As Goes Diego Rubio
How much do the Colorado Rapids rely on Diego Rubio to win a game? And is that a bad thing?
There’s no doubt that Diego Rubio plays a critically important role for the 2022 Colorado Rapids. Whether you think he’s a fantastic talent or an underwhelming disappointment, Rubio earns a ton of minutes for this ballclub; at 1862 minutes so far, he’s fourth on the team, and in the critically important roles of either center forward or as the second striker.
I have begun to surmise, now that we are more than two-thirds of the way through the season, that Diego Rubio’s success or failure match to match might be the most important determining factor in this team’s fortunes. The defense is generally solid. The midfield is somewhat unspectacular. Gyasi Zardes was a mid-year addition, started cold, and then got hot - so we don’t have a complete picture of his impact on the team. And thus Rubio, I have hypothesized, might happen to have the most measurable impact on the team’s results, and a proportionally outsized one at that. As goes Diego Rubio, the phrase might go, so go the Colorado Rapids.
When I get a bee in my bonnet - an idea or a question about a game or a team - I make a spreadsheet. As the years have gone by and my day job has taken up more and more of my time, I find I have fewer and fewer opportunities to sit and pour over numbers in the attempt to discern a pattern, so this kind of Backpass nerdery is becoming less and less common. However, I couldn’t help myself, and so here it is - a chart analyzing all of Diego Rubio’s shots, goals, and Expected Goals as compared with the team results. I hope you like it.
Here are some observations, some of which I will unpack future down below:
The Rapids have only won once when Diego Rubio fails to put a shot on target. They are 1-4-2 (WTL) in matches where he has 0 SOT.
Colorado is 6-2-4 when Rubio scores a goal. They are 2-4-5 when he does NOT score a goal.
Rubio has played in six matches in which he produced 0.7 Expected Goals or better.1 Diego scored in five of those matches; the Rapids went 1-2-2 in those matches.
Rubio has been the team’s lone goal scorer four times. Colorado went 0-1-3 in those matches.
On average, Rubio produces 25.56 percent of the team’s xG - in other words, he takes a big chunk of the teams best chances to score. In the Rapids eight wins, only twice did Rubio produce more than his average amount of xG; the other six times, he produced less than his average contribution to team xG. This implies that when the team doesn’t rely on Rubio to get the big chance and convert it, they generally do better.
Against Minnesota, Rubio produced 1.4 xG while the Rapids produced 1.3 xG; he produced 107 percent of the team’s xG. This should be impossible, except that sometimes the team xG and player xG numbers are calculated differently. There’s nothing profound to say here except it’s funny and weird.
The Rapids are 3-0-1 when Rubio has an assist. In all four matches, Rubio produced a well-below average quantity of the team’s overall xG.2
The team’s record when producing 1.5 team xG or worse is 2-4-6. The team’s record when Rubio produces 0.5 xG or worse is 3-1-6. In those ten matches, not surprisingly, Rubio has just one goal.
Most of these numbers support the hypothesis that I ventured to start this article - as goes Diego Rubio, so go the Rapids. The exception is that fourth bullet point about the Rapids doing better when he’s responsible for a below-average amount of the team’s xG total.
There’s nothing wrong with relying excessively on one specific player, or a pair of players. Examples in MLS of this most recently include Josef Martinez, Carlos Vela, and the one-two Lucha-Roo of Luchiano Acosta and Wayne Rooney. If you have an excellent player, you can put the franchise on their shoulders and let them carry you to the promised land. The best argument I could make for that in Diego Rubio’s case is this: Colorado has 36 goals, and 12 of those (or 33.3 percent) come from Diego Rubio. However, Diego Rubio’s percentage of the teams overall xG is just 25.56 percent, and he’s out producing his xG of 9.4 by a total 2.6. One might reasonably contend, then, that if Colorado sent more of their chances through Diego Rubio, he would finish at a higher rate than the rest of his teammates. Put the franchise on the back of the Chilean and let’s roll the dice, Robin.
This is, of course, an ‘all things being equal’, ignoring-all-actual-game-conditions type of argument, because based on the position that Rubio plays, perhaps he’s going to get better chances than, say, Jack Price at midfield or Jonathan Lewis playing on the wing. Rubio might have better xG and a better SOT to Shot ratio because that’s what center forwards do.3 However, I do think the statement I just made does answer the question “should we run more of the offense or less of the offense though Diego Rubio?” The answer would be “we should do more of it.”
A supporting piece of evidence there is the Shots to Shots on Goal rates of the team vs. Rubio. Rubio puts 43.94 percent of his shots on target. The rest of the team other than Diego Rubio puts shots on target at a rate of just 29.12 percent. And now I need to give another disclaimer: I’m not a huge fan of using Shots On Target as a meaningful stat, because in theory, a striker might be lauded for going 100/100 at putting big chances straight into the chest of the GK when he could have easily picked out a corner, while another striker might go 0/100 as every goal bounces the wrong way off the post. Both suck. Both aren’t goals. A wasted chance is a wasted chance. But still, Shots On Target is still valuable because, simply put, it was a chance ticketed for goal until the GK turned it away. And I think here we see that, in the context of all the other data, Diego Rubio is this team’s most effective player in creating things that either are goals, or should have been goals (‘expected goals’, in other words.)
This isn’t an argument, in my opinion, that the Rapids should shift or change the approach to the game based on Diego Rubio’s outsized impact to date. They’re getting good results with Diego Rubio this year, and if he keeps getting the rock, and can kick things up perhaps another 10 percent more, it would really benefit the team overall. This math above is simply an instructive item for us fans to notice as we watch the Rapids go into the final nine matches of the year - keep your eyes on Diego Rubio. If he succeeds, the team is liable to succeed. If not, well, the team has an extra long winter to buy some pieces to complement and support him for 2023.
xG stats taken from fbref.com, which uses Opta’s calculation. Normally I use American Soccer Analysis’ numbers, who calculate xG using a slightly different formula, but ASA doesn’t break out player or team xG game by game.
This is really interesting. Two of those assists came more recently, as the Rapids have been missing Jack Price and tinkering with the midfield and a four defender lineup, which has pushed Rubio into a role as more of an attacking midfielder. I hated this at first, but these numbers (although relatively lacking in sample size) make me think that actually, Diego Rubio as a creator and distributor is a good thing. The jury is still out on this hypothesis until we get some more results, but I now think a 4-3-3 with a midfield of Rubio-Priso-Price or Rubio-Alves-Acosta might actually be great.
Maybe there was a way to look this up. I don’t how though so whatevs. YOLO guys I got stuff to do.