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Opta Scouting Real Salt Lake

Real Salt Lake and Seattle Sounders FC played seven matches in the Opta data era. What light do the new data collection and display tools teach us about the way these teams play each other?

From 2009 to the present there are 12 previous meetings between Seattle Sounders FC and Real Salt Lake. One of those matches was an Open Cup Qualifying match and the other 11 were in MLS play. One could watch all of those games to scout Salt Lake. It would merely take 16 and half hours. Or one could use the chalkboards available through Opta and MLSSoccer.com. A full seven of the matches between the two MLS Cup Playoff opponents are available through that system and there are some patterns that can be learned.

Take the last match when, here in Seattle, the Sounders FC played to a nil-nil draw despite playing a man down for 60 minutes. In that match the Sounders managed three shots from inside the 18-yard box with only 10 men and five during the full match. Salt Lake only had five shots inside the 18 during the game, all when up a man.

Shots from inside the penalty area are much more likely to result in goals than those from outside of the area. This is one of the areas where statistical analysis and intuition match. A shot from in the 18 is more likely to be on goal as well. Net shots on goal is a way that one could judge two teams overall quality of attack and defense.

There are other tools one could use – the duels won rate, net passing percentage in the “final third” and more. In looking at the matches between these two sides the focus will be on Chances Created, Shots in the 18, Duels and Blocked Shots. Each item will use the definitions provided by Opta Sports. They were compiled looking at the chalkboards available at MLSSoccer.com and were chosen to offer some insight into this specific two leg series.

One of the earliest surprises is that despite the Sounders being one of the best (5th overall) duels won teams in MLS and RSL being one of the worst (14th), Seattle has only won the duels stat against Salt Lake in a single match – last year’s playoff loss. This is likely an indicator about how the two teams match against each other. Seattle’s midfielders play wider than Salt Lake's which means central midfield duels are more likely to go to Real as they have more players close to those 50/50 balls. This can also be an indicator that the Sounders may want to use wide outlet passes more often than they usually do.

In the past two years the teams carry a record of 2-3-2. Seattle fans know the matches will be tight, yet the Sounders actually create more chances on goal in matches against the Utah side. The advantage in chances created is not due solely to 2011 secong leg match where the Sounders created 13 more chances than Salt Lake. Seattle has in fact lead chances created in four of the seven matches. Chances created are a representation of how creative the passing of the whole team is, while RSL has the better singular creator than the Sounders, Seattle is stronger overall.

Seattle is also better at earning opportunities in threatening spaces. They lead the shots in the 18 metric as well with 12 more shots than Salt Lake over this stretch of time. A soccer analyst would expect more goals from the Sounders in matches against Salt Lake, though the data is limited in quantity.

There’s one problem. Salt Lake blocks a lot of Seattle shots. It is actually a plague against the Sounders, this blocked shots thing. Attacking players in Rave Green have a certain gumption to shoot with little regard to the amount of space available for the ball. RSL’s defense has helped Nick Rimando avoid making saves and earn the blocked shots advantage by 12. Familiar number isn’t it?

Seattle creates 12 more shots than Salt Lake. Salt Lake removes those 12 more shots from becoming on goal.

What does this teach us prior to watching the match? The two sides are very close. No two MLS Cup Playoff teams are more closely matched by the Sounder at Heart “Crunchy Power Rankings.” This system is periodically used to rate all MLS teams likelihood of future success.

The data does help guide what to expect.

Seattle will likely be a bit worse at winning the ball in tight spaces than you’ve grown to expect. They will get more threatening shots off, but in tight spaces where Salt Lake will have a chance. Red cards hold a strong influence in matches between these two sides as well (there are four total in the seven matches studied). Compared to the league the Sounders are better at open-play crosses than Real Salt Lake as well as being better at set-pieces and in the final 30 minutes of a match. Salt Lake is better at run of play up the middle and obviously starts matches quickly.

Despite differences in style, there is little to no difference in quality between the two clubs. The reason that the two teams are so tight over years is simple – they are both that good. They each have 180 minutes to prove that they are better, because over four seasons the answer is that neither is.