Finding the best under-25 centre-forwards in the USL 2019/20 season – data analysis
European football and American football has been brought back into action with the likes of Premier Leauge, Champions League, and Europa League coming into action and nearing their termination.
In the US, the MLS Is Back Tournament was recently concluded with the Portland Timbers picking up the trophy. Various youngsters are rising up from MLS and for some, their talent has been enough for them to make the move to Europe. Miguel Almirón is one such example who moved to Newcastle United from Atlanta United. Another one – Diego Rossi is rumoured to leave for the Premier League.
One league that has rather gone under the radar and yet promises big talent is the USL. The league below the MLS, the USL is a competitive league with free-flowing football – or should one say soccer. In recent years, we’ve seen big clubs sign players from lower leagues with success. Kostas Tsimikas’ signing for Liverpool from Olympiakos is a recent sign of this. West Ham were targeting Wigan Atheltic full-back Antonee Robinson for many days only for the American to set sign to Sheffield United.
Before we start on our analysis journey, there are a few contextual reminders to take note of.
First of all this data analysis report is supposed to narrow down our scouting options and as such, it is not the be-all-end-all of analysis. My attempts will be to use data to narrow forwards to those who show the most promise.
Second of all, I am analyzing forwards under the age of 25 and will be considering every forward who has played more than 900 minutes to minimize the impact of inflation
In addition, I recognize that not every centre-forward is the same. As such, I will be analyzing shooting statistics to find the more goal-hungry forwards and attacking passes to find the more creative forwards.
Analyzing goal-scoring forwards through shooting metrics
Many centre-forwards who score many goals need to land themselves in the box many times and shoot from there successfully. The best forwards like Timo Werner, Robert Lewandowski, or Harry Kane have done this to an exceptionally high standard. With this in mind, let’s analyze strikers and their performance in the box.
Here we see touches in the box per 90 on the x-axis which informs the performance of strikers in coming inside the box. Those who come inside the box often have more chances at the goal and as such, we see a normal positive correlation.
I have plotted the size of the dots as the percentage of shots these strikers get on target. Immediately, four centre-forwards stand out. Frank López from OKC Energy FC, Ropapa Mensah from Pittsburgh Riverhounds, Tom Barlow from Red Bulls II, and Danny Musovski from Los Angeles FC are the main outliers.
Mensah, Barlow, and Musovski record the highest touches per 90 with Barlow and Musovski recording the highest shots per 90. Barlow in particular records the highest accuracy rate followed by Mensah. Finally, López records fourth in both metrics but is still high enough to consider him as a high outlier.
The next step is to have a look at xG and xA per 90 for the same forwards. Immediately we see a clear distinction in how the forwards are distributed. On the far right end, you have the pure goal-scoring forwards. This cluster includes Barlow – who shows deviation from this cluster by also being really high up on the y-axis – Carlos Small (on loan to Rio Grande Valley FC), Mathias Jørgensen from New York RB, and Musovski all have more than 0.65 xG/90 which is a very high statistic.
Looking at the y-axis, we see strikers who are inclined more towards creativity. Kevaughn Frater – currently in India for Bengaluru FC – was the most creative forward with Mensah, Orlando Sinclair (from New England II), and Barlow all record 0.15 or more xA/90. While this is rather low when seeing the whole spectrum, in the context of strikers, these numbers indicate above-average creativity.
With this distinction clear, let’s dive into shooting statistics to find the best goal-scoring centre-forwards in the USL from last year.
In this nuanced look, I am measuring through five metrics. On the x-axis is the metric volume which is composed of shots per 90 and shots on target percentage and touches in the box. In essence, I calculated the shots on target and divided it by the touches in the box per 90 to find how many shots on target these strikers are taking for every one touch in the box per 90. This gives us an insight into how voluminous these strikers are.
On the y-axis, I calculated finishing by subtracting xG per 90 from non-penalty goals per 90. This gives us an idea as to how these strikers performed in relation to xG – under or over-perform. Most good strikers over-perform their xG but not by a huge amount – that over-performance is rather unstable.
Small, Wilson Harris, and Bradford Jamieson record some of the highest shots on target per each touch. However, Harris and Jamieson rather overperformed on their xG per 90 but a huge amount. On the flipside, Small, Niki Jackson, and Brian Wright had some of the highest under-performances.
In addition to these notable names, I had a look in the centre where players either over or under-performed by a little amount and recorded them.
While that graph showed us who was good at being voluminous and finishing well, this graphic shows which strikers actually got in goal-scoring positions and then finished those. Barlow pops up as the best striker in these metrics with the highest xG/90 and similarly high non-penalty goals per 90
Below Barlow lie Musovski, Small, and Jørgensen all form the outlier cluster with the highest xG per 90 yet only Musovski performs in accordance with his expected statistics. Other notable names include Douglas Martínez who had the second-highest non-penalty goals per 90 while being average in the expected metrics.
Finally, in this section, we’ll analyze how progressive forwards are. Progressiveness in one’s game can come through with passes or carrying the ball and going on a run. This graphic measures both and shows us the different dimensions in which we might find our strikers.
Up at the top lies Tabort Etaka Preston who records the highest progressive runs – carrying the ball over some distance to attack – in the league at almost 2.75 runs per 90. Derek Gebhard comes up second in that metric recording 2.36 of such runs per 90.
On the horizontal axis, Sinclair and Fredinho Mompremier record the highest progressive passes – attacking the opposition with passes that advance the team by a significant amount. Sinclair records almost 5 of such passes with Mompremier recording closely with 4.37 of such per passes per 90.
In the intersection of these two metrics is Frater who records a high amount of progressive passes per 90 but also a high number of progressive runs per 90 showcasing a strong case for why he ranked so highly in xA/90 among USL centre-forwards.
Analyzing creative forwards through passing metrics
We’ll start our analysis of creative forwards by analyzing passes to the final third and penalty area. These two metrics shed a lot of light of which forwards are making the critical pass into the opposition area which often are the key in breaking stubborn defences or leading to an assist.
In these two metrics, we see some familiar names – namely Sinclair and Krater. Both of these forwards record very high final third passes per 90 with high passes to the penalty per 90 as well. Right behind in them is Jamieson who performs excellently in the passes that lead to the final third but is rather sub-par in the pass to the penalty area.
Tabort Etaka Preston and Mensah record some of the higher passes to the penalty per 90 while having rather average passes to the final third per 90.
As good as these measures are, they don’t tell the how of these passes – how do these centre-forwards record such creativity and is there some nuance there?
To answer those questions, we’ll start first with crossing play. Crosses seem counter-intuitive to centre-forwards but in various systems, centre-forwards are required to switch positions and play on the wing. As such, this analysis will pick those strikers up.
In crossing play, I have charted total crosses per 90 and then crosses to the goalie box per 90. These two metrics tell us which crossers are voluminous and then which crossers are really dangerous with their crosses. However, not all crossers cross in the goalie box per 90. Many like to create through cut-backs and low crosses.
To account for this, I have shown deep completed crosses per 90 – crosses that put their teammates within 20 meters of goal – in the size of the dot. This metric allows us to record these clever cross combinations.
Considering all those variables, we see that Tabort Etaka Preston – his name coming up as P. Tabortetaka – is the best crosser among his forwards. With 3.6 crosses every game and 0.7 of them going every game, Preston is a very high volume crosser. While he doesn’t record many entries to the goalie box, Preston primarily likes to create through cleverer combinations like short crosses, low crosses, and cut-backs.
Next, we’ll have a look at incisive passing – measured through smart passes and through passes. Smart passes are those passes that advance the attack of the team considerably while through passes put a man through. In this metric, Sinclair stands out again with the highest smart and through passes in the league. Close by stands Faris Moumbagna with Frater standing in some distance.
In our final creative measure, we’ll look at general passing and incisiveness. Here we have passes and forward passes per 90 – two metrics where Sinclair dominates again by quite a distance. Close by is Frater who has consistently shown to be one of the more creative forwards in the league.
However, not all forward passes produce quality. Some forward passes are at times wasteful and don’t contribute anything. To account for that, I have shown deep completions – passes that put players within 20 meters of goal – as the size of the dot. This helps us bring perspective into the forwards’ passing game.
To no one’s surprise, Sinclair and Frater’s dots are the largest indicating that they actually provide incisiveness with their progressive passing. Nearby Frater is Mensah who shows himself to be very similar to Frater in these metrics.
At this stage, we’ve had a very exhaustive look at USL forwards from last year. It is now time to pick the best forwards in both categories and have a summarized look as to why they are the best.
Selecting the best centre-forwards in the USL
We’ll start from the most recent section and pick the best creative forwards.
The best creative forward in the league last season was Orlando Sinclair who repeatedly stood out in various creative attacking metrics such as progressive passes per 90, passes to the penalty area, deep completions, and through passes per 90. All these qualities make Sinclair a very incisive and effective centre-forward. At the age of 22, Sinclair is a very promising talent and MLS teams should be looking at him
Coming in close is Kevaughn Frater who ranked right behind Sinclair in many metrics. While Sinclair was involved in the pre-buildup at times, Frater’s creativity comes in the end product as evidenced by the fact that he had the highest xA/90 in the league. Boasting slightly more incisiveness than Sinclair, Frater is currently at Bengaluru FC in India. However, at 25, USL clubs who require a creative personality should look to Frater.
Finally, Tabort Etaka Preston is another creative forward who adds his magic through more direct measures like carrying the ball and crossing. Preston popped up as the forward who would offer the most progressive runs and in addition, crossed the most. In these crosses, he was first in crosses that go to the goalie box and deep completed crosses making him a super threat from the wings. At only 22, Preston is very much ready to be the wing outlet that many teams need.
Next up, we’ll look at the best goal-scoring forwards.
Daniel Ríos ranked as the best goal-scoring forward in the league. In our attacking graphs, Ríos did not show up as the outlier but that was mainly due to the fact that he played a lot of games which diluted his per 90 statistics. However, looking at those metrics with this nuance, one starts to see Ríos’ quality. Last year, Ríos was the top-scorer with an xG of 17.82 and 21 goals. He recorded 108 shots and looking at his finishing, it is one of the more stable finishing in the league. No wonder he is the main striker of Nashville SC last season and Nashville MLS this season.
Right below Ríos is Tom Barlow who, while only scoring 11 goals, recorded some strong underlying metrics. With an xG of 10.52, Barlow was right up there among the more prolific-scorers and recorded high touches in the box, shots on target, and stable finishing. At 25, Barlow is now going into his prime so expect him to score even more goals.
Another prime centre-forward is Daniel Musovski. Analyzing through goals, Musovski seems not an influential striker with only 10 goals from an xG of 9.59. However, as seen through the data analysis, Musovski repeatedly comes out top in metrics like finishing, arriving in the box, and taking shots. While San Jose Earthquakes might have released him, Musovski was signed by Los Angeles FC for 2020 – a testament to his ability as LAFC are the best attacking side in the MLS right now.
We’ve seen the best creative and goal-scoring forwards in the USL through data analysis and statistics. In the process, we unearthed some diamonds like Ríos and other unpolished gems like Musovski. With more and more interaction between MLS and the USL, the USL represents a league littered with a hidden talent. If mined intelligently, the USL can be to the MLS what lower leagues have been to European super-clubs in terms of scouting.