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RSL vs. Galaxy 0-0 is a statistical outlier

Abhorrent data in an abhoring game. Why last Saturday was easily LA's worst offensive performance all year, and ultimately, why you shouldn't care.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, the LA Galaxy met up with long time playoff foe, Real Salt Lake, in the first of a two legged playoff series. They managed to escape Rio Tinto Stadium by the skin of their teeth with the series tied 0-0. Let's make no mistake about this, the Galaxy played very poorly and Real Salt Lake played extremely well. As frustrating as the Galaxy's abysmal performance was, managing to escape without conceding a goal is a fantastic result.

So what happened to the Galaxy? From a statistical standpoint, Saturday's game can only be described one way.

out·li·er : a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample

The Galaxy run a high octane Top Gun style offense that lives and breathes on possession, combination play, and shots. Conversely, their defense thrives by smothering teams and limiting their shots.

The Galaxy averaged about 16 shots per game this season while Real Salt Lake gave up an average of 13.7 shots against per game this season. On Saturday, however, the Galaxy managed only 3 shots against RSL.

The Galaxy average 10.2 shots against per game. RSL take about 13 shots a game. On Saturday, LA gave up 16 shots to RSL.

That's aberrant data, but it doesn't really answer our question. Was this a statistical fluke, or did RSL discover a magic bullet tactical adjustment that completely destroys the Galaxy attack?

Here are a few things to consider. The Galaxy fell under 50% possession for only the sixth time all year. Possession is a huge part of the Galaxy offense and being deprived of it can hurt them.  In fact, 30% of their regular season ties came in games where they had sub 50% possession. 3 ties and 2 wins.

The possession argument is incomplete because in those games, the Galaxy still averaged 11.6 shots. It is worth noting that their lowest total of the regular season, 9 shots, came at the hands of Real Salt Lake in Rio Tinto Stadium earlier in the year. That game was LA's first foray into their early season diamond experiment, so it's hard to read too much into any potential Rio Tinto voodoo curse.

Here is a fun stat from Mathew Doyle's recap article. In the regular season, LA completed 70.11 percent of their passes in the final third.  RSL limited them to 54 percent on Saturday night. The stat certainly does a lot to explain why LA's shot total was so low, but it still leaves us with abhorrent data that needs explaining. How did RSL do that?

Whenever analyzing the Galaxy the in the final third the smart thing to do is to check the numbers of Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan. On Saturday, Robbie Keane's pass usage rate was only 6%, having only 23 passes all night. Even more shockingly, Landon Donovan's usage rate was only 9% having only made 34 passes. Those two have combined to create nearly 40% of the Galaxy's chance creation this year. On Saturday, they combined for 0 chances created.

But again, how did this happen?

RSL's defensive success had a lot to do with pressure. When Jeff Cassar took over the reins at RSL, he didn't do a lot to tweak the system. One thing he did bring to the table, and it's probably the biggest change between this RSL team and the team's under Kreis, is a focus on team defending and ball pressure.

RSL has done a fantastic job of putting pressure on the ball without losing defensive shape all season, and it's this "all hands in" team defending approach that gave the Galaxy so much trouble on Saturday.  Passing lanes were non-existent most especially when trying to feed Keane in the final third, while Donovan and Robbie Keane were completely isolated from one another. Since Gyasi Zardes is so dependent on the service of those two, he became a non factor as well.

Bruce was on the right track when he moved Landon to forward, however, the move came far too late, and Bruce abandoned it far too early. RSL was desperately seeking a goal in the final minutes, which is the perfect situation for a Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan forward combo to hit you on the counter. Bruce abandoned the idea by bringing in Gordon, and the final minutes were peculiarly spent with long balls being sent for the slow as molasses Alan Gordon to try and fail to get on the end of.

A master class of team defending can account for fewer shots, but can it account for an 81% decrease in LA's average shot total, or an 88% decrease in the average number of shots that RSL normally gives up? I'm no math expert, but I'm going to go with "no" on that one.

This brings us back to that magic word: "Outlier".  "Outliers can occur by chance in any distribution". That's from Wikipedia, so you know it's accurate. Not to take anything away from RSL's defensive performance, but it is very hard to assign much rhyme or reason to the degree of domination which the Galaxy experienced. You could play that game 100 times and I'm not sure you could recreate those numbers.

The Galaxy can thank their lucky stars that AJ DeLaGarza and Jaime Penedo were in stellar form. All things considered, it's actually quite remarkable that LA managed a shut out. There is an even better word than remarkable.

iro·ny: a situation that is strange or funny because things happen in a way that seems to be the opposite of what you expected

Example: RSL is a team that gives up more shots than they take and make a living on outperforming their Expected Goals total.

On Saturday, the one time RSL manages to take a lot of shots, they failed to find the back of the net. In other words, last night the team that has managed to do so much with so little could do nothing with so plenty.

So in the end, LA gave RSL 16 shots and lived to tell the tale. That's unheard of against RSL. Despite not getting a road goal they are in great shape to secure a series victory at home where they have been dominant.