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The Tiki-Taco Genome Project

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Mapping out the passing genome of the single greatest MLS team to grace this league.

In 1990, human kind began the process of sequencing the human genome. The process took 13 years, but thanks to the dedicated work of scientists across the globe, we now have a nearly 100% accurate map of the entire human genome.

Similarly, in last Sunday of this month, I undertook an equally great task-to map out the passing genome of the single greatest team to grace MLS.  Galaxy soccer in 2014 was a thing of absolute wonder, and I can think of few scientific topics more worthy of study-for to better understand the 2014 LA Galaxy is to better understand mankind at its pinnacle and if this shit don't win a Nobel prize, I'm going to be hella-pissed. Welcome to the Tiki-Taco Genome Project.

A team of two styles

My methodology in studying the Galaxy offense was simple. I started from the rather safe assumption that Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan were the heartbeat of the 2014 Galaxy attack and logged every one of their assists and the passing sequences surrounding said goals. In doing so, I discovered two distinct styles of goals.

The first style is a familiar one and is the namesake of this entire project. Tiki-Taco goals are set up by quick one touch passing sequences of two passes or more in and around the box, that end with the shooter being played into an advantageous shooting position, usually behind the defense.  Here is an example.

I also discovered a second distinctive style of goal which, though talked about far less, is of equal importance to the Galaxy attack. A while back, Mike wrote an article comparing the Galaxy offense to Top Gun, and the characteristics which he describes in said article bear a striking similarity to this second style.

Since Tiki-Taco gets a distinctive name, I think it's only fitting that its cousin be given one as well, so for the rest of this article, it shall be called Top Gun. Top Gun is a brand of wing-play in which quick combination play and accurate cross field switches are used to put players into crossing positions before the defense is set.  Here is an example.

Tiki-Taco and Top Gun. In my analysis, these two styles accounted for 52% percent of the Galaxy's assisted, non-set-piece, goals in 2014.

The Tiki-Taco Genome project is an attempt to fully understand and analyze these styles, which, hopefully, can give us some clues about what the departure of Landon Donovan truly means, stylistically, for this Galaxy attack.

Tiki-Taco

Far more than a culinary pun on Tiki-Taka, the famed short passing style that saw Spain lift two European Championships and a World Cup; the Tiki-Taco style has become an embodiment of the aesthetic ideals of Galaxy soccer. It's exciting, fast and technical and creates goals of such art that they belong in museums. I once asked Adam Serrano at a Galaxy practice where Tiki-Taco came from. He responded by pointing to the sky as if it was some sort of heavenly gift divinely imparted on our fair city of angels. After watching goals like this, involving Alan Gordon back-heel assists, I have no reason to doubt him.

But who's to say that something as pure and heavenly as Tiki-Taco can't have its beauty further illuminated by a few spreadsheets and a guy with way too much time on his hands? Furthermore, if Tiki-Taco is a sort of divine gift, is it not for the betterment of society that it be thoroughly dissected until we reach a point of understanding  that allows us to recreate its majesty without the aid certain angels whose retirement may or may not spell the end of our glorious dynasty? So let us play God in the Frankenstein's lab that is my spreadsheets.

This is exactly what I did. I isolated 10 goals which I deemed to fit the criteria of Tiki-Taco, and I broke down the passing sequences on each of them, going three passes back from each goal. As such, the categories are Goal, primary assist, secondary assist and a category I am calling sequence start, which, in actuality, is the pass prior to the secondary assist. The following is a Tiki-Taco passing genome created from the data I collected.

I then divided the four categories into pairs of two, hoping it would show by proxy the general field position of these touches. This was quite successful so I have included these charts as well. The first is of "build-up" which is a combination of sequences started and secondary assists. The second stage I dubbed "final" is a combination of primary assists and goals.

As you can see from the first chart, build-up play in Tiki-Taco is evenly distributed. It becomes very focused, however, in the final stage, at which point player roles can quite clearly be delineated with Zardes scoring 50% of the goals, Husidic scoring 40% of the goals, and Donovan being the primary assist man on 60% of them.

Surprisingly, Keane does not seem to be all that involved in terms of inside the box combination. Only 10% of the Tiki-Taco goals were directly assisted by him and only 20% more were secondarily assisted by him. He isn't even starting sequences. To put that into perspective, he was either uninvolved or at least 4 passes back in the passing  sequences of 70% of the Galaxy's Tiki-Taco goals.  Landon Donovan, on the other hand, was involved in 80% of them.

This probably has to do with the nature of the two players. When Keane is around the box, he is looking to shoot. When Donovan is around the box, he is looking to assist. Tiki-Taco, it seems, is a manifestation of the talents of Landon Donovan. He was clearly the primary driver. In my last article I theorized that Gyasi Zardes would be able to maintain his goal scoring form if the team can continue to play Tiki-Taco style soccer, which accounted for 31% of his goals last year. After all, thanks to Tiki-Taco, Gyasi Zardes only faced an average of 1.1 defenders per non-header goal. With the absence of Donovan, however, Zardes' numbers may be on the verge of a plunge as he will likely face more defenders per shot next year.

Other notable performers in Tiki-Taco are Marcelo Sarvas (sad face) and Baggio Husidic (silver lining). Sarvas' role was one of build-up play, while Baggio's role was in the final stage. With Baggio manning the center next year, we could see even more production from him; however, it's entirely possible that he is as dependant on Tiki-Taco for goals as Zardes is.

The only left mid prospect we have that can even come close to filling the chance creation hole is Nacho, however, judging by his recent minutes in friendlies, it doesn't look like he's Bruce's top candidate. Without a dedicated chance creator in the inside channels, (before you ask, that's not Ishizaki's game) Tiki-Taco may be done for. Pray for Gyasi.

Top Gun

If Tiki-Taco is a manifestation of Landon Donovan, the Galaxy's second prominent style of play in 2014 was a manifestation of its other superstar-Robbie Keane. Here is the Top Gun genome.

As you can see, the numbers are the total inverse of the Tiki-Taco numbers. Keane is far more involved. In fact, his involvement is actually 93%, bagging either a goal or an assist on 13 of the 14 goals. That's 6 Goals, 5 primary assists and 2 secondary. So what exactly is going on here that makes this style so conducive to Robbie Keane's skill set?

1. His 5 primary assists came from crosses: 4 from the left, and 1 from the right. When Keane drifts out to these spaces, the usually goal minded striker doesn't have shooting angles to score, so his game is far more conducive to playmaking from the wings. He also is the most accurate crosser on the team.

2. Keane is a very slippery striker in his off the ball movements. When crosses are being made on the break, Keane gets himself into open positions. Such is the case on 4 of these goals.

3. When Keane receives the ball within the box from wide positions, he makes audacious strikes. From his Keane stare volley against Toronto, to his chip against New York, these are shots that his teammates would not attempt.

Here is the total player involvement on these 14 goals

Conclusions

So what have we learned from the Tiki-Taco Genome project? For one, we learned that I have no life.  I think this entire document and the process through which it was produced is a fine testament to that. We also learned that the Galaxy had two distinct goal scoring styles last year, and, while both were built around passing at speed, the personnel and manner in which they were scored, were completely different with each style being reflective of one of the two team superstars.

I started with the assumption that Donovan and Keane were the heart beat of this attack, however, what I found was that each player was in reality a separate heart, driving separate attacks. But this too is unfair, because it is still a unified attack. The 2014 Galaxy were so deadly because they were an unholy chimera capable of dismembering their pray in any number of ways.

This Chimera ran on a 75% goal involvement by Landon Donovan. The Top Gun style will no doubt take a hit from this loss, but with Robbie Keane still at the helm, it is one that can be easily recovered from.

Tiki-Taco, however, may be no more, for it is quite clear from the data that the force of divinity which gifted it to us was none other than Landon Donovan. So integral was he to the style, when the temple of Tiki-Taco is constructed, a mural will be painted on the ceiling of him imbuing the feet of Gyasi Zardes with the power of 1000 suns.

In the end, the Galaxy will have to reshape the team's style and tactics to best fit its personnel. Perhaps even, some strange new variant of Tiki-Taco will emerge. The unimaginative will call it Tiki-Taco 2.0, however, I'm going to go ahead and coin "Total Tiki-Taco."

Is it sad we have to move on? Yes. But we'll always have that Alan Gordon back-heel assist on the youtubes to remind us of the good ol' days.