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Hold Your Horses, Hungarian Cowboy

Szabolcs Schon is collecting assists like Silicon Valley tech bros collect NFTs – FCD’s winger problems are solved, right?

MLS: Austin FC at FC Dallas Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

I enjoy writing about outliers.

Szabolcs Schon, the Hungarian international has five assists (passes to a player who scores without giving up the ball in between the pass and the shot) from seven shot assists (passes to a player who shoots without giving up the ball in between the pass and the shot).* That is a crazy conversion rate – five of the seven shots he assisted were scored, more than 70%.

That’s much better than we’ve seen at FC Dallas in recent years. Tesho Akindele got four assists from 18 shot assists in 2016, the top conversion season of any real volume by an FCD player since 2012 at 22%. Fabian Castillo had seven from 34 in 2015. The two best creators of the last decade for FCD were Michael Barrios and Mauro Diaz: Barrios’ best season in this respect was 2017 when he wrung 12 assists from 62 shots, where Diaz’s best was 2015, when he collected 11 from 71. Schön’s rate is nearly bigger than the rates from those four seasons combined.

He’s not just lapping FC Dallas. If you look at every season played by every player in MLS, 2013-21, and just include players with more than five shot assists over the course of the season, Schön is top of the pile by a distance.

Should the fact that the records for larger and larger sample sizes are collapsing towards the teens concern you? Probably. The thing about assists is they don’t measure the actions of the player they are credited to. The only reason a shot assist becomes an assist is the shooter kicked the ball good enough that it made a goal. The assister’s action is the same regardless of what the shooter does. Over time, since assisters assist many different shooters, you’d expect the rate at which their shot assists turn into assists to move toward average, which is about 10%.

But wait, what if Schon is using his advanced understanding of space on the pitch and his impeccable decision-making to put teammates in exceptionally good spots, hence the outperformance? The good news is we’ve got a great tool to evaluate chance quality, it’s called expected goals, and it creates a nice subsidiary metric called expected assists – the summed chances that the shots a player assisted will turn into goals based on the location of the shots, the shots’ types (strong foot, weak foot, header, etc.), the number of players in the way, etc. See the below for the bad news.

Turns out, the shots Schon has assisted are extremely average by this metric. You’ll notice his dot is about in line with 0.1 xA, meaning we should expect about one goal for every ten such shots, or 10%, or almost exactly the league average.

Is it possible there’s something he does that the model doesn’t account for which explains his outperformance? In theory, perhaps. In practice, no. For context, in all competitions for Barcelona from the 17/18 to the 20/21 seasons, Lionel Messi got .185 assists per shot to assist compared to .157 expected assists per shot assist. If we assume Schön can make his shooters outperform as well as Messi could, we’d expect him to log about 18% more assists than expected assists. I’ll repeat the above: right now, Schön has 7x more assists than expected!

Let’s return to the idea that assists are more controlled by the shooter than the assister. What can the assister control? The volume and quality of shots that he assists. We just saw above that Schön’s shot assists are of very average quality. What about volume?

He is, along with every 2021 winger besides Freddy Vargas, near the bottom of the list of wingers to get significant minutes with FC Dallas since 2013, which is itself not a very illustrious list. It’s not just shot assists either – Schon’s a very active defender, and he’s reasonably good at dribbling, but otherwise, there is little in terms of output that marks him out as an even average MLS winger.

You might be asking, “why does this matter? Why can’t you just let us celebrate his success and what he’s done for the team?” First, please do celebrate all his success. No one’s going to take that away from him. Second, I’m concerned that there’s a complacency among the fanbase and coaching staff, and front office that Schon has “solved” FCD’s troubles on one of the wings.

Let’s say Schon starts at LW from the first game next year and plays basically every minute, about 3,000 in total for the sake of round numbers. At the rate he’s going, roughly one shot assist per game (again, for the sake of round numbers), he would log about 30 total shot assists for the season. If his assist rate collapses to his expected assist rate (the most likely outcome), that’s three assists for the full year, about half of what Fafa Picault would have been on pace for last season given the same minutes load.

Are there other parts of being a successful winger? Sure, but making shots for teammates is a really big one, especially when you’ve got an apex predator in the box as FCD does. None of FCD’s wingers (besides Freddy Vargas, who has other issues) are pulling their weight in this regard, and, especially if Jesus Ferreira cools down, that could translate to serious scoring droughts down the stretch in 2021.

Looking beyond this season, FCD has a reasonably full boat of wingers. Vargas may not be back, but Schon, Obrian, ElMedkhar, and Redzic all will. So too will Paxton Pomykal, though I hope we can all agree at this point that FCD needs to find a way to move him back into midfield ASAP. FCD’s first priority this offseason must be taking another shot at finding a pedigreed winger in the transfer market. I know that’s dispiriting to hear after years of the same thing, but, barring a radical uptick in form (which is possible – he’s young), Schön is not the answer for FCD on the wings.

*There’s some disagreement on this point. American Soccer Analysis credits him for the numbers above. FBref gives him six A and seven SA. MLS has six A and eight SA. It seems like the discrepancy in assists comes down to Pepi’s third goal against the Galaxy – FBref and MLS both count it as Schon passing to Pepi, but ASA doesn’t. There’s another shot assist somewhere that didn’t lead to an assist that ASA and MLS counted by FBref didn’t. It doesn’t change the analysis all that much, and ASA’s the most user-friendly database, so I’m sticking with ASA’s numbers for my purposes here.