There is a lot of narrative floating around about the US finding their offensive form after putting up 4 goals on Costa Rica in their second game in the Copa America Centenario. Like most narratives, however, the story being spun isn't quite fitting the facts on the ground.
While the US has had no problem creating chances in this tournament, with 12 shots in each of their two games, they have had trouble creating good chances, coming in under 1 expected goal from the run of play in each game.
#USMNT non-penalty expected goals:— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) June 8, 2016
- vs Colombia: 0.72
- vs Costa Rica: 0.73
For those unfamiliar with the concept of expected goals (or xG), it's really quite simple. Expected goals models take factors such as shot location, pass type and body part used, to determine the chance of a shot's conversion based on league averages, and, while analytics has advanced a great deal since these models were first created, they remain the single best predictor of a team's future performance.
Despite scoring 4 goals against Costa Rica, the stark reality is, it was yet another mediocre offensive performance from the US. The only real difference between the Costa Rica game and the Colombia game is that in the Costa Rica game, bad chances were being converted.
There is a term in statistics for this:
@PCarrESPN Variance!— Danny Page (@DannyPage) June 8, 2016
When we cut through the noise and randomness that can exist in goal scoring totals over a small sample size of two games, what we see with the xG is a US offense which is woefully inefficient, accruing only 1.45xG from 23 shots from the run of play (stripping Dempsey's penalty shot). That's only a 6% average chance of conversion per shot.
So what exactly is the issue and what can the US do to fix it?
The shots in soccer which are converted at the highest percentages are shots taken in the area of a field known as the "Danger Zone." To borrow a graphic from Michael Caley, this would be zones 1-3.
This also happens to be the area of the field where the US are not getting shots. On the left is the US's shot chart for the Colombia game and on the right is the same chart for the Costa Rica game.
Notice how the US only had 3 in the Colombia game and 0 non-penalty shots in the danger zone in the Costa Rica game. This is the main reason why their average xG per shot is so low in this tournament. The shots simply aren't coming in dangerous areas.
So why is this? Is this a problem with the strikers not getting into position enough? The fault, you'll find, lies mostly in the midfield and their inability to play incisive passes to put players in such positions.
Here is a lovely ball from Jermaine Jones which cuts the Costa Rican defense wide open and puts Bedoya into the danger zone. Every elite team in the world has one or two players who are adept at playing these kind of balls and their importance in goal scoring is widely known, however, by not calling up the likes of Benny Feilhaber, Sasha Kljestan and keeping Nagbe tethered to the bench, the US lacks such a player in Jurgen's favored lineup, and balls such as these are simply not being played enough.
Evidence of this can be clearly seen on the chalkboard for both games when we filter for just completed passes (green) key passes (yellow) and assists (blue).
As you can see, passes from the midfield into the danger zone were very rare in each game, and passes ending in shots in the danger zone were practically non-existent.
Sadly, this isn't a new problem the US face. If we look at the 2014 World Cup, for instance, the US had the highest cross to through ball ratio in the tournament by a large margin. Michael Caley had this to say about the inefficiency of this in in an article on the topic in the Washington Post, explaining "shots assisted by through-balls are converted to goals at rates 50 to 100 percent better than other shots from those areas, while shots assisted by crosses are converted at rates 33 to 50 percent less."
Sadly, little has been done by Klinsmann to build a team that creates chances in a more efficient manner since the World Cup and we find ourselves sitting in another international tournament two years later almost completely in the hands of lady luck and the dice roll that is conversion on any given day. Two years later and the US still aren't creating dangerous chances.