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The Virtual Rapids of FIFA 17

The newest edition of FIFA came out this week. What do the wizards at EA Sports think of the team from Commerce City?

As a FIFA aficionado and Rapids fanatic, the new edition of FIFA is something between a holiday and a curiosity for me each year. Holiday because OH MY GOD A NEW FIFA GIMMEE GIMMEE GIMMEE. But also a curiosity because each year I fire up the game to see how the programmers and scouts in the Electronic Arts office rank the Colorado Rapids players. Usually, I am disappointed.

In general, MLS kinda takes a beating in the game - both in terms of the league’s stature and the mild inaccuracy of the player ratings. All you need to know is that, while the EPL gets every single stadium into the game, plus a fair number of 2nd tier Championship stadia, for a total of 27 British stadia, MLS has two: BC Place and Century Link. Hell, the Saudi League has the same number of stadia.

On the other hand, Liga MX has only one stadium, and La Liga has only two, although that’s more about licensing, since Barcelona’s Camp Nou is NOT in the game. So, it ain’t that bad I guess.

MLS player ratings are another area that North American soccer fans can gripe about. Lets take a look. This will not only help to explain some of the faults of EA FIFA’s ratings team, but also will provide context when we look at the Rapids: it’s not that our team is getting jobbed, it’s that MLS as a whole tend to get jobbed.

Note that all the ratings are taken from futhead.com, a fantastic website full of awesome data and nerdery about the FIFA video game. You should go there.

Below are the 11 best players in MLS according to FIFA17.

The first thing you’ll notice is the slightly innaccurate over-inflation of our European bretheren who have immigrated to these blessed American shores. While only a fool would argue that Giovinco* isn’t the best player in MLS (he is), the rest of this list is, uh, wrong.

Kaka hasn’t been the best midfielder in MLS in 2016. I’m not sure he’d clock in amongst the top ten. David Villa is deserving of his rating. Pirlo, Drogba, and Gerrard are not. Gerrard defends at a 68 as much as I have Kekuta Manneh’s speed. No frikkin’ way.

Also, Frank Lampard has probably been better than Steven Gerrard this year. Lamps is carrying a 78, so although he’s not far off, he’s still not accurately ranked. Yes, of course Frank was hurt and I’m sure the FIFA folks were busy buttoning up the game and therefore put more weight on MLS data from March to July, but still. European alterkakers (yiddish for old guys) get more credit than they deserve in this gamer’s opinion.

Let’s get more context by looking at the top MLS defenders.

Laurent Ciman is good. Jelle Van Damme is good. Raul Rodriguez isn’t even the best defender on his team, let alone top 3 in the league (Jalil Anibaba and David Horst are both, statistically, a tick ahead of him). Steven Taylor is a recent add: not enough data. Matt Besler’s looked pretty meh to me this year, and SKC have suffered as a result. Kendall Waston is a fantastic player until he draws an inevitable red, which he does often. Maxim Chanot transferred to NYCFC in the Summer transfer window, played four games, and has been out with a herniated disc ever since. EA was betting heavily on his past performance I guess.

The three best defenses in MLS on Goals Against are, in order, the Colorado Rapids, (27 GA), Toronto FC (33 GA) and San Jose (35 GA). None have a single player on this list. Each teams best defender, according to FIFA, is: Axel Sjoberg at 69; Drew Moor at 71; and Clarence Goodsen at 72. Meanwhile the worst defensive team in the league is Orlando City, with 57 GA. Their best defenders, Seb Hines and Mateos, pull a 69 and 68 rating, respectively.

So, basically, FIFA17 has flaws when it comes to MLS.

That is all context for looking at the Rapids. Yes, the Rapids numbers are inaccurate. But not significantly more or less than most of the other MLS teams. And, of course, it is a guessing game. All sports games are going to build their models on past behavior and then tweak this based on age and some other factors. That said, it feels like FIFA17 is still a little high on some players and a lot clueless on others.

Here’s our beloved Rapids, in order of overall rating, with GKs at the bottom.

OK, first, the good. Shkelzen Gashi’s rating might not yet be earned, but I think most folks would argue that a European international who crushed the Axpo Swiss Super League is going to get a bit of leeway. Micheal Azira got a lot of love, and his defensive rating of 66 will help make playing with the FIFA17 Rapids a reasonable imitation of the real thing. Bobby Burling got a well deserved rating of 69, which is pretty good for a 32 year old MLS lifer rescued from the carcass of Chivas RIP. Gashi’s overall rating is +1 from FIFA16. Burling’s rating went up +3, and Micheal Azira jumped an astonishing +6 from last year, which probably tells you simply that FIFA pegged him too low in 2016. Marco Pappa gets the best dribbling score on the team at 76, which is probably right on.

Now, the bad. All of the youngun’s that are making the team click right now are rated too low. Which makes sense if you assume, as I do, that somebody rated all the Rapids back in July, gave the benchwarmers numbers in the mid 60’s, and moved on. That’s why Hairston (65 overall, pace 82, passing 58, defense 57) is so low, along with Dominique Badji (64 overall, 78 pace and a ridiculous 25 for defense), Eric Miller (65 overall), and Caleb Calvert (52 overall! Lies!). All still have a lot to prove, so it ain’t criminal how FIFA did us. Just inaccurate.

Then you have the over-inflation of Kevin Doyle, who clocks in at 69. Badji has 4 goals this year and an expected goals rating of 3.21; FIFA17 put his shooting at 56. Gashi has 7 goals and an xG of 5.55; his shooting rating is 75. Doyle has 4 goals but with an xG of 5.76, meaning he’s missed a buncha stuff he should have made. FIFA17 gifts him 67 shooting rating. Of course, they rate Dillon Powers at a 69 shooting, so who the hell knows even.

Sean St Ledger gets a 69 and hasn’t even played a minute. I don’t know what that’s about. Jared Watts has been a stellar fill in for Bobby Burling at centerback, but only pulls a 65 rating. I think a few ticks higher, like a 67, with a passing number at least 10 points higher than his criminally unfair 55, makes sense.

Tim Howard is probably too high, or Zac MacMath too low, in the sense that the two have both been very good for the Rapids, and putting one 14 points above the other is dumb and wrong.

Finally, Jermaine. Our dear, sweet, hobbled Jermaine. FIFA16 rated the dreadlocked terror at a gold-level 77, befitting of a USMNT regular. Either FIFA hates America, or thinks Jermaines best days are over, because our injured destroyer/playmaker hybrid got only a 72 rating from the folks in the FIFA factory in Vancouver for FIFA17, a drop of 5 overall points, most on the Rapids. There are eleven USMNT-eligible central midfielders rated ahead of Jermaine Jones, including Lee Nguyen, Benny Feilhaber (ha! Take THAT Jurgen!) Dax McCarty, Kelyn Rowe and Maurice Edu.

That means either FIFA underestimates the USMNT and the Rapids, or Jurgen Klinsmann needs to play more FIFA.

Overall, I’d say the Rapids got fair to slightly unfair treatment by FIFA. Rating that many players - 18,000 over 700 clubs - is an insane exercise in data-gathering and prediction. It’s also a little like a sweater; pull a thread here and you might unravel a whole bunch of other stuff. Tweak a couple MLS players higher here, you mess up a national team there, some ratings need a bump in Norway, and suddenly you’ve just created a game when the simulations show that the Go Ahead Eagles and Tianjin United will be playing in the FIFA Club Championship. I get it.

Still, there are some mistakes in how low the Rapids are rated. I can’t wait to see the club win MLS Cup and prove a lot of programmers wrong.

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* You probably noticed Giovinco has two cards. One is an ‘in form’ used in FIFA Ultimate Team (FUT) mode. Players who have a good game or a good season may have a special ‘card’ issued for them - Marc Burch and Kevin Doyle each earned one last season for having great games. FUT mode is great fun, if you’ve never played it.