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Statistical tidbits from the 2020 USL League One season

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To start the offseason, we dive back into the most important numerical vignettes from 2020.

The 2020 season is over and North Texas SC is already bringing in trialists for 2021 to train with the squad during post-season work. Ever onward, I suppose.

Below, I will examine NTSC’s 2020 season through a statistical lens. While not exhaustive (trust me, you don’t want exhaustive), this analysis is intended to highlight certain outlier pieces of evidence that can tell us something about certain players or how the club and team is run as a whole. There’s not a lot of structure to these various tidbits – it’s just a grab-bag; a metric potpourri, if you will. Hopefully you find something that piques your interest.

Last season, playing time with North Texas SC among Academy players was largely reserved for a select few players who were “hitting their head on the ceiling” of the competition level that the Academy could offer. In 2020, with movement between teams within the club restricted by pandemic concerns, that trend continued: Academy involvement (as measured by the percentage of NTSC production generated by Academy players) was flat season-on-season. On the other hand, the contributions of FC Dallas players dropped by 10 percentage points and was replaced almost entirely by a greater reliance on players contracted to NTSC. Even in the midst of a pandemic, the club’s commitment to balancing its various roles of player development remains steady.

As a brief aside since it’s relevant here, Justin Che was named All-League First Team and a finalist for the Young Player and Defender of the Year awards. While it’s hard to deny that Che was a bulwark of the team throughout the year, even at the end of a season with a ton of improvement he wasn’t traditionally dominant. There’s much work to do adding play-by-play consistency and, frankly, gaining weight. All that to say: miss me with your “post-season awards prove another year with NTSC would be a waste for him!” takes when it’s March and he’s starting for NTSC again. Unless FCD can find him a slam-dunk loan at a higher level, where a lot of playing time is certain, I’m totally fine with him spending next year in USL1. You can read about a bunch of Che’s stats here.

Perhaps because of the lower overall level of the league, NTSC continues to realize a higher level of FCD’s preferred style of play than the first team. They hit 24% more passes at a higher accuracy (82% vs 77%) than their opponents, with a smaller portion of those passes traveling a long distance (14% vs 18%). NTSC attempted 35 passes for every one time they were intercepted by their opponents, but intercepted their opponents once every 27 passes. This was high-level possession soccer, but, as we’ll learn about in a moment, it was possession with a purpose.

Because the events that determine outcomes in soccer (ie: goals) happen so infrequently, it’s pretty easy for a mediocre team to put together a strong run of performances and end up near the top of the table, especially in a shortened season. That was not the case with NTSC. They significantly outshot their opponents, with the deficit widening as you sort for shots closer to goal. Metrics like clearances and corner kicks that hint at possession in dangerous areas strongly favored NTSC compared to their opponents. This was a very good team for the level. Eric Quill keeps delivering the goods.

Collin Smith hit 37 crosses this season for NTSC. On a per 96 basis, that’s a little more than five crosses per game, more than a cross per game above the second most prolific crosser on the team and essentially tied for the league lead. He was not efficient with that volume, however. Among the top 25 players in crosses per 96 (min. 10 crosses) in USL1 in 2020, average crossing accuracy was 26%. Only two players were below 20% - Smith and Tucson’s Derrick Silva, both near 16%. Smith builds his game around a very familiar formula: use a combination of pace and spatial awareness on the wing to gain a step and put in service. In 2020, those crosses just weren’t effective enough. He’s got homework this offseason.

If you were expecting reigning MVP Arturo Rodriguez to slow down after going through a disappointing loan with the Real Monarchs, holy cow were you wrong. In 2019, along with Pepi, Damus, and his younger brother, A-Rod was one of nine players with above four combined shots and shot assists per 96 minutes. He was, by a distance, the best chance creator in the league by volume last year. All he did in the second half of 2020 was better his 2019 mark by a full shot / shot assist per game, leading the league comfortably. Although, selfishly, I wouldn’t hate seeing him stick around NTSC for a few years, A-Rod has proven himself over again at the USL1 level. Hopefully someone higher up the pyramid takes a chance on him this offseason.

Checking back in on my beginning-of-the-season predictions

You can find the full set of original predictions here. My hit rate was, as you will see, not good. This is a long and wordy section – maybe not the best for you, reader, but useful as a tool of public accountability for me.

  1. I predicted that someone would play every minute for NTSC and that at least four players would play 90% of available minutes. In my defense, the predictions were made assuming NTSC would not get any FCD players because of quarantine procedures. Instead, NTSC tied with Fort Lauderdale for the most different players with minutes in the league (28). Neither prediction worked out – Justin Che fell 13 minutes short of the Iron-Man, and only he and Waldeck cleared the 90% hurdle (Avilez and Alisson were next closest with ~75%).
  2. I predicted David Rodriguez would comfortably lead the league in combined shots and shot assists. Instead, Thomas Roberts played 3/4ths of the season with NTSC and D-Rod rode the bench for most of the time. Tormenta’s Marco Micaletto had 62 such actions, leading the league. On a per-96 basis, he performed in the middle of a pack of players with 4.5-4.7 such actions, but, a full 0.6 above the rest (with at least 360 minutes played) stood last year’s champion and MVP, Arturo Rodriguez, with 5.3.
  3. I predicted Gibran Rayo would lead NTSC in fouls drawn. Instead, Ronaldo Damus pretty much ran away with that award. Rayo finished tied for 3rd, around Damus, Smith, Roberts, Redzic, and a few others with a little more than two fouls won per game. League-wide, FTL’s Eduardo Sosa was far-and-away the most fouled player, earning nearly five fouls per game.
  4. I predicted NTSC would finish in the middle third of the league in goals allowed per game, and … wait a second … I was right? Huh. New feeling. NTSC let in ~1.2 goals per game, 5th in the league, after recovering from being the worst defense in USL1 through the first half of the season.
  5. I predicted that after 10 games, five of the top six teams in the table would be independent clubs. Lo and behold, after each team had played 10 games, the top five were independent clubs and the three-way tie for sixth was between NTSC, Fort Lauderdale, and FC Tucson (who were still an affiliate of Phoenix at the time). Another win!
  6. I predicted that Fort Lauderdale would finish with < 0.7 PPG, challenging OCB’s low-water-mark from their first year of 0.57. FTL finished with 0.94 after fading down the stretch. I should have just ridden the horse that carried us here – OCB finished 2020 with a mind-bendingly horrible mark of 0.4 PPG.
  7. I predicted that there would be > 2.5 goals scored per game in the 2020 season. There were 2.55 goals scored per game. Swish.
  8. I predicted that South Georgia Tormenta would lead the league in combined goals scored and goals allowed per game. Instead, Tormenta’s offense scuffled and it was Fort Lauderdale that led the standings at 2.94. NTSC finished a close second at 2.88 on the strength of its offense.
  9. I predicted that there would be an increase in yellow and red cards per game compared to 2019. Instead, there was a reasonable decrease year-on-year to 4.1 such events per game, down 0.2 from 2019.
  10. For hardware, I was wrong across the board except in predicting that Greenville would run away with the league, which they did.