Bayesian MLS Best XI: Week 1


I’m going to do a little experiment with the 2017 MLS season. Bayes’ Theorem is both a statistical and logical technique for finding the most correct – or least wrong – answer based on probabilities. The prior position or probability, known as a Bayesian Prior if I recall correctly, is constantly updated with new information.

Throughout this season I will update my Bayesian MLS Best XI with the players that overtake any given position on the whole of the season to that point. I hope this results in eliminating some of my own biases in player evaluation. Attempting to take reputation out of the equation is dangerous because reputation can be a very good piece of information.

The formation for my Best XI will fluctuate based on who I think fits at the time. I think I’ll start with a 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3 hybrid. Once things get settled this season players will start to stake a claim to their spots.

By the time Week 34 rolls around things may look at lot like some of the consensus Best XI’s in the industry or it may look very different – for better or worse. My analysis will be fairly subjective, though much of that subjective evaluation will involve statistical analysis. A Best XI is an exercise in futility anyway.

Week 1

GK: Luis Robles (NYRB)

Plenty of keepers had good games this weekend and there were several shutouts. Based on my viewing, Robles was the best of the bunch despite giving up the first Atlanta United goal ever. You can see the Yamil Asad goal and the Josef Martinez save in the Garza section, but below is Robles’ save on Miguel Almiron’s break away.

Robles made some great point blank saves and Almiron possibly should have done better with his shot, but it was a difficult save regardless. I should let Bill Reno (@letsallsoccer) do the goalkeeper analysis, but there’s no way around putting in a keeper.

Honorable Mentions: Joe Bendik (OCSC), Tim Melia (SKC), Bill Hamid (DCU)

LB: Greg Garza (ATL)

Garza really intrigued me with his play this week, especially going forward. It wasn’t just on overlaps as expected but Garza worked his way into the middle of the field to assist in the final third as well. He was in the middle of the box on what became the first ever Atlanta United goal and cut inside on several occasions during build up play.

Garza did his work on the overlap by taking his defender on, getting the ball back into the middle, and had some great low crosses – I’m a fan of low, early crosses.

NYRB went Garza’s way a lot this game. Their heat map goes up the right side often but they didn’t get a lot of chances from all that work. Garza had eight combined tackles, interceptions, and blocks right in the heart of the right side that NYRB was favoring. Tie his work offensively into solid positioning on the defensive side and my first Bayesian XI has Garza at left back.

Honorable Mentions: Kemar Lawrence (NYRB), Justin Morrow (TFC),

CB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez (ATL)

Gonzalez Pirez was one of my favorite players this week despite getting subbed out in the 81st minute.1 The way I’ve chosen to do this – taking out reputation specifically – makes this next sentence a dangerous and hyperbolic statement. Gonzalez Pirez might be one of the better CB distributors in MLS right now.

Tata Martino’s style of building through the back gives extra opportunities to see what Gonzalez Pirez can do, but he took great advantage of those opportunities to showcase himself. On the Martinez shot above, Gonzalez Pirez delivers the first beautiful ball out to Garza on the overlap and he made the tackle that freed Almiron on his breakaway.

CB: Chad Marshall (SEA)

Yes, Seattle gave up two goals and Marshall had a dangerous tackle on Erick Torres just outside the box, but those things don’t necessarily eliminate Marshall from a great game – specifically the tackle on Torres. The tackle could have (should have?) resulted in a card and was dangerously close to the box, but it also was not in the box and it ended a dangerous attack allowing the defense to get ready for a set piece.

Marshall isn’t a big distributor, but he is dangerous in the air on both sides of the field and very disruptive defensively. I won’t claim to be a center back scout but I liked what I saw from Marshall’s game defensively despite the team loss.

Honorable Mentions: Joao Meira (CHI), Drew Moor (TFC), Laurent Ciman (MTL), Steve Birnbaum (DCU)

RB: Nick Lima (SJ)

Lima had a very good game offensively for San Jose though his shots were a bit wishful. The fact that a rookie right back had the desire to take those shots is a testament to his confidence and ability. However, this pick is for Lima’s defensive prowess.

Montreal didn’t manage a shot on goal the entire game and Ignacio Piatti – one of the most dangerous players in MLS was shut down almost entirely. The passing, dribbling, and shooting of Piatti were all held in check – to put it lightly – by Lima. That’s a great showing for the rookie. Below is Piatti’s actions in the game.

Ignacio Piatti: Week 1 Actions

Honorable Mentions: Nick DeLeon (DCU), Tyrone Mears (ATL)

LM/LW: David Accam (LM)

Chicago had a rough start to the season in the first 45 minutes against Columbus, but the second half flipped the script. Accam played both sides of the field, but focused on the left side until Solignac came in for Alvarez.

The speedy Ghanaian has a reputation for offense-only play and might be viewed more as a left wing, but he tracked back a decent amount in this game and connected well with his teammates. He predictably had five dribble attempts, completing two.

His game tying goal was hectic, but one of Accam’s strengths is creating confusion and throwing a defense into disarray with the speed and aggressiveness of his runs. It worked this time but this is a spot that will likely be up for grabs in the coming weeks.

Honorable Mentions: Justin Meram (CLB), Darlington Nagbe (POR), Mike Grella (NYRB)

CM: Kellyn Acosta (FCD)

Scoring goals is a major bias for anyone watching soccer. It’s not a negative bias all the time as scoring goals is an immensely important piece of winning games for obvious reasons.

I’ll do my best not to choose my midfield based just on goal scoring but I think Acosta and Godoy both had fantastic overall games while also contributing to their team’s goal scoring. Acosta’s game wasn’t as defensive as his reputation presumes, but part of unlocking his potential is showing that he can contribute in the final third and he did that in Week 1 with two key passes and the fantastic goal below.

CM: Anibal Godoy (SJ)

Godoy was all over the field and may have been the best player in Week 1. His movement on and off the ball was fantastic and limiting a team like Montreal – even if I think they’re due for a much tougher season than 2016 – is no small task.

Lima and the team were a big part of that, but Godoy pulled his weight. His passing was both controlled and incisive at times and he didn’t leave either side of the ball unattended. The chip shot goal was a thing of beauty starting with the steal, then the off-ball run, and ending with the shot.

Anibal Godoy: Week 1 Actions

Honorable Mentions: Sam Cronin (COL), Armando Cooper (TFC), David Guzman (POR)

RM/RW: Kevin Molino (MNU)

Dangerous choice here as Molino’s side ended up losing by four goals. I’ll explain more below but I think this was much closer to a 2-1 or 3-1 game on the whole. Another dangerous piece of this is that Molino was playing the #10 from the right wing and drifted heavily inside to be the playmaker. My team, my rules.

The loss doesn’t look good overall, but Molino was one of the lone bright spots of this team, which is good because Minnesota paid a king’s ransom to get him. He didn’t just focus on the offensive side of the ball as he tracked back to play both sides, but offense is where Molino shines.

Kevin Molino: Week 1 Actions

This is going to be a shaky perch for Molino as I am very unsure on this position, but for now he has the spot.

Honorable Mentions: Tommy Thompson (SJ), Jack Harrison (NYC), Sebastian Blanco (POR)

CAM: Diego Valeri (POR)

It was a little hard to pick many Timbers players despite a 5-1 scoreline for two reasons: I don’t know exactly what Minnesota United is yet (cuts down on my Bayesian information I can use) and it was more of a 2.5-1 game as Portland started to pick a lonely defense apart while they pushed forward to attempt to tie the game late.2

Valeri lead all players in Week 1 with 1.16 xG+xA,3 showing the dangerous side of his play against Minnesota. His quality wasn’t just from late game advantage either.

He worked well with newcomers Blanco and Guzman while pulling the strings all over the field. My favorite pass wasn’t included in the highlights and I searched a bit for a GIF of Valeri’s throughball to Blanco that resulted in a heavy touch but I failed. Here is Valeri’s headed goal instead.

Honorable Mentions: Benny Feilhaber (SKC), Sacha Kljestan (NYRB), Albert Rusnak (RSL), Clint Dempsey (SEA)

ST: Romell Quioto (HOU)

I was going to put Quioto on the wing, but I didn’t find a striker I particularly liked this week. Adi scored twice, which is worthwhile and can’t be taken away in the golden boot race, but they were both part of Minnesota pushing forward late in the game.

Quioto could fit as a striker or winger, but he definitely came in from the left side most of the match against Seattle. Quioto was consistently dangerous both staying wide and cutting inside to face the teeth of the defense.

The curler he scored near the top of the box was an audacious attempt, but Ozzie Alonso and Roman Torres were hesitant to close down on him and Quioto punished them for it. He didn’t have a perfect game – skying another opportunity earlier – but he was consistently dangerous which slots him in ahead of his competition for the time being.

Honorable Mentions: Fanendo Adi (POR), Jozy Altidore (TFC), Giovani Dos Santos (LAG)

  1. For injury or fitness issues it seems 

  2. This is almost entirely why I don’t have Adi and his two late goals as my striker. 

  3. Expected Goals plus Expected Assists – here 

About the author: Colby Rogers

Colby is the Editor-in-Chief, Founder and Lead Contributor to Other League. Also a law student focusing on Labor & Employment law and intersections with law and sports. You can find him on Twitter via @Colby_OL.