Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A beginner’s guide to soccer fantasy

I have received some requests from readers asking for a beginner’s guide since many people haven’t really played a soccer fantasy game before. Much of my data is tailored toward people with a basic understanding of how to select their teams, so my goal for this article is to bring everyone up to speed.

Rule 1: Read and understand the rules of the game.
This cannot be overstated. The quickest way to become a decent fantasy manager is to simply understand how your team will score points. Understand the scoring, understand the deadlines, understand how substitutions come into play, understand how the captain’s armband works.

Rule 2: Don’t forget about your team.
I see it happen all the time; people select their team and then just leave it alone. You will not win if you do this. Injuries happen, players fall out of favor, the national team comes calling, your star player’s team doesn’t have a game this week and you left the captain’s armband on him. These are all things that can kill your chances of doing well in fantasy. You have to pay at least a little bit of attention to your team so you can make appropriate substitutions and transfers. You can always check my “Upcoming doubles and blanks” page to make sure you’re staying on top of that.

There are a couple of websites that track injuries that I check the night before deadline. Neither have been updated for this season, but are valuable resources once the season kicks off.

Rule 3: Don’t choose defensive midfielders.
Defensive midfielders are a complete waste of space in your fantasy roster. Players like Alonso, Beckerman, Larentowicz, Juninho, etc. are all important players for their team in real life. None of them will ever find a spot in my fantasy team because their primary role is to win the ball, not score and set up goals. We are limited to only 5 midfielder players for our fantasy teams and there are far more than 5 viable attacking midfielders to choose from.

Rule 4: Don’t fall for early-season over-performance.
There are always a few players who score a goal/assist or two in the first couple games and everyone jumps on board and transfers them in. Sometimes this is the right move, most of the time it’s not. If they weren’t on our radar before the season, chances are their early returns will not continue. Last year had a prime example of this: Juninho scored a goal against Seattle on the opening day and a bunch of fantasy managers transferred him in. They failed to follow rule 2 and Juninho ended up ranking 49th in terms of minutes per point earned for midfielders.

This rule has a bit more leeway than the first two, as sometimes it might be a good idea to bring in a forward or attacking midfielder early if it looks like they will explode right out of the gate.

Rule 5: Pick the stars.
This one seems obvious and most people have it down. If you’re new to MLS and know a player’s name, there’s probably a good reason for that. Players like Donovan, Henry, DeRosario, and Montero are pretty safe bets that anyone should feel comfortable enough picking them.

Rule 6: Don’t pick a bunch of unknown quantities.
This is essentially the inverse of rule 4. Every season there are a few big-name transfers into MLS and a crop of rookies that get a lot of hype and people get too excited and pick those players for their fantasy team. Often, first-time MLS players take a bit of time to get used to the style of play and gel with their team. Based on ownership percentages, it doesn’t look like many players are guilty of violating this rule this season.

This rule isn’t binding by any means. Sometimes it’s a good idea to pick a player or two who you think is going to have a break-out season and is currently being under-owned by other managers. Right now, Grazzini and Koevermans are vastly under-owned in my opinion, but that could be due to neither having a game in the first week.

Rule 7: Pay attention to a player’s actual position.
There are always times where the ESPN game lists a player in a position they aren’t actually playing in. Sometimes this works in our favor, and sometimes it doesn’t. For instance, Sean Franklin is listed as a midfielder and is owned by 13.6% of all managers. He spends most of his time as a defender and was listed as a defender last season. Because of this, he won’t get nearly the same fantasy returns as he did last year and should be avoided completely. I plan to write an article highlighting some of these out-of-position players, so check back before the season starts.

Rule 8: Don’t wear your team colors.
Aside from rule 2, this is probably the most common mistake I see fantasy managers make. If you are a fan of San Jose, you can’t just pick 3 San Jose players while completely ignoring everyone wearing an LA Galaxy shirt. You’ll be missing out on a lot of really good players from LA and might be letting your fandom blind you to how bad Alan Gordon really is for fantasy soccer.

Rule 9: Players generally perform better at home.
Yes, Kei Kamara is good, but, he scored 66% of his goals at home last season. It might be a better idea to start Luke Rodgers playing at home than it is starting Kei Kamara playing on the road. This isn’t always true (Montero scored 75% of his goals on the road), but it generally holds, especially for defenders.

Rule 10: Use your transfers wisely.
We are allotted a ton of transfers in the MLS fantasy game on ESPN, 2 per week if you average it out. It generally is a good idea to look ahead a few weeks when deciding to bring in a player to make sure that the upcoming fixtures are favorable and he will be likely to produce fantasy returns.

However, sometimes there is a single fixture that is just too good to pass up. With so many transfers allotted, it probably isn’t a bad idea to bring in a DeRosario, Wondolowski, or Keane if they are playing at home against a team like New England or Portland who concede a lot of goals on the road.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Keeper rotation

To maximize our potential returns from our keepers, we have to look at which keepers rotate well with one another. Most defenses concede fewer goals at home than they do on the road. We can only play one per week, so we can't have two keepers with similar home/away schedules because there will be weeks we are forced to play a keeper away from home.

I utilized the predicted goals allowed data to look at the first 5 gameweeks in an attempt to find the best keeper pairing possible. For each pairing each week I used the team with the least predicted goals conceded then added the first five gameweeks to come up with the following rankings. I ignored teams who weren't likely to keep a clean sheet.

TeamsGoals ConcededCombined price
LA/ RSL4.2114.8
LA/ Columbus4.3514.2
Dallas/ Seattle4.5314.1
Chivas/ RSL4.6514.7
LA/ Seattle4.6814.2
LA/ Dallas4.7614.5
Chivas/ Colombus4.7914
RSL/ Colorado4.9414.5
Seattle/ San Jose5.0313.9
Chivas/ Seattle5.0613.9

I should note that RSL has a double gameweek in week 5 so that makes the LA/RSL pairing even more appealing. RSL's defensive unit is still suffering from some injury issues which makes me consider the LA/Columbus pairing. The price difference of 0.6 also makes me think choosing Saunders/Hesmer is the right way to go.

Strength of schedule: weeks 1-5

While picking our teams we need to take into account the relative strength of schedule that each player may face in the upcoming weeks. I have compiled last year's goals scored and allowed both home and away for every team (Montreal's numbers are simply league averages). I then applied these to the schedule to find the number of goals each team is predicted to score and allow based on who their opponent is and where they are playing.

Example - Colorado vs. Columbus:
Colorado averaged 1.47 goals scored per game at home last season. Columbus averaged 1.53 goals allowed per game away from home last season. Against Columbus, Colorado should score 1.50 goals.

I then added all predicted goals scored/conceded for each team for gameweeks 1 through 5 to come up with the following tables.

Attacking projections

TeamGoals scored
Kansas City7.5
San Jose6.8
New York6.3
New England5.7

The average team is expected to score 6.0 goals over the first five gameweeks. Some teams have fewer games than others resulting in a lower total predicted goals scored, but they could have a higher average goals scored per game. For instance, Seattle only has 4 games and are predicted to score 6.8 goals in the first 5 gameweeks. However, they have the highest predicted average goals scored per game.

RSL and Montreal are the teams that are ranked at the top by virtue of them both playing 6 games in the first 5 weeks. Double gameweeks are extremely important to take advantage of (I'll have an upcoming article on that), but in this case, they skew the strength of schedule for Montreal and RSL quite a bit. Without that second game in week 5, RSL drops to 6th and Montreal to 12th. To start our season, I am going to choose to ignore that second game in week 5 and treat RSL and Montreal as 6th and 12th respectively.

Our top 5 teams in terms of predicted goals scored using the above methodology are Kansas City, Dallas, Seattle, San Jose, and DC. Seattle has a blank week to start the season, so I am going to wait until week 2 before bringing in any Seattle players. So, I plan to pack my forwards and midfielders with several players from these teams. These rankings and seeing the teams who have blank gameweeks have really changed the players I am going to start the season with. Koevermans and Grazzini are two players I am choosing to drop in favor of other options.

Defensive projections

Predicted clean sheetsTeamAverage conceded
2San Jose1.2
1New York1.3
0Kansas City1.2
0New England1.6

I approach the defensive projections a bit differently. I use the same methodology to come up with the average goals conceded, but I then use that to find how many games each team is predicted to conceded less than 1 goal. Since clean sheets are what really matters to fantasy managers, I have used that as my ranking.

Not surprisingly, LA and Dallas are the teams at the top. Our other two teams with a predicted two clean sheets are surprisingly San Jose and Chivas. I'm not going to pick a chivas defender simply because they've had a bunch of change at the back, but a San Jose player will almost certainly make my side (likely Beitashour).

Weekly data
The bulk of my weekly previews are composed of the predicted goals scored and allowed data. I have included a page that has each team's predicted goals scored and allowed for each of the first five weeks. found here:

I will be doing these 5-week previews every 3 weeks or so to allow us some foresight to better plan our transfers.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Defensive unit

Choosing your defenders and keepers is a bit of a different strategy than picking our forwards and midfielders. You aren't picking an individual player. Rather you are picking the team's defense. Ultimately, clean sheets are what we're after from our defenses. So, here is the goals conceded and clean sheets from 2011:

TeamClean sheetsGoals conceded
New York1144
Kansas City840
San Jose745
New England558

Key losses
We have 7 defensive slots to use. Of the top 7 teams to keep the most clean sheets, several have made some serious changes or have big injuries that should reduce their value.

LA - Lost defender of the year Omar Gonzalez. With their increased fire-power upfront, I expect teams to try to play more defensively against the Galaxy in LA. I rate them as the best team to have at the start of the season.

RSL - There are way too many injuries in Salt Lake to make them serious options for the first couple gameweeks. Once they get their outside backs fit, they'll be a fantastic bet.

New York - Lost Ream and all of their goalkeepers. So much turnover makes me hesitate.

Philadelphia - Lost Mondragon who was a key part in organizing the back. McMath simply doesn't have the experience, though the rest of the line has another year under their belt.

Seattle - The loss of Keller is huge for Seattle. He had the most saves out of anyone last year. Mostly because the defense was rather porous and allowed so many shots. Gonzalez is a better defensive player than Wahl was and hopes are Johansson is an upgrade over Riley. If I had to pick a player from Seattle's defensive unit, it would be Gspurning since he'll also pick up save points.

Playing the fixtures
Defensive rotation based on opponent and home/away status is a lot more important for our defensive unit. Teams are a lot more likely to keep clean sheets at home than they are away. You should almost always pick a defender playing at home rather than one playing away. There will obviously be some exceptions, but it's a good general rule to follow. Because of this, we should save our money in the defensive unit since we will be rotating them more than our attacking players.

Though I wasn't readily able to find home/away clean sheets (maybe an update in the future?), I have sorted the teams by goals allowed home vs. away, with home goals allowed being the most important:

0.94Kansas City1.41
1.00New York1.59
1.12San Jose1.53
1.41New England2.00

Many of the same teams are ranked near the top. These are the teams we should be focusing on for our defensive unit.

Attacking defenders
Defenders still earn points for their attacking returns. Finding the most attacking player in a defensive unit should result in the most points from that unit, assuming all defenders play the same amount of time. Here is a ranking of defenders based on minutes per goals+assists:

2BeitashourSan Jose236.47
6SolliNew York377.67
18CorralesSan Jose638.04
20Futty Portland666.33
28CochraneNew England739.02
35SoaresNew England2464.01
37AlstonNew England2954.01

Selecting a keeper is essentially the same as picking a defender, without focusing on attacking returns. We want to focus mostly on clean sheets, but keep an eye on saves.

Saunders is my number 1 keeper choice. He may not make my team due to the limit of only having 3 players per team.

I also have Gspurning penciled in. This is mostly because I had to save some money somewhere and keepers and defenders are the safest place to do that. Seattle should be slightly better defensively (in terms of shots allowed) but I expect fewer saves and about the same number of clean sheets.

The eastern conference appears to be weaker than the west, but there also doesn't appear to be any elite defenses in the east this year. Hesmer and Hall are probably your best bets in the east, with Hesmer being my choice of the two.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Mulling over the midfielders

The midfield situation is a bit easier for the first couple slots and a bit harder for the last couple. So, here's the chart ranking our midfielders by minutes per point from 2011.

3FagundezNew England12.63
12RichardsNew York16.314
22ChavezSan Jose18.110
31LindpereNew York18.914
32FeilhaberNew England18.911
43StephensonSan Jose20.09
44MarquezNew York20.05
47BallouchyNew York20.33
51M. FarfanPhiladelphia21.55
53JosephNew England21.79
56TierneyNew England22.86
60McCartyNew York23.36
62SalinasSan Jose23.54

As with the forwards, there are some players (Ochoa, Fagundez) near the top who simply won't get the playing time needed to be effective options. There are also a few players who have been reclassified this year that will hurt their value (Franklin, Harris).

There are a bunch more players owned at over 10% at the time of writing: DeRosario (76.9%), Donovan (56.1%), Lindpere (50.1%), Davis (48.1%), LaBrocca (38.3%), Shea (28.6%), Richards (25.9%), Jewsbury (23.0%), Beckham (21.4%), and Franklin (16.1%). Honestly, most of these guys would be fine picks. DeRo and Donovan are no-brainers that should be owned by everyone. Franklin is the only player that I would absolutely avoid since he spends a lot of his time along the back-line.

Injury watch
There are a few players I'm monitoring closely as they (or their teammates) recover from injury.

Ferreira - He was huge for fantasy managers in 2010 when he had a full season. Last season, his season was cut down by injury, but he managed to rank 7th in minutes per point earned last season during his short time on the field.

Morales - Morales has experienced a set back in his recovery. Not only that, but RSL has so many injuries, I'd be worried about owning anyone from their squad to start the season. He ranked 16th last season in minutes per point and was, like Ferreira, a key fantasy option in 2010.

Davis - Reports say he's on track to return for the season opener. He hasn't featured in either of Houston's pre-season matches. I'm not sure I'd pick him from the start of the season, but certainly worth keeping an eye on.

Zakuani - He won't be ready to start the season. Even if he were, I still wouldn't give him a go before seeing how much his horrifying injury effects not only his pace and touch, but also the mental aspect. As someone who's experienced a lengthy time on the bench due to injury, it really can mess with someone's confidence and aggression.

Ochoa - Ochoa isn't injured, but Eddie Johnson pulled up holding his hamstring in a preseason game today. It remains to be seen how serious it was, but Ochoa would be favorite to take over that role partnering with Montero. This would be a huge boost for fantasy owners paying attention. If Johnson doesn't recover soon, watch for Seattle's line up against Santos in the CCL to see if Ochoa starts. If he does, he'll be playing out of position and ranked first out of all players in minutes per point last season, though he only played 100 minutes, making the sample size extremely small.

New signings and transfers
Montreal - Mapp, Sanna Nyassi, Arnaud, and Fucito should all be starters. Fucito should probably start up front with Braun but he is classified as a midfielder. This would be a much better pairing for Fucito and he should produce more than he did in Seattle.

Songo'o - He's been good in preseason. He's been setting up a lot of Portland's attacking play. He's got La Liga experience with Zaragaza. Probably not worth a spot yet, but should Portland's new-look attack be more potent than last year's, Songo'o seems to be a part of that improvement.

Castillon - I honestly don't know much about him other than his Wikipedia page, but he seems to be a goal-scoring midfielder and has 29 caps with Colombia. Might we actually see a less-defensive formation from Colorado this year?

Mirošević - He was scoring in 42% of games at this last club. That stat alone is making me consider him. As with all new signings, I tend to wait a few games to see how they are being used with their new club and with how they mesh, but an attacking midfielder could score well in Columbus.

Players I'm actually considering for my own team
There are some players who automatically go into my squad and should go into just about everyone's: DeRosario and Donovan.

Now for some of the second-tier choices. Shea, Davis, Rosales, Grazzini, Chiumiento, Ferreira, Morales, and Jewsbury. Injury doubt precludes Ferreira, Davis, and Morales for me at this point. Shea seemed to run out of steam last season due to simply being overplayed, he should be a fine choice to start this season. Jewsbury is on set pieces, but plays a bit too deep for my taste in open play. Rosales and Grazzini ranked very high in minutes per point last season and I expect both Seattle and Chicago to be high-scoring teams again this season - both are currently in my squad. Chiumiento is my dark-horse pick in the middle. He ranked 15th last season in minutes per point earned and Vancouver has improved their attack (on paper at least).

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Looking at our forward options

I'm going to start the year off by taking a look at our options at forward. I've created a table with just about every notable forward who was in MLS last season and ranked them based on how many minutes they played per fantasy point earned.

9RodgersNew York15.112
13WondolowskiSan Jose16.919
14HenryNew York17.018
15AgudeloNew York17.18
18Le TouxVancouver17.720
27LenhartSan Jose18.28
34CooperNew York20.010
41SchilawskiNew England21.82

There are obviously some players (Paulo, White, Tan, etc.) who ended up pretty high up in these rankings that simply won't be getting the playing time needed to make them a viable fantasy option. There are also some players who have lost their role as starter or first option off the bench (Barrett, Cooper, etc.) that should eliminate them until injury strikes someone ahead of them in the pecking order.

So now that all those little caveats are out of the way, what do we have left? The ranking of how effectively players used their time on the field in terms of fantasy points earned.

A quick look at the most widely owned players at the time of writing shows there are six players owned by at least 10 percent of all fantasy managers: Wondolowski (ranked 13 in my table), Le Toux (18), Henry (14), Montero (10), Rodgers (9), and Camilo (20). What this tells me is that most players are simply basing their selections off of name recognition and the raw number of points they earned last season. Conversely, our top 5 players who will get serious playing time aren't owned nearly widely enough: Koevermans (2.4% owned), Keane (7.2%), Renteria (1.4%), Casey (1.5%), and Montero (26.4%). Assuming players perform at roughly the same rate they did last season, picking up a guy like Koevermans or Renteria will be huge in terms of differentiating your team from your competition with players who will actually give us fantasy returns.

New signings and transfers
I would be remiss to neglect some of the talent that has moved within the league or new signings who will take a starting role.

Le Toux - Seba's transfer from Philly to Vancouver is the move that will have the most impact across the game this year. Le Toux was last season's leading point scorer for forwards. That is mostly due to the fact that he simply played every minute and was taking all the team's PK's. Now that he's in Vancouver, both of those are in doubt. With so much talent up front for the Whitecaps, Le Toux will certainly see his minutes reduced and it remains to be seen whether he will take spot kick duties away from Hassli. On the other side of this transfer, things are wide open in Philly for a new star to light up the fantasy game. I have no idea who will be taking the PK's for the Union, but Mwanga looks set to be the main striker for Philadelphia and is certainly worth a look, even though his production last season saw him land in 30th in the above table.

Cooper - Kenny Cooper was shipped out of Portland and landed in New York. I'm not sure who will be starting alongside Thierry Henry... will it be Cooper or Rodgers, maybe even Agudelo might break into the first team. Who will be the first off the bench? I'm going to wait on this situation until there is indication of what the pecking order will be. Henry is the only lock at forward for New York.

Montreal - Historically, expansion sides don't fare well in their first season with the notable exceptions of Chicago and Seattle. Montreal appears to be building a decent side that looks like they won't win the wooden spoon this year. Braun and Neagle are currently the only players listed as forwards. Fucito and Nyassi,have the ability to play there too, but are listed in other positions. Wenger hasn't been added to the game yet, so we don't know if he'll be listed as a forward or a defender, but coach Marsch has indicated he likes him as a forward. I think Braun is the most likely to start up top and the second striker option is one that I will be monitoring closely.

Boyd - Portland decided it was time to say goodbye to Cooper and was able to sign Kris Boyd. He was prolific in Scotland but struggled since transferring elsewhere. He's a classic poacher that won't do much but score goals. I'm not convinced he'll get the quality ball supply he'll need.

Buddle - Edson Buddle returns to an already star-studded LA side. He immediately becomes Robbie Keane's strike partner forming what is likely the best front-line in the league. Buddle won the golden boot in 2010, so we know he has the talent to produce again this year. Barrett should get pushed to the bench, so avoid him.

Johnson - Seattle has long been looking for someone to throw out in front of Montero. They elected to trade fan favorites Fucito and Neagle for Eddie Johnson, who is coming back after an unsuccessful European stint. I'm going to stay away from Johnson for now, but I think this raises Montero's profile since he'll be able to sit in the trequartista role he succeeds in. This also practically rules Ochoa (listed as a midfielder) out as a fantasy option.

Perez - Dallas is going to try yet another forward to lead their attack. Panamanian international Blas Perez lands at his 15th club in as many years. He's had a fairly constant and fine goalscoring rate. When David Ferreira finally comes back from injury, the Dallas attack will be back to full strength. If you're looking for a true dark-horse pick, Perez is your man.

Martinez - Josue Martinez was picked up by Philadelphia. With Le Toux gone, he (and Mqanga) has the chance to step into a leading role. He had a pretty good scoring rate for Saprissa that earned him a spot for the Costa Rican national team, despite being so young.

Salihi - DC United secured the signature of Hamdi Salihi from Austria. He had been scoring about 1 goal every 2 games from 2005-2011. I don't know much about this guy and have never seen him play. Sounds like he will get minutes ahead of Maicon Santos, Pontius, and Wolff.

Players I'm actually considering for my own team
There's only a few players that make my short-list. Koevermans, Montero, Wondolowski, Buddle, Keane, Mwanga, Renteria and Casey.

I haven't yet taken the time to look at the early-season strength of schedule yet, and that will likely be the deciding factor. I will likely pass on Montero because of the early season blank week, CCL games, and he'll need time to gel with Johnson. I'll also probably pass on Mwanga since Philly's main source of offensive production is now gone and I'm not sure if Mwanga will be the one to step up. I would only pick one of Buddle and Keane, with Keane being the most likely. Wondo and Koevermans are both almost certainly going to make my start-of season squad with the third spot coming down to Casey, Keane or Renteria.