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Assessing the Vancouver Whitecaps and dead ball situations

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Atlanta United’s opponent this weekend provides for an interesting challenge

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Colorado Rapids Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

A different beast

On Saturday, Atlanta United host a Vancouver Whitecaps team that’s tall. It’s taller than Atlanta. Three inches taller on average. Vancouver was taller than Atlanta last year when it beat the Five Stripes 3-1 at home, courtesy of 2 corner kick goals. Six (38%) of Vancouver’s sixteen shots that day were headers (more than twice the long-run league average). And while that game was an outlier, generally this header/corner/set piece thing is a feature of Vancouver, not a bug. In 2017, a league high 25% of the giants’ shots came from corner situations or were assisted by free kicks.

Note: The good people over at AmericanSoccerAnalysis (@analysisevolved on twitter) allowed me to work with some of their shots and passing data for this post. Definitely check them out if you find this sort of thing interesting.

You hear about how tall they are and how Atlanta should be worried about dead ball situations, and this makes sense, but I wanted to peel back some of the layers to see if we could identify specific areas of concern.

Corners

In MLS, 84% of all corner kicks are sent directly into the box. On the low end of the spectrum you have Atlanta United who put 38% in (often choosing short corners instead), and at the high end, it’s Vancouver at over 96% (two other teams are above 90%). All-in, directly taken corner kicks result in shots 20% of the time, and these shots are converted into goals 7% of the time resulting in an overall trend of 1.4% of corner kicks ending up in the back of the net.

If we compare the visiting team’s output against these overall trends, we see that Vancouver aren’t really great at scoring directly off of corners. They generate shots directly on 17.5% of them (lower than average) and convert these shots at a dismal rate of 3.6% for an all in rate of scoring on 0.6% of directly taken corners. They scored 1 goal directly from a corner kick in 2017. The other 3 of their corner kick goals came indirectly (say off of a rebound or a flick on or a second phase opportunity). Annoyingly, two of these were scored against Atlanta United in 2017.

Atlanta for their part, weren’t incredibly effective at limiting shots from corners in 2017 so there’s that.

Conclusion: Vancouver aren’t actually monsters of production on corner kicks. Atlanta might do well to focus on second balls which tend to drop into the box after large people contest headers. If I were giving the instructions, I would institute a clear “clear first, ask questions later” directive. And given the height mismatches throughout the starting 11s, I might give Guzan broader authority to claim the first ball in this weekend.

Free kicks

Vancouver scored on a league-leading 10 free kicks in 2017, once directly at the foot of Christian Techera and NINE TIMES off indirect kicks, getting on the end of dangerous balls etc. Across the league as a whole, shots generated from free kick assists are converted into goals just under 12% of the time, but Vancouver in 2017 converted 24% of their shots assisted by free kicks, and before that in 2016 they converted 16%. Sample sizes in general around free kicks are frustratingly low, so you’d expect some variance here. But if we look at three year trends, only the Columbus Crew have a 3 year average conversion rate (at 21.4%) that exceeds Vancouver’s 17.5%, and the Crew appear to accomplish this in a unique way by generating an exceedingly low volume of shots directly from the free kick ball in (I need to look at it, but my guess is they go for flick-ons and the like). My point is, of the teams that routinely whip it into the box on set pieces with the aim of creating an immediate shot (take Columbus out), Vancouver is the odd team who converts at above average rates fairly consistently. And there doesn’t seem to be anything weird in how frequently they generate shots off of set pieces, around 28% of the time which is the league average. (sidenote: Atlanta also allowed a shot on 28% of free kick passes into the box in 2017, so that seems pretty normal). They don’t appear to be designing anything particularly crafty to create shots at a more efficient rate than the rest of the league. They’re just converting them, and this may very well be because they’re tall. And importantly for this weekend’s match, they got taller in the offseason by signing Kei Kamara.

Conclusion: Vancouver converts set pieces at above average rates. This is either low sample size noise, and they should regress to the 12% conversion rate mean, or they’ll continue to do well on free kicks cuz they’re f***ing tall. We should probably be scared of this.

Other notes while I’m here

While Vancouver hasn’t scored directly off of set pieces much so far this year, just last week, Kei Kamara got a penalty call for being hauled down in the box as a cross was coming in. So the threat is real.

But perhaps the more deadly threat is that of the counter. They’ve created shots twice and scored once off of “fast break” chances which are the rare extreme fast break situation in the game data. Given that this is the sort of dangerous play a possession team playing at home (like Atlanta) is susceptible to, Jeff Larentowicz will need to have a good day (and aided by the other central midfielders Darlington Nagbe and Miguel Almiron) in stopping fast breaks before they start, whether it’s by way of an effective counter press or some tactical yellow-card accumulating.

Also, just looking through the highlights of Vancouver’s two games thus far, I can’t help but notice that on the other side of the ball, the Whitecaps gave up tons of shots from wide service into the box against Houston, and appeared lucky to pull out the win. Smart square balls / cut backs from Gressel and others in wide areas could be very effective at creating quality opportunities for Martinez and Almiron in central areas.