Dom Dwyer has understandably been the subject of many scalding hot takes after his miss on Saturday. Ruan put the ball on a platter for him six minutes after he was introduced off the bench at New York City FC and the Orlando City striker botched what many have called “the easiest chance he’ll have all year.”
Personally, I hope Dwyer has some easier chances still to come in 2019 as Orlando’s newer players learn more about the diminutive forward and give him even better quality service, but I’ll not argue against Saturday’s chance being the sitterest of sitters. Many have criticized Dwyer’s finishing this season and rightfully so, as he’s not been as sharp to start the season as we might expect, considering the quality of chances. It’s perfectly fine to be mad or even #MadOnline about Dwyer’s miss. It’s possible he’s let it go by now himself, but no doubt he was kicking himself for it on Saturday.
But the Cuckfield, England native has always been a streaky player and it’s something that our Sporting Kansas City brethren talked about at the time Orlando City acquired him via trade in 2017.
Dom is a streaky player and while he scored the second-most goals of anyone in club history, he could have and really should have had many more. Some fans have been screaming for years now that Dwyer is overrated, but they are crazy.
Dom has always been this way and it’s revisionist history to think otherwise. He misses maddeningly simple-looking chances, but he does provide offense.
Just because Dwyer has been streaky at finishing, it doesn’t mean he hasn’t been a productive contributor. In fact, as difficult as it was for me to believe when crunching the numbers, he’s actually been contributing at a higher rate than is typical throughout his career, although nine games is admittedly a small sample size.
For all the hand wringing by fans, Dwyer has been involved in five goals in nine games, scoring three and setting up two others. He’s only finished with more than his current tally of two assists on the season twice in his career. He assisted on five goals in 2017 — four of those coming after he was traded from Sporting Kansas City to Orlando City — and three in 2016. A striker involved in an average of a goal every other game is generally considered good in MLS. Maybe not Zlatan-level or Carlos Vela-level, but generally within what one might expect. (If you’re looking for Carlos Vela-level, you’ll have to convince Orlando City to go out and get Vela.)
But let’s look deeper to see if this is “not the same Dwyer” that was producing at SKC.
So far in 2019, Dwyer is scoring or assisting on a goal for every 104.8 minutes he’s on the pitch. His previous best goals + assists rate was once every 118.4 minutes in 2014. That season, Dwyer scored a career-high 22 goals with one assist in 33 appearances (31 starts) for a defending MLS champion Sporting side that went 14-13-7 in the Eastern (yes, Eastern) Conference. The Sporks made the playoffs that year but were knocked out by the Red Bulls in the first round. Dwyer scored 22 of SKC’s 48 total goals that year.
Here’s how Dwyer has done through the years:
- 2019 (So far): Goal or assist every 104.8 minutes in nine games (four starts).
- 2018: Goal or assist every 172.6 minutes in 26 games (25 starts).
- 2017 (Orlando only): Goal or assist every 121.9 minutes in 12 games (11 starts).
- 2017 (Overall): Goal or assist every 160.4 minutes in 27 games (25 starts).
- 2016: Goal or assist every 148.6 minutes in 33 games (31 starts).
- 2015: Goal or assist every 181.9 minutes in 30 games (28 starts).
- 2014: Goal or assist every 118.4 minutes in 33 games (31 starts).
- 2013: Goal or assist every 168.5 minutes in 16 games (7 starts).
- 2012: No goals or assists in four minutes of play in one game (subbed on).
In looking at 2019 Dom vs. Doms from other years, the current model is not producing fewer goals + assists per minutes played. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Admittedly this review doesn’t take into account advanced metrics like expected goals, but it’s still telling. After all, if he’s producing at a higher rate in terms of goals + assists per minutes but he’s not finishing as many expected goals as he should be, that should indicate he’s at least getting into position more often for an expected goal than ever before. I’ll leave the xG breakdown for another day, as this piece is already long.
Add in the fact that most of Dwyer’s previous top seasons have come while playing on a solid playoff team in Kansas City, meaning he probably had a better overall surrounding cast, and this year’s numbers are more surprising. But there is another factor that I haven’t yet addressed.
Dwyer has been a starting striker throughout his career since 2014. He’s made a few substitute appearances but the high mark for that came way back in 2013, when he was breaking into the league. That year, he was used as a sub nine times in 16 matches. Since then, Dwyer has subbed on no more than twice in any season until this year. He was a sub only once in 2018 and just twice in 2017 (once for Orlando, once for SKC), 2016, 2015, and 2014.
Still only age 28, one wouldn’t think Dwyer to be over the hill quite yet. However, he has had some nagging injuries in recent seasons, so it’s logical that James O’Connor would like to manage his minutes to keep him fresh throughout the season.
That said, the numbers show a disparity when Dwyer starts versus when he comes off the bench.
Because he hasn’t been used as a sub much throughout his career, it’s difficult to draw many conclusions from previous seasons. Subbing on only once or twice a year doesn’t reveal many patterns. The only two seasons in which he had a nearly 50/50 split of starts to substitute appearances have been 2013 and (so far) 2019.
It’s difficult to glean much from 2013, because his first nine appearances of that year were off the bench and he played fewer than 10 minutes in four of those as he was still establishing himself in the league. Still, he managed only one goal and no assists in those nine games, firing six shots but getting only one on target — his goal against the New York Red Bulls on Aug. 3, 2013. His first start of that season produced a Dwyer assist and one shot (on target) against the Colorado Rapids. After not seeing the field against Columbus, Dwyer started SKC’s last six games, scoring a goal and adding an assist while taking 21 shots (five on frame).
In 2019 it’s been easier to track his production as a starter versus as a sub. He’s no longer a young player breaking into the side. How he’s gotten his appearances has been more consistent and he’s not had a long streak of starts or sub appearances. With a more even distribution of his appearances, some patterns have emerged early this season.
Dwyer has appeared in nine games, with four starts and five games as a substitute. In his four starts, Dom has played 342 minutes, scoring two goals, firing 20 shots (eight on target) and committing six fouls. As a sub, Dwyer has played 182 minutes, producing one goal and two assists, firing five shots (officially four, but somehow the scorer didn’t give him one on Saturday at NYCFC, so I had to add it for the purposes of this piece) with just two on target. He’s committed 10 fouls as a sub.
Breaking down these numbers further, Dwyer produces a goal every 171 minutes as a starter and also a goal or assist every 171 minutes as a starter. As a sub, Dwyer is producing a goal every 182 minutes but there is a slight uptick in goals + assists, with one or the other produced every 60.7 minutes. As for chances, Dwyer averages a shot every 17.1 minutes when starting in 2019 as opposed to a shot every 36.4 minutes off the bench. He shoots on frame once every 42.8 minutes as a starter compared to once every 91 (!) minutes off the bench. Finally, Dwyer commits a foul about once every 57 minutes when starting while being whistled once every 18.2 minutes as a substitute.
With his two assists in 2019 providing a bit of an outlier in terms of his starting versus bench production, Dwyer seems more comfortable as a starter than as a sub. His goals, shots, and shots on target come more frequently when he starts the game and he doesn’t foul at nearly so high a rate as he does when he’s brought on later in the game.
Again, small sample size, but his numbers so far indicate he’s sharper when he’s on the field at kickoff rather than on the bench, as he’s cleaner with challenges and doesn’t go as long between shots or shots on target. Given the data available, O’Connor might be wise to find time in the second halves of games to get Dwyer rest rather than subbing him on later. The logic behind putting a quick, pesky Dwyer on against a fatigued back line is unassailable. It makes so much sense you’d need to be insane not to try it. But if Dwyer is going to find his rhythm and get hot again, it might be wiser to start him, because his numbers seem to indicate a higher comfort level in that role.
That said, maybe if O’Connor sticks with the current plan, Dwyer will adjust to his more varied role over time. As I’ve said, repeatedly, it’s early.
As for Dwyer’s miss Saturday, it happens in soccer. This weekend alone, Christian Ramirez of LAFC also missed a would-be game-winner on a chance where it was harder to miss the empty net than hit it.
But even those among the most prolific scorers in the game’s history can lack the right touch at the crucial moment.
Benching Dwyer won’t get him back into top form and the options behind him are limited to Tesho Akindele — who has a career high of seven goals back in 2014 — rookies Santiago Patino or Benji Michel, or someone who isn’t really a striker. So right now Dwyer is the best option for Orlando City and it’s probably best for all involved that he continues to get starts for now in order to try to round himself back into top form. The club can always re-evaluate the striker position in the lead-up to the summer window if things don’t change.