Stats Stories

Atlanta United fourth best in MLS in expected goals per shot against opponent


Entering the season, Gonzalo Pineda said the team was emphasizing defense. This might come as a surprise, for Atlanta United has always been an attack-minded team, but to open 2024 Atlanta United’s head coach stated that defense was an area of the game he wanted his team to actively improve, as he told reporters back in January:

“Specifically, we’re going to emphasize defensive actions, how we can defend better as a team. Collectively, pressing better and continue with the main ideas of the team in the attack.”

This defensive emphasis showed up in the club’s offseason moves. The scouting department, led by Carlos Bocanegra, targeted players with a strong pedigree. They’d already brought in Tristan Muyumba during last season’s transfer window when the team also signed Saba Lobjanidze and Xande Silva to energize the attack. This offseason, the club signed Norwegian international Stian Gregersen and MLS veteran Derrick Williams to form a strong center back pairing. The front office also added Bartosz Slisz to complement Muyumba in the defensive midfield. With defense as an area to improve, the front office equipped Pineda with players who could help.

Seven matches into the regular season, the strategy seems to be working. Atlanta United is playing better defensively this season, conceding fewer goals and limiting quality shots for the opponent, which can be seen in this week’s metric called expected goals per shot against.

The stat: Expected goals per shot against

What it measures: How teams are limiting the quality of opponents’ chances.

This stat is a defensive one and measures how teams are limiting the quality of an opponent’s chance on goal. Clearances in the box, taking the ball away in transition, limiting chances in central areas, those ball-winning actions from players like Tristan Muyumba – all these plays limit the ability for opposing teams to take a quality shot from a dangerous area.

In the most recent match against Philadelphia Union on April 14, Atlanta United did a good job minimizing their opponent’s attacking chances. The Union finished the match with just two chances above 0.1 expected goals (xG), the measuring stick for a quality shot. For an opponent as good as Philadelphia, the only undefeated team remaining in MLS heading into Matchday 10, to get only two quality chances in 90 minutes is a testament to Atlanta United’s defense. Philadelphia Union finished the match with 0.81 xG on 13 shots, giving them 0.062 shot quality or expected goals per shot.

The statistic against Philadelphia shows a trend for the season. Atlanta United currently holds the fourth best expected goals per shot conceded in MLS with an average of 0.074. In 2023, Atlanta United ranked 20th in MLS in that category with a value of 0.104, which shows the club’s improvement on the defensive side.

Atlanta United did concede twice to Philadelphia, after going ahead by two goals, so how does that show a strong defensive performance? Well, sometimes you just have to tip your hat to the opponent.

Kai Wagner’s equalizer in the 77th minute had a pre-shot expected goals value of 0.05, which is pretty low. That means five times out of 100, measured before his shot was taken, the shot goes in for a goal. His post-shot expected goals value went up drastically to 0.88, which means 88 times out of 100 his finish would result in a goal. Those numbers suggest that the shot Wagner took was in a difficult situation and not necessarily the type of chance that should’ve led to a goal. But the player’s touch and accuracy was very good, increasing the probability for the shot to result in a goal.

Atlanta United’s defensive success through seven matches is even more impressive given the rotation of center backs we’ve seen so far. Four different center backs have started for Atlanta United in the team’s traditional four-man backline. The team has seen no more than three matches with the same center back pairing:

Atlanta United's starting center backs through April 14, 2024
Starting center back pairing
Columbus Crew
Stian Gregersen, Derrick Williams 
New England Revolution
Stian Gregersen, Derrick Williams 
Orlando City SC
Stian Gregersen, Derrick Williams 
Toronto FC
Derrick Williams, Noah Cobb
Chicago Fire
Derrick Williams, Noah Cobb
New York City FC
Derrick Williams, Noah Cobb
Philadelphia Union
Noah Cobb, Luis Abram

One of those players is Noah Cobb, 18 years old with just six MLS starts under his belt. But Cobb, along with his counterparts in the backline, have created consistency. In the first seven matches of the season, Atlanta United has conceded just seven goals, tied for fewest in MLS. There is consistency, even with different players filling in, which shows continuity in the messaging and coaching.

But what’s even more impressive is the performance of the whole team. Adding a defensive specialist in the midfield in Slisz has helped support the backline. Thiago Almada had a career-high in counterpressures a few weeks agon in New York City, showing his effort on the defensive side. Attackers like Giorgos Giakoumakis have taken it upon themselves to press with even more effort and urgency so they can create more chances.

Given the targets they set out at the beginning of the season, the coaching staff should be pleased with what this metric shows about Atlanta United’s first seven games.

As Atlanta United, and MLS, develops deeper knowledge and use of data analytics, we’ll be taking a look behind the curtain at some of the specific stats the club values. In our new weekly content series, we examine one metric provided by StatsBomb that may not stand out on a first watch, but upon closer evaluation, is a useful tool to measure the team’s performance.

Atlanta United's Data Scientist & Analyst Arjun Balaraman contributed to this story.

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