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Updating Atlanta United’s 2019 Outlook

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If you believe numbers are meaningful, the 10 game mark is a critical moment of the season.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at New England Revolution Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

A little over a month ago, after the monsoon game in Columbus, Atlanta United were sitting on 2 points through 4 games, and I was trying to forecast the rest of the 2019 season. I started stalling:

In order for the next 30 matches to look different from the first four, it’s going to really need to be the case that the team’s underlying performances to date were just not indicative of the team’s potential - that the team has faced headwinds that will not persist, that it was ill but will now recover, lost but will find its way. And this begs the question: well, what the hell are we talking about then?

It’s a tough question. My best guess is we’re talking about the unique confluence of the following factors, most of which could be temporary:

First, a new head coach and coaching staff seeking new team identity and play style: It is reasonable to expect this headwind to fade as the season progresses.

Second, the loss of the best player and creative hub from last year’s team: While it’s possible the team won’t fully recover from the loss of Miguel Almiron, it is reasonable to expect his replacement to find his footing more and more as the season progresses.

Third, fixture congestion in a period where the team should’ve been gelling around a new identity and coaching instructions: it is true that the additional CCL matches will not persist; however, MLS compressed the schedule in 2019 such that 15 of the remaining 30 matches will be played with less than 5 days rest. While fixture congestion is not necessarily going away, at the very least when two teams meet from here on out, they’re more likely to be on similar amounts of rest.

Part of what I was pointing out was the hard truth that it was not the case that Atlanta United were simply getting unlucky (at least through the first four weeks) or that given the team’s performances, the points were going to come in time. It was the opposite, that the underlying performances (while few and full of noise) painted a fuzzy picture of a worse than average team that looked poised to have a worse than average season, and that for this to not come to pass, there would need to be real reasons why the first four weeks should be thrown out.

Things start to come into focus right around now

Soccer is hard and so is predicting things, but standing here mid-May at the all important 10-week mark, it does appear as though the first four weeks weren’t representative of what was to come. And the performances to date being unrepresentative of the rest of the season was something that was much more likely to be the case after four weeks than after ten — where we stand now. A graph I shared in April illustrated the extent to which a few games at the beginning of the season contain just as much noise just as they do signal.

By the 10 game mark, a team’s expected goal difference per game, already a better predictor of future points than other metrics like points per game or goal difference, has swallowed up enough sample size to predict the rest of the season as well or better as any other metric likely will for the rest of the year (although because soccer is hard to predict, it will still be plenty wrong.

And this was perhaps more elegantly laid out by @thedummyrun the next day, taking it a step further to show that adjusting for the unbalanced home/away schedules early in the season gets you an added bump in predictive power while confirming the overall concept.

At any rate, the data suggests that A) MLS is noisy and there will always be weirdness (notice those correlation coefficients never even reach 0.5), but also B) the ten-week mark is kind of the sweet spot for when there’s enough performance data to start guessing at who’s good and who’s not before that uncertainty is ultimately resolved in autumn. Sidenote: the predictive power of all metrics plummets deep in the season as the number of remaining games left to predict gets smaller and smaller (which increases the noise).

Updating the 2019 season outlook after ten

Back to Atlanta, specifically. If the performances in the first four weeks pointed towards an over-matched team as the Stripes allowed a half a goal more worth of shots than they created per game, then the next four weeks pointed towards the opposite as Atlanta, very much starting to click, created over a goal more worth of shots per game than its opponents, even if the team lost just as often as it won during this stretch. It’s plausible that de Boer’s comments early on about the team needing to train in a new(ish) system more than once between games were not wrong.

Somewhere in April, looking at the shot output for and against, you started to really get the feeling that if this was the new normal, the points would follow. And they did. If before we were staring at the standings, squinting and thinking the team needed to turn its 0.5 points per game into 1.5 points per game to grab the last playoff spot, after ten, we’re probably thinking there’s room for the current 1.7 points per game to fall even as low as 1.3 over the rest of the season and everything to work out fine enough. After 10 games, the team sits 3rd in the East in points per game (having played the slightly favorable 6 games at home and 4 away) and Five Thirty Eight suggests Atlanta are 89% likely to make the playoffs, projecting the team will end on 56 points, good for 2nd or 3rd in the East.

The graph below shows you the points haul over the remaining 24 matches (Y axis) for every MLS team from 2011-2018 based on their underlying performances through the first 10 matches (X axis), and confirms that historically teams that look like Atlanta at the 10 match mark, do just fine:

Even at this stage in the season there will always be teams that are cruising and trip themselves up, but the more likely outcome is that teams who are out-creating their opponents go on to accumulate points.

For sure, watching the Orlando match just now gave me some pause. The lack of defensive pressure in the opponent’s half remains a more complicated aesthetic to stomach, and at times the midfield was carved up and passed around a little too easily for a defensive scheme that supposedly favors solidity over aggression.

We should probably walk this back slightly

There’s a legitimate argument that we haven’t seen the best of this team, and it’s a persuasive one, but I can’t help but notice there is a strong core of players who haven’t put a touch wrong in weeks. My list would include Josef Martinez, Ezequiel Barco, Darlington Nagbe, Miles Robinson, and the absolutely ascendant Julian Gressel. I would caution against extreme optimism, because if all those guys are basically perfect right now, there’s a chance that this is it, that this is what the thing looks like in top gear. Imagine the team gelling a bit more and Pity Martinez finding his happy place while one or two of these guys comes down to earth a bit. That to me feels like a good prediction - that the team continues at a 1.6-1.7 point per game pace and at best grabs the first round bye or falls just short, landing a home match in the first round.

The rest of May poses some difficult logistics with the team travelling to Vancouver and back midweek then to Salt Lake and back the next week - all while missing Ezequiel Barco to the U20 World Cup, but a positive run up to the Gold Cup break in June would put the team in a strong position, knowing that July and August bring some of the best competition in the league. As always, experiencing a normal volume of injuries (or better) will go a long way towards a nice season. Expect a run to a comfortable playoff berth to include points in bunches as well as droughts, and expect the reaction content during each of these periods to be... reactive and content.