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Are strikers Oscar Pareja’s Achilles Heel?

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Papi hasn’t gotten much from his forwards so far. Is this is his greatest weakness?

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

By all accounts, Oscar Pareja is one of the best coaches in MLS. In seven years of coaching in this league (two with Colorado and five with FC Dallas), he’s guided his teams to the playoffs five times. Pareja led his current team to a historic double, winning the Supporter’s Shield and the US Open Cup in 2016, has coached two Rookies of the Year, was the first and only coach to do back to back 60 point seasons, he was the 2016 MLS Coach of the Year, has the second most wins (78) in club history (behind Dave Dir’s 81), has the highest PPG for any coach in the last five seasons (1.68 points per game) and the list goes on.

FC Dallas did end their 2018 campaign on a four game losing slump (I blame it on Imagine Dragons), but any calls for him to be removed is just lunacy. Despite all those accolades and even rumbles of Pareja being considered for the USMNT job, there is one area that is concerning regarding his resume: strikers.

In his tenure as a head coach, he’s always found a way (#BuscaLaForma) to develop an elite MLS caliber player in every position or close to... barring the forwards. I’ll even throw leftback in there too, but nobody in this league has seemed to figure that out, so we’ll just call it even.

Jesse Gonzalez has flashed potential. Reggie Cannon, Walker Zimmerman and Matt Hedges at one point or another either are or were in the elite class. Carlos Gruezo, Michael Barrios, Fabian Castillo, Mauro Diaz, Kellyn Acosta all can be considered elite MLS players too.

The forwards though? Seems pretty sparse in comparison. In fact, here’s a look at the top goal scoring forward for each year under Pareja’s helm.

Pareja’s Strikers

Year Club Forward Goals Minutes G/90 xG
Year Club Forward Goals Minutes G/90 xG
2012 Colorado Omar Cummings 6 2000 0.27 7.41
2013 Colorado Deshorn Brown 10 2169 0.41 10.39
2014 Dallas Blas Perez 11 2061 0.48 8.88
2015 Dallas David Texeira 6 1402 0.39 3.68
2016 Dallas Maxi Urruti 9 2482 0.33 11.29
2017 Dallas Maxi Urruti 12 2749 0.39 9.8
2018 Dallas Maxi Urruti 8 2735 0.26 12.1

To be fair, Pareja has had other players step up and score double digit goals in the absence of an elite goal scoring forward. Example would be in 2015 when Fabian Castillo had 11 goals or in 2012 when Jaime Castrillon had eight goals out of the midfield position. So goals are coming from various sources, but when you look at the G/90 metric, only Blas Perez in 2014 did any of Oscar’s strikers come up to putting good/elite numbers in that category. (~0.5 G/90 is considered good.)

Even when you look at the xG metric, which helps judge whether a player should’ve scored or not, the highest that’s ever gotten was this year when Maximiliano Urruti managed to get to 12.1 xG. (Translation - based on his shot attempts compared to the rest of the league, Urruti should’ve scored 12.1 goals this season instead of eight.)

But it’s not that Pareja’s teams have under performed by much offensively as a team either.

Team Goals Scored Under Pareja

Year Goals Scored Goals Per Game League Goals Per Game
Year Goals Scored Goals Per Game League Goals Per Game
2012 44 1.29 1.32
2013 45 1.32 1.31
2014 55 1.62 1.43
2015 52 1.53 1.38
2016 50 1.47 1.41
2017 48 1.41 1.48
2018 52 1.53 1.59

With the exception of 2014 and 2015, this team has performed about on par with the league average. Not a damaging remark, but not something great either.

The “standard” claim is that you need a reliable 15-goal scorer at striker to make any noise in this league, especially if you’re trying to contend for the MLS Cup. I was fairly “meh” about that claim for a while, until I decided to do a little research and came up with this table:

Leading Forwards for MLS Cup Winners

Year Team Leading Forward Goal Scorer Goals Scored G/90 xG
Year Team Leading Forward Goal Scorer Goals Scored G/90 xG
2012 LA Galaxy Robbie Keane 16 0.57 15.4
2013 Sporting Kansas City Claudio Bieler 10 0.43 8.1
2014 LA Galaxy Robbie Keane 19 0.67 17.7
2015 Portland Timbers Fanendo Adi 16 0.67 13.9
2016 Seattle Sounders Jordan Morris 12 0.38 12.9
2017 Toronto FC Sebastian Giovinco 16 0.70 12.06

So with 2013 and 2016 aside, every team since Oscar Pareja entered into head coaching has had a player score at least 15 goals, and had a G/90 above 0.5. I still don’t think think it’s definitive, but at least it’s leaning that way that you do need some elite level striker to contend for the MLS Cup.

Does this mean Oscar Pareja should go? Absolutely not. If nothing else, the Hunt family needs to double down on Pareja. Is it possible Pareja isn’t as adept at developing a striker? Maybe. But it’s not like any of the past six MLS Cup winning strikers were developed by their head coach (with the exception of Jordan Morris and maybe Fanendo Adi). All of them entered their team as already established elite forwards capable of doing insane amounts of damage in front of goal.

Pareja is hailed as one of the best developers of young talent, perhaps he just needs more time for them to blossom. (Hey Jesus Ferreira and Bryan Reynolds.) Or, in order to win the Cup in this league, you need to go out and buy someone, which hasn’t worked out too well for FCD just yet. Dallas made that attempt by grabbing Maxi Urruti off waivers and then made a big splash of cash for Cristian Colman and neither have quite panned out exactly as many would’ve hoped.

In all honestly, I think we won’t know if this is indeed Pareja’s Achilles Heel for another 3-4 years and will be something I’ll be watching every year.