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Is Dillon Powers better than Jermaine Jones?

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Jermaine Jones is one of two highly touted USMNT player the Rapids added for this year. But the steady Dillon Powers has played more games than JJ this year. Who has been better for the Rapids?

MLS: U.S. Open Cup-Colorado Rapids at FC Dallas Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Colorado have started both Dillon Powers and Jermaine Jones in central midfield through the first nineteen games of the 2016 Major League Soccer season, with Powers getting the majority of starts due to Jones’ six-game suspension to start the year, his four missed games while away on duty with the US Men’s National Team, and the past two games Jones has been out with a reported ‘right leg injury.’ It is clear that Jermaine Jones, a USMNT star on a $650,000 a year contract, was brought in to be the first string midfielder. But in light of the Rapids’ tremendous success this year, it is worthwhile to ask the question: could Dillon Powers actually be the better midfielder than Jermaine Jones?

OK, yes, the title and the question are provocative, and click-bait-y as all hell. Guilty as charged. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a legitimate query. We’ll do this mostly by breaking down numbers. Of course, as always, numbers don’t give a full picture; they annotate what your eyes see. But occasionally folks will claim something like ‘Player X is a terrible passer’ or ‘Player Y doesn’t defend’. While your eyes can help form that claim, seeing statistically that a player has 30 Chances Created or the highest team average for defensive actions can debunk any fallaciously held ‘gut beliefs’. Fans have a few orthodoxies on the Rapids they cling to, and many are well-founded. But each one needs to stand up to the scrutiny of full daylight. Or, math.

Passing and Shooting

Jones/Powers side by side, care of Squawka

Squawka, like most websites, has a proprietary rating metric that throws a bunch of data into a blender to create a score. Audi has one this year. whoscored.com has one. Our own Marty McGowan created his own (!).

They’re all fine, but they all tilt towards certain stats over others. In general, they favor goal scoring and offense over pass creation and defense, in my opinion. And of course, they’re all pretty subjective. Is Sebastian Giovinco a ‘better’ player than Dax McCarty? Probably. But they play different roles on their team. Dax isn’t meant to be your key chance creator. Gio isn’t a game-changing defender. In other words, these ‘all-in-one’ metrics might work in baseball, but I don’t think they work in soccer. I’ll use raw numbers, normalized to a 90 minute game. FYI, Powers has started 11 games for the Rapids, all in central midfield at the ‘number ten’ spot; Jones has started the other 8 games.

What we see here, simply, is that Jermaine Jones scores more goals: 3 this season to Powers’ 1; and Dillon Powers creates more chances: 21 this season to Jones’ 10. Automatically, you’re into a pretty subjective area when it comes to the question of which player is ‘better’.

Do you want your central attacking midfielder to generate chances for the players around him: a classic ‘creative midfielder/midfield maestro’, a la Javier Morales? Then you prefer Dillon Powers: he’d prefer to send the deadly pass into someone else to score.

Or do you want your number ten to have real scoring chops, and get 10 goals a season as a long shooter, a second forward, and/or a late run-maker, a la Benny Feilhaber (last year, not this year)? Then you want Jermaine, who spent his first couple games with the Rapids getting into the box so often, he was often higher up the pitch than Kevin Doyle, the actual striker for the club.

Jermaine’s passing isn’t so bad that he’s ‘un-creative’ per se. On the other hand, Powers’ shooting this year isn’t that good, as evidenced by the 25% shot accuracy number above. I wrote about that before: Powers isn’t shooting super-well right now. But at least he pretty much knows it, and leaves the bulk of the shots to his teammates. Powers sits eighth on the team in shots taken with 16, behind even part-timers like Dom Badji (18), Luis Solignac (22), and Marco Pappa (26). And waaaay behind fellow midfielder Shkelzen Gashi (47).

So one can make the argument that since Jones is an ok passer, good shooter, and Powers is a good passer, poor shooter, that on balance, Jermaine is the better number ten. I mostly agree. I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion though that Jermaine Jones is a better offensive option, 100%. If the players know what their roles are, and against certain opponents, Powers might be a better choice on a given night. On balance, I call this one a slight advantage to Jermaine.

Scoring Goals

Here are the xG numbers for Powers and Jones. xG is ‘Expected Goals’; a goal is assigned a number from below to above 1.0 as to the likelihood from a given position of scoring a goal; 0.1 is a miracle shot from way out or a wacky angle, 1.9 is a can’t miss shot inside the six yard box, and so on.

americansocceranalysis.com

Powers, as discussed in last week’s ‘Backpass’, misses shots that the average MLS player scores on; not at a terrible rate (that would be Deshorn Brown); but at a ‘Gee he should have hit that’ rate. That -0.55 G-xG number tells you that. Meanwhile, Jermaine is the opposite. He’s been scoring above the average rate; a whopping +1.24 G-xG. That’s a pretty good rate, and above his 2015 number of -0.53 G-xG, and his 2014 number of +0.89 G-xG. He’s either really, really sharp right now (woohoo!), or overperforming what we can reasonably expect over a full season (boo!).

Nonetheless, the Rapids have only 22 goals on the season, and the lack of production is a worry. The guy that puts the ball in the back of the net is probably the most important guy to put out there. The team needs killer instinct right now and finishing, not another great pass to get Wondo’ed over the bar. Advantage, Jermaine.

Defending

Here are more defensive numbers, care of Squawka.

Here, I did put in Squawka’s proprietary defense score. Defence; it’s British. How quaint.

The gut instinct is to say that Jermaine Jones; roving terror in the night; destroyer par excellance; or, in Matt Doyle’s parlance ‘a completely unchained id’, is a better defender. How can he not be? He runs around the pitch like a maniac; harassing the ball carrier from here to Timbuktu; wreaking havoc where ever he goes like a Japanese monster on mid-70s Downtown Tokyo.

And it’s sorta true. He wins more tackles/90 than Powers; 1.67 to 1.28, a significant amount. He wins more duels (aerial balls with an opposing player) too: Jones wins 52% to Powers’ 38%.

But that Godzilla-factor with Jones has a cost. He fouls at a higher rate. He has more yellow cards (3) than Powers (2). In the wrong place, that can be a killer.

Powers also often accomplishes his defense by taking the ball away in the passing lane, instead of lifting off the dribbler. Powers 0.98 Interceptions/90 is almost double Jones’ 0.51 INT/90. That inclination towards smart positioning instead of outright-aggressiveness might be the reason also that Powers has slightly more blocks than Jones.

Some people like a more aggressive defender. I don’t. I want a guy that’ll get the job done. Both do it, although the way Powers does it is more subtle. I call this category a draw.

Intangibles

Listen, you can’t measure things like ‘swagger’, ‘presence’, and ‘impact in the locker room’ with a neat ‘per/90’ metric. (It’d be cool though if you could.) But the change from the 2014 and 2015 Rapids with Powers at the number ten and the 2016 Rapids with Jermaine Jones as the number ten is unmistakable. JJ brings competetive fire and aggressiveness the team didn’t have before. It could be coincidence, but I don’t think so. Jermaine helped make this team better.

Here are the relevant won-loss numbers for 2016 to compare:

  • Jermaine Jones: 8 G, 8 GS, 5W, 3T, 0L, 1.88 ppg
  • Dillon Powers: 15 G, 11 GS, 4W, 5T, 2L, 1.55 ppg

Those W/L numbers for Powers are only for games he started.

The numbers on this one aren’t conclusive. There are a lot of factors at play when a team earns a win or a loss when you are on the field. Who else was playing? Was it a home game or a road game? Did either team go down to 10 men?

Still, the team has done a bit better with Jermaine Jones on the pitch than with Dillon Powers.

I’m putting the intangibles down as advantage: JJ.

Summary

Dillon Powers hasn’t been quite as good, on the whole, as Jermaine Jones. So, if you want, roast me in the comments for click-baiting you.

Still. The exercise was well worth the effort, because it revealed that some of the things we might considered ‘deficiencies’ in Powers’ game can better be chalked up to ‘differences in style’. Also, for the crowd that say that Jermaine Jones is a ‘vast improvement’ over Dillon Powers, I don’t think the numbers lend themselves to that conclusion. If Jermaine is better, the margin isn’t that great.

That should, at the very least, provide some explanation as to how the Rapids have been able to earn so many points despite missing so many games from Jermaine.

It also should give some comfort to us fans in the event that Jermaine is out a while. Jones has been out two game with injury so far, and it hasn’t been fully explained by the Rapids beyond a vague ‘right leg injury.’ It seems likely that Jones will be out on Saturday against FC Dallas. If Jermaine (please, no) is (ugh) out for an extended period, or even the rest of the season (nooooo! don’t say it!), it might be a bummer, and it might hurt the team. But I think I’ve made a case that all is not lost. The team has done pretty well with Dillon Powers in central midfield, and hopefully will continue to do well as we press towards the playoffs.