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MLS Castrol Index: What they mean and where some Fire players rank

Sean Johnson has been rounding into form nicely as of late.  The Olympic Qualifying debacle seems to be firmly behind him.  Where does he rank among goalkeepers in the Castrol Index?  Read below to find out.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Sean Johnson has been rounding into form nicely as of late. The Olympic Qualifying debacle seems to be firmly behind him. Where does he rank among goalkeepers in the Castrol Index? Read below to find out. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
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If you are like me you like your stats whenever you can get them. If those stats involve the Fire, then it's even better. Unfortunately, MLS and soccer in general is a bit behind other sports in terms of statistics. There is no fancy Sabermetrics like MLB employs, for example. Until recently, it was hard to find much stat-wise for MLS other than the most basic match stats. Fortunately, people involved in the soccer landscape have realized a need to accumulate more stats and use them to make their respective clubs better. More stats means more data, and more data (when used properly) can be the difference between a regularly successful franchise and a franchise that is not consistently successful.

Most Fire fans have probably heard of the Castrol Index, but I have the feeling that there aren't very many fans that know what sort of statistics are measured to create the index. As with any topic or statistic, if people don't understand it, they are likely to ignore it or pay little attention to it. I personally feel that the Castrol Index is not well explained upon first glance, but once understood, provides valuable data about MLS players. Once you get a bit of an understanding of the Index and how it works, then the data becomes a valuable tool to evaluate players and the overall state of an MLS club.

Fortunately, I was contacted recently by Kathleen Fletcher, an Ogilvy Media Influence at Ogilvy Public Relations in New York. She works with the folks that compile the Castrol Index, and was kind enough to submit a list of Fire players I generated (with input from the rest of the HTIOT team) to the folks over at the Castrol Index. They in turn were kind enough to provide an in depth analysis of the requested players. Just having the data itself would be useful, but to maximize the value of the numbers, I wanted a benchmark to compare the Fire players too. So, I asked if we could either get the league average for players by that position, or get the rankings for the top 2 or 3 players at that particular position. That way, we can evaluate where the Fire players stand in terms of others in the league. I feel this makes the data more more valuable as an evaluation tool, and helps highlight things the player can do to improve in the rankings and their overall game in general.

I want to give full credit to Kathleen and all the wonderful people that go into making the Castrol Index Rankings. I have been given permission to share the data that they provided to me, with my own analysis sprinkled in the middle. What follows is data directly from the Castrol Index team. Again, a big thanks to Kathleen and the Castrol team for making this opportunity happen. Please join me after the break for an in depth breakdown of some of they key roster players on the Fire. Please feel free to share your thoughts on this data as well. Away we go...

*Disclaimer- the stats I am sharing were provided to me on June 28th. So, they won't reflect any stats since that date, but are still current enough to be valuable in analysis of the players.

The first position I want to look at is goalkeeping. I would have loved to get ranks for every player, but since I was allowed to submit a handful of names, I went with Sean Johnson. I have enjoyed watching Paolo Tornaghi when he has played, but Sean is certainly our star goalkeeper and has been in fine form lately, especially the past few games. First, let's look at some of the things that go into the Index directly from the Castrol team:

Goalkeepers: Comparing Johnson (#15 among Goalkeepers) from Chicago Fire and Hamid, Gruenebaum (#1 and #2 GK respectively)

A keepers performance depends mainly on the shots saved, so I will focus on that. Of course it depends also on how difficult a shot was, but I think you will get an idea:

Johnson: 38 saves out of 54 on target shots (70%)

Hamid: 39 saves out of 47 OTS (83%)

Gruenebaum: 57 saves out of 72 OTS (79%).

Apart from these, Hamid seems to have done better than the other two in ball recovery, which for a keeper depicts mainly his ability in catching the balls after opposition's corners and crosses. He is 7th among GK of the MLS, with Gruenebaum 15th and Johnson 19th.

As you can see, Sean Johnson ranks in the middle of the pack for goalkeepers. Stats were provided for the top 2 keepers in the rankings at the time I received the data. This allows us to see where Sean stands in terms of his peers. Bill Hamid, despite losing his starting spot and struggling since Olympic Qualifying, is first, followed closely by Andy Gruenebaum, who is having a very good year with the Crew. Although at first I was a bit surprised that Sean was ranked 15th overall, many factors can affect this rating.

The obvious thing that sticks out to me is the fact that shots saved (which is a main ingredient for this statistic) can vary widely from team to team, thus having the potential to skew data one way or the other. For example, Bill Hamid has only faced 47 shots. Part of this is him losing playing time, but you can also consider things like a team defense affecting this stat. A team that has a very strong defense will prevent more shots from being made. And the more shots you face, the more goals will be scored. So a combination of factors has helped catapult Bill Hamid to the #1 spot, although most fans would probably agree he has not had what you would call a stellar year so far.

Sean on the other hand is in between Hamid and Gruenebaum in terms of shots faced. He missed a couple of matches early in the season when he was with the Olympic team, but other than that I would say our backline has been pretty steady in front of him so far this year. Losing Cory Gibbs and Arne Friedrich for periods has hurt, but other than a short rough stretch, the young tandem of Austin Berry and Jalil Anibaba have done well. Sean has benefited from this by not seeing nearly as many shots as Andy Gruenebaum for example.

The other statistic that the Castrol folks pointed out was that Hamid seemed to be better than Sean at claiming balls in the air on crosses, corners, etc. This I would agree with. I don't think many Fire fans would argue with me when I say this is one of the main areas that Sean needs to improve on. The good news is that he has done much better lately and has been working hard on this. Sean has been controlling the box much better during our recent good run of form, and part of our success is due to this I think. More catching the ball and less punching it out creates less shots off rebounds, therefore reducing shot attempts on goal and ultimately reducing goals as well.

Let's move on to defenders. I asked for stats for our 2 youngsters, Jalil Anibaba and Austin Berry. I personally think they have the talent to develop into one of the league's best CB tandems given enough time. They are both young and will hopefully be at the heart of the Fire defense for many years to come. We know what our veterans are capable of, so I thought it would be most useful to look at the rankings of our youngsters. This is the analysis from the Castrol team for Jalil and Austin:

Defenders: Comparing Berry (#11 among defenders), Anibaba (#43 among defenders) from Chicago Fire and Hainault, Marshall (#1 and #2 Defenders respectively).

Berry's strongest point is the won duels in defence, where he is the 12th best among all players in MLS! He is by far better than Hainault, Marshall and Anibaba, who are ranked after the first 100. Berry is also good in Clearance actions (blocking etc.), being 31st in MLS. Marshall is really strong there (6th) with Hainault and Anibaba far behind. What distinguishes Berry from many defenders is his attacking contribution. He is 37th in MLS for Goal scoring (this doesn't just take into account the number of goals). He is better than Marshall (66th) but worse than Hainault (16th). He is also 38th in the Off Target Shots list.

Anibaba: His performance is quite poorer than the rest of the players in question. His strongest point is Ball Recovery from the opposition, where he is ranked 112th, compared to 102th Hainault, 165th Berry and 182th Marshall. He has also some Off Target and some On Target shooting activity, being 139th and 159th respectively. Regarding On Target Shots, this is not a bad performance, especially compared to Berry and Hainault, who are ranked after the first 200.

Hainault: He is the best defender so far, mainly thanks to his ability to win the ball back from the opponent (he is 4th best player in MLS doing that). As mentioned before he has also contributed very much to the attacking of his team, being 16th among all MLS players (note, again, that this doesn't only refer to the amount of goals scored). He is also best among the four players in question in terms of good passes (69th overall) and corners won (72nd overall)

Marshall: As mentioned before he is really strong in ball clearance actions (6th overall). Apart from this, he is 19th in winning the ball back, 17th in On Target Shots (far better than the other three in question, who rank after the first 150). Finally he is 82nd in passing and 66th in goal scoring.

The stats really opened my eyes in terms of Austin Berry. I have thought he has done a good job for us so far, but the stats improved my view of his contributions even more. Simply put, for a rookie thrown directly into the heat of the action due to injuries, I don't think anyone could ask for better performance. While I would say he did have a couple of shaky starts, that is to be expected from a rookie and that makes his good performances even more impressive in all of his other games.

I was also surprised that Jalil ranked much lower than I would have thought. By no means do I think his play has been bad this year, in fact I think overall he has done very well. Other than the same couple of shaky games that he shared with Austin, the rest of his performances have been good in my opinion. He had very good games vs. SKC and most recently Houston. But, in terms of what the Castrol teams measures for the defensive rankings, he slips much lower.

Again, other factors can contribute to this. Obviously the youth and inexperience of young players can make things tougher. As can who is at left/right back. If you have to cover for those players sometimes, you can get out of position and that can affect performance. Additionally, the Castrol team seems to place a good amount of significance on offensive contributions, and I think this really plays into our CB tandem. Jalil hasn't been getting up the field nearly as much as he had earlier this year and especially last year. He still gets his looks in, but since Austin has proven that he is a dangerous offensive threat in his own right, Jalil seems to be staying back a bit more. After all, you can't have both CB's pushing up the pitch to help on the attack unless you want to give up loads of goals. Frank may have also told him to hang back more given the youth and inexperience at CB right now of both players. If Anibaba pairs with Friedrich I expect to see Jalil freed up more to help offensively since Arne can man the back on his own very well when he needs to.

It's nice to see that Austin's offensive contributions not only help his rankings but have helped the team immensely so far this year too. He has certainly been a pleasant surprise for Fire fans this year, and I look for him to get even better. Think about it: an MLS rookie is #11 overall, and that is VERY impressive. Things will certainly be interesting late this season or next season when Cory Gibbs is ready to return. It will be really hard to sit Austin/Jalil, especially if they continue the form they have been in. Obviously when healthy Arne will always be out there, but the fact that we have two great young CB's in the league to pair with him is a luxury most teams don't have. Not to mention as Austin gets more playing time under his belt, he could climb up the rankings even more as his minutes accumulate (and hopefully spectacular defensive plays and maybe a few more goals and assists too).

Next up on the docket is midfield players. I chose two of our offensive catalysts in Marco Pappa and Patrick Nyarko to see how they ranked vs. other MLS midfielders. here are the numbers from the Castrol team:

Midfielders: Comparing Pappa (#16 among Midfielders), Nyarko (#19 among Midfielders) from Chicago Fire and Nyassi, Rowe (#1 and #2 MF respectively).

Pappa: He is very good at duels being 17th in the respective list, far better than the other three. He is also much better in Ball recovery (127th in total) and in ball clearance (125th in total). He has a reasonable goal and passing contribution being 70th and 104th respectively but still behind Rowe (39th and 28th) and Nyassi (47th and 98th).

Nyarko: His strongest point is winning the ball back, where he is 140th in MLS. Apart from this he is 156th in Off Target Shots, 188th in Good Passes and 193rd in On Target Shots.

Nyassi: He is the best MLS player in terms of On Target shots and 47th in terms of goal scoring. Furthermore, he is 59th in Off Target Shots and 98th in passing.

Rowe: He is 4th in On Target Shots, 24th in Of Target Shots, 28th in good passes, 39th in goal scoring (best among the four players in question) and 84th in winning the ball from opposition (also best among the four in question).

As you can see by these numbers, both Pappa and Nyarko are both rated highly overall in MLS. I hadn't thought Marco was as good as his ranking in ball recovery. As we all know and sometimes lament, he tends to lose the ball more dribbling than it seems like he recovers it. But it's nice to see that stat since I think many fans (myself included) don't give him enough credit in that department.

One of the stats for Nyarko that made sense to me was the fact he rated highly on winning the ball back. We all know Nyarko for his blazing speed, but he is also a good defender. He works hard and is willing to track back. I know most Fire fans feel that Patrick is greatly under appreciated in comparison to other MLS midfielders/wingers, and I think his defensive work rate also goes unnoticed sometimes. We have seen a couple of times this year when Patrick picked the pocket of the opposing team and it lead directly to a goal.

Though Pappa has his detractors, overall I have always been a fan of him. These stats help show that there will certainly be a hole to fill if/when he leaves the Fire this summer or after the season ends. We all know it will happen at some point. The conundrum is that if he leaves this summer, we get some good money but will have a hole to fill. While we do have other players that can help step in, Marco Pappa is not a talent that you just easily replace. If he stays the rest of the year we get another half season of his services, but lose out on the transfer money we get. It is and interesting and delicate situation to be sure but Fire fans have already prepared for his departure, whether it is imminent or in the offseason.

Finally, I did not submit Dominic Oduro's name for our look at the striker stats. Since he is our only real striker (Rolfe just doesn't have the minutes yet to make a look at his stats worthwhile but I will take a look at his stats at the end of this year), he was the only real choice and I was hoping to compare at least 2 Fire players. Orr doesn't get enough time either, and Sherjill MacDonald (who as of this morning has confirmed himself he is coming to the Fire) will need a handful of games before he can be truly evaluated. Kathleen and the Castrol teams has been kind enough to allow me to ask for future data, so I plan to do another article at the end of the year looking at final stats for the players talked about today, as well as newcomers like Rolfe, MacDonald, Oduro and Alex. Keep an eye out for that piece sometime this winter which will include final stats for strikers too once our forward corps is complete.

I know this article is long and stats heavy, so it should be right up the alley hopefully of those of you that love your stats. Even for those that don't this is a unique opportunity to get a clearer understanding of what goes into the Castrol Index and where are own Fire players rank. The insight into what their strengths and weaknesses have been so far is nice too as it helps paint the whole picture. Overall, our team is doing very well, and with the new additions we have made, I think we can carry strong form through to the playoffs. This transfer window will still be a bit hectic most likely, but things are certainly looking up in Fire Country!