much awards-buzz as he is.
But, do clean sheets and save percentage do enough to tell the whole story? Taken alone, do they paint an accurate picture of what the best goalkeeper in the league looks like?
GA-xGA and why it’s an important stat for goalkeepers
You may have guessed the answer to those questions, perhaps by looking at the title of this post. No. Those stats, by themselves, don’t necessarily tell you which goalkeeper was the best.
Something we know about clean sheets, is that they are often more of a function of a great defense, as opposed to a great keeper alone. This doesn’t preclude a great goalie, but teams with lockdown defenses often allow fewer shots, or at least fewer high quality shots. The same could apply to save percentage and to goals conceded.
A stat that has gained traction for goalkeepers in recent years is GA-xGA, or ‘goals allowed minus expected goals allowed’. It’s a stat that assigns, to each shot, an ‘expected goal’ value. Basically it’s the likelihood that a shot from a certain location, with a certain trajectory, will go in (based on statistical modeling). Allow fewer actual goals than expected goals, and you’re in good shape as a goalkeeper.
GA-xGA is the stat that puts Matt Turner in the conversation.
MLS leaders in GA-xGA:
1. Andre Blake -7.71
2. Matt Turner -7.30
3. Maxime Crepeau -5.30
Yarbrough was at -0.46. That is the stat I *always* start with for GK of the Year. https://t.co/pK6gFmQQaa
— Tom Bogert (@tombogert) November 9, 2021
What this stat can provide, where the others fail, is it’s a more direct measurement of the goalkeepers influence on the game. The stat table, which can be found here, takes into account the ‘post-shot’ likelihood that a goal is scored. This is to say that the model takes into account whether or not the shot was on-target. Shots with better placement earn higher xG. A goalkeeper with a good GA-xGA is quite likely very good at saving shots that have a high likelihood of going in.
A history of excellence
Matt Turner is having a bit of a down season and it isn’t just that he’s allowed 35 goals this season. In 2021 he posted his worst GA-xGA number since 2018. His end of season GA-xGA number was -7.30. One way to read this is that he allowed 7.3 fewer goals than would have been expected, based upon the quality of shots he faced.
While this was a down year for Turner, it still ranked 2nd in MLS behind only Andre Blake’s -7.71! In fact….
Top ten seasons of GA-xGA :
Melia 2017 -10.62
Turner 2019 -8.68
Robles 2013 -8.15
Hamid 2014 -7.94
Turner 2020 -7.74
Blake 2021 -7.71
Clark 2019 -7.46
Frei 2018 -7.31
Turner 2021 -7.30
Rimando 2014 -6.81
Matt is an expected goals God.
— Revolution Recap (@RevolutionRecap) November 9, 2021
While it’s been well documented that Turner has undergone something of a slump this fall, his overall season numbers are good for the 9th best goalkeeping season ever recorded (since they started collecting GA-xGA). It may seem like a down year for him, but perhaps that’s more to do with how dominant he was in 2019-2020, as opposed to how poorly he played in 2021.
I think the GA-xGA argument shows why Matt Turner deserves to be in the GKotY conversation. It is sufficient to place him ahead of the Carlos Coronels and William Yarboroughs of the world, at least. What could catapult him to clear favorite is another advanced stat.
In the highlights above we can see Turner provide an absolute masterclass on shot-stopping. But, while keeping the ball out of the back of the net is the most important thing a goalkeeper does, it’s not the only thing. There’s more to being a good keeper than just being a good shot-stopper. The stats nerds at American Soccer Analysis understand this and that’s why they recently updated their famous G+ model to include goalies.
For those unfamiliar with G+, or “goals added”, it’s an attempt to use advanced analytics to assign a value to every action a player undertakes during a game. At it’s most basic, it endeavors to take all players and assign them a score based upon how they contribute to their teams likelihood to score or concede goals. Good players have high G+ values.
While GKs and field players may not be directly comparable, no goalkeeper has a higher G+ than Turner in 2021. In fact, no player has a higher G+ than Matt Turner.
Shot-stoppings is a huge part of that, but there are other metrics at play. These include how well he claims crosses, parries shots away from danger, intercepts/clears the ball. Turner does fairly well at all of those. He even scored 5th highest in the league at passing. This is interesting, since his biggest knock with the USMNT is his distribution.
With today’s announcement on EOY finalists from MLS, we know Turner has at least a 1 in 3 shot of winning Goalkeeper of the Year. I think with the data provided here, it at least shouldn’t come as a surprise if he goes out and wins it.
image credit: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images