Advanced stats: Can McDonald, WNY Flash carry form to NWSL title?

ISI Photos-Mark Howard

The Flash, expected by few to be great this year, are in contention for the Shield, and Jessica McDonald is the wild card to it all. Chad Murphy dives into the analytics.

The big NWSL story of last week was the Western New York Flash playing on a substandard pitch, but what was lost in the news cycle was how well the Flash have been playing. Western New York is currently in second place, 2 points behind the Portland Thorns with a game in hand and with the highest number of goals scored and best goal differential in the league. There are four players central to the Flash’s offensive ability: Lynn Williams, Jessica McDonald, Samantha Mewis and Lianne Sanderson.

The team

Western New York has every reason to be happy with their offensive production so far:  Williams leads the league in scoring, McDonald is in second place, and they’ve recently acquired the joint 9th-scorer, Lianne Sanderson, from the Orlando Pride. McDonald is also tied for the league in assists, demonstrating her skill in providing for others as well as creating herself. The Flash also leads the league in expected goals, a measure of the number of goals you’d expect them to score given the quality of chances they’ve created so far. Perhaps more impressively, the team has allowed fewer expected goals than any other in the league, which indicates that they’ve possibly been a little unlucky to allow the goals they have.

Each of the top four offensive threats for the Flash are in the top 20 in expected goals created, three in the top 10. Only Portland fares better on this measure, with five players in the top 20, but none are as high on the list as McDonald or Williams. Sanderson should be a great addition to the team, and her strike partnership with McDonald has already paid dividends with McDonald providing the assist on Sanderson’s first goal. Can they maintain this quality over the season? Can they keep scoring like they have been, or do the numbers flatter them?

Overall, the Flash are slightly underachieving expectations with 18 non-penalty goals on 19.3 expected goals created. But this doesn’t tell the full story – to fully answer the question we need to look at the individual players’ performances this far.

The wild card

To me, Jessica McDonald has been one of the most interesting players this season. She is consistently in good positions, her speed and athleticism help her consistently create quality chances, and she has always been at or near the top of the league in expected goals. It’s impossible not to watch her and see a true quality player, which is reflected in her six goals and league co-leading five assists. She has been the catalyst for so many of the good things the Flash have done this year, and looks to be one of the acquisitions of the season.

The other side is that she’s one of the highest variance strikers in the league. Watching her play, she consistently gets in good positions, takes good shots, and takes several of these quality chances in a game. This is validated by the fact that in 10 appearances she has 3 games with combined xG values over 1.0, and 2 other games that are close to that number. Her overall finishing isn’t too far off of expectations, with six goals against 7.2 expected, but these goals all come from three very strong performances. She scored two goals on May 21 against Sky Blue FC, and three in the 7-1 rout of the Boston Breakers on June 24, and another goal last weekend in the rematch at Seattle, but she has been held scoreless in her other eight appearances.

However, McDonald seems to be finding her form, scoring four and picking up four assists in the last four games.  As long as she keeps creating chances for others and taking quality chances herself, the Flash is a force to be reckoned with and opposing teams will have to figure out a plan to shut her down if they want to get a result.

Two overachievers

Two of the four offensive threats have scored more than their expected goals would predict. Williams has taken her chances very well, with seven goals scored on only 5.7 expected. This pace of 1.3 goals per expected goal is strong, and she is creating better opportunities in front of goal than all but three other players in the league, making her a major asset to the team.

Newly introduced Sanderson is finishing above expectations as well, with three goals scored on 2.46 expected, but it will be interesting to see what she can do in this new environment. She’s used to playing next to Alex Morgan, so she could expect to keep thriving on a team packed with offensive talent like the Flash.

The achiever

Mewis is a tremendous asset in the midfield for the Flash, scoring two non-penalty goals (and one penalty) against 2.53 expected. This is enough to put her in the top 10 both in total goals and expected goals. The Flash should be happy with her performance, and there’s no reason to think that she can’t continue at this level for the remainder of the season. She’s currently away with the U.S. women as an alternate as they prepare for the Rio Olympics.

The future

Western New York has a lot of good things going: the team is creating more quality chances and allowing fewer than any other in the league. That bodes well for them, and if they keep it up I’d expect them to pass the Portland Thorns for the NWSL Shield by the end of the year.

However, when I look at individual performances, there are some signs that they may not continue. Williams has been in a real purple patch the first half of the season, finishing at a rate that seems unsustainable. Can she keep this up for the rest of the season? It’s certainly possible – we’ve seen Leicester City maintain a win rate that analysts thought was unsustainable all the way to the end of the season.

What will Sanderson do with her new team? Initial signs are strong, and they’ve already seen dividends from the McDonald/Sanderson strike partnership up top. Can McDonald add more consistent finishing to her otherwise top-class performances? Or alternately, can she time her finishes when they’re most needed? A two-round playoff system is obviously well-suited for a player to get hot at the right time and carry a team to the title; maybe McDonald can be that person.

Western New York Flash fans have a lot to be positive about in the first half of the season, and how they answer these questions will have a lot to do with whether this surprising team maintains its stellar form.

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