The Revs lost their opening playoff match against the Philadelphia Union on Saturday. Even given the new (and weird) playoff structure in MLS, that still means it’s do-or-die time for the Revolution. Any playoff loss from here on will spell an end to the Revs season.
Perhaps, given how things have gone over the past few months, that may actually be a welcome occurrence.
Curious to see something.
Given how the last few months have gone and with coaching staff up in the air…
Would you feel a sense of relief if the #NERevs lost next Wednesday, ending their season? Or would you feel angry/disappointed with the result?
Comment why below.
— Andy From Revs Nation (@AndyRevsNation) November 2, 2023
About 59 percent of respondents to a poll saying they’d feel at least some relief if the Revolution lose their next game.
Whether or not New England are able to extend their playoff run on Wednesday, they certainly did themselves no favors in the first game of the series. Philadelphia was lethal scoring three goals in the first half giving the sense that the match had ended almost as soon as it had begun.
New England was able to pull a goal back in the second half, but that wasn’t nearly enough to make this one feel competitive.
Or wasn’t it???
After all, just going by the stats the Revs social media team posted after the game, you could be forgiven for thinking this was a fairly evenly matched affair.
— New England Revolution (@NERevolution) October 28, 2023
It’s worth noting that this is a sponsored post, that they put out after every game. So I don’t believe they’re trying to make any sort of commentary about how the game went. They certainly avoided the pitfall of adding commentary, this time around.
But that doesn’t make the content of the post any less salient. And to look at the numbers on offer, the Revolution come away looking… sort of alright! More possession, more corners, more crosses, more shots on goal than Philadelphia. So what gives?
Let’s break down some of these stats and talk about how useful, or not, they may be for soccer analysis.
Stat 1: Possession
The impulse to use possession as a way to determine how a game went is a straightforward one. Teams that control the ball, control the flow of the game. In a way it makes sense that if you possess the ball you’re more likely to score and less likely to concede.
In fact, 6 of the 7 highest possession percentage teams in the English Premier League finished as the top 6 teams in the league table last season.
But MLS isn’t the EPL, or Bundesliga, or anywhere else for that matter. The teams are more evenly matched, by design, meaning that ball-dominant teams aren’t always talent-dominant teams. Of the top 10 highest possession teams, only 6 made the expanded playoffs this season. Two of those teams, Charlotte and Kansas City, were only good enough to squeak into by way of the play-in round.
If anything, it seems as though the Revs perform slightly better when they have less of the ball.
Furthermore, season-long stats aren’t the same as single game stats. In a single game, you aren’t merely concerned with play-style, or talent. You need to take game states into account. It’s better to cede possession to an opponent while leading, and worse while trailing. I suspect that was at play in Philadelphia, where the Union took an early and insurmountable lead.
(More) Interesting Sub-Stat 1: Passing Distances
While it’s certainly likely Philadelphia took their foot off the gas for much of the second half it was interesting to see how the Revs went about creating and holding possession.
New England had their 4th highest number of completions all season, and their highest passing completion percentage of the year at 88%.
Digging a bit deeper, we may notice that they only had their 16th highest total passing distance (out of 35 matches). That’s very middle of the road, considering the total passing volume for New England in this one.
The obvious conclusion is that New England was taking lots of relatively short passes and very few long ones.
And, well, that’s exactly what the data says. They took 261 passes of 5-15 yards against the Union, the most of any game this season. Meanwhile, they attempted just 51 passes of over 30 yards. That’s the second fewest of the year.
Losing Carles early in the match almost certainly didn’t help, but the passing distance seems to paint a picture of a team that tried to play tighter, more methodical soccer. Unfortunately the end product wasn’t quite there.
Stat 2: Crosses
Crosses has always been an interesting stat to me. Primarily because, they’re such an inefficient method for scoring goals. Depending on the source, it may take as many as 64 crossing attempts for an average team to convert one to a goal.
It’s inclusion in the Revolution’s original tweet may serve to protect the narrative that New England was more or less evenly matched with the Union. After all, the Revs had slightly more crosses than Philly (14-12). However, it really more directly serves as an indicator of possession, and of play style.
(More) Interesting Sub-Stat 2: Cross Success Rate
New England had more crosses than Philadelphia, but how did each team do with those crosses? Per Fotmob only 3 of those crosses (21%) found a teammate. So while Philadelphia had fewer crosses, their 42% cross accuracy is a more telling stat.
Per fotmob, the Revs complete 3.8 crosses per match. They have a 21.5% cross success rate in 2023. That’s tied for the lowest success rate in MLS. Part of that may be due to losing Brandon Bye over the summer, but another factor may be who are the targets of those crosses.
— Seth (@SethMan31) October 1, 2023
Without an aerial threat at center forward, New England has seen many good crosses go wanting.
During their most successful season they completed 6 crosses per match (nearly double as many as in 2023), with a much better 26.9% success rate. However, that was when they had one of the best aerial center forwards in the league in Adam Buksa.
Stat 3: Shots-on-Goal
Can’t score if you don’t shoot, and more specifically shoot at the goal.
That’s it… that’s the analysis.
This is actually perhaps the most informative stat the Revs provided in their post game tweet. Taking more shots than your opponent (and the rate at which you do so) strongly correlates to team points.
But ‘shots-on-target’ doesn’t account for a few things. A) It doesn’t account for the quality of the shot and B) it doesn’t consider the skill of the goalkeeper.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) October 28, 2023
New England put 6 shots on target against Philadelphia. Real Salt Lake was the best in MLS this season putting 5.59 shots-on-target per match, so it’s fairly good output from the Revs. Furthermore, 4 of those were within the penalty area.
Sometimes they just don’t go in.
(More) Interesting Sub-Stat 3: xG and Non-Penalty Goals Above Expectation
But the quality of shots matters. The Revs only generated 1.12 expected goals on their 6 shots-on-target, while Philadelphia turned their 4 SOT into 2.52 xG. Their penalty kick is doing a lot of the heavy lifting, but take it out and they managed to get 1.73xG from just 3 shots. Those were much better looks than New England was getting.
Getting high quality chances has been something of a struggle for New England, who had a relatively pedestrian 1.25xG/90 in 2023. That’s just the 16th highest rate in MLS this year.
The Revs have, however, done well at keeping their shots on target.
They have the fifth highest ratio of on-target shots/attempt in MLS. They’ve also been (comparitively) great at converting those shots-on-target into goals with the second highest ratio of goals to SOT in the league.
Whether by ‘luck’ or ‘skill’, they managed to outperform their xG by the 3rd highest rate in MLS. Per FBref, the Revs scored 11.7 more goals than they were expected to, given the quality of chances they had.
Where they perhaps fell short, in some ways, was that they didn’t shoot more.
After all — you can’t score goals if you don’t shoot, and more specifically shoot at the goal.
Photo courtesy of the New England Revolution