Opta Analysis

Opta and MLS – a beautiful game they play


In Part I we looked at how sports data company Opta functions, and their revolutionary work in global soccer. Now it’s time to look Stateside.

Major League Soccer and soccer in the United States is always looking for an edge. It has always had to.

Competing with traditional American sports for fans, players and sponsorship deals, you could never accuse MLS and it’s executives of not thinking outside the box.

And in 2011 when they realized what Opta had to offer and how it could help the league develop, they grabbed on tight and haven’t let go since.

Matt Drew, Opta’s head of Corporate Marketing, salutes MLS chiefs for becoming a leading light in soccer analytics across the globe.

“Credit to MLS, because they were quick to realize that what we had here was of value,” Drew said.  “Across their media properties, and the performance teams, they’ve been speculative enough to ask us to do bits of research on different areas to find out how to develop and improve the league in a really proactive type of way. They were very much leaders in that.”

(PART I: How Opta altered the Premier League, and soccer, forever)

The stats culture in the USA is more prevalent than in many other countries where soccer is traditionally the number one sport, which has allowed MLS to be an almost semi-experimental ground for how to use new systems and ways of measuring things.

Soccer fans in the U.S. embrace stats in ways fans in other nations wouldn’t. And the league, teams, managers and players are also doing the same.

Opta’s influence in MLS and U.S. soccer culture is growing.


During my first visit to MLS Digital HQ a few years ago, I noticed a separate side of the office that was empty every day, but lined with computers screens and other expensive looking equipment.

“What the bloody hell goes on over there?” I asked one of my co-workers one Friday afternoon. “Just wait until Saturday night when the Opta guys come in, you’re in for a treat.”

And I was.

If you read Part I of this series, you’ll know all about the ‘Ops’ and their job. These ‘gamer’ types methodically collect all of Opta’s live data by watching games from across the globe. That happens in New York City, too. And as you elevate towards MLS’ office on a Saturday night, you can hear loud shouting and whistles being blown. Cries of ‘oh man, did you see that?’ and almost zombie like quotes of ‘red 23 chipped pass, blocked, by blue 14’ are heard from the Ops. They’re analyzing every single MLS game live, and having a lot of fun doing it.

An example of how Opta’s Chalkboard is available on MLS’ official website for every single MLS game.

The fact that Opta US operates from within the same confides of MLS’ Digital arm tells its own story. The two entities are now inextricably linked, as both walk hand in hand towards progressing the world’s game on U.S. soil.

James Dennis, who is head of Opta Sports US, has been with the company since 1999.

Dennis leads Opta’s operations from NYC and hails Major League Soccer’s proactive attitude towards becoming a better league.

“Certainly the way we interact with MLS, I believe is pretty unique. Obviously MLS is a different ownership structure,” Dennis said. “The league are very open to involving us, not only at a digital level, but we are now involved on the player recruitment side, on the player relations side and the competitions department.”

And perhaps one of biggest factors MLS wants to gain from being so closely linked with Opta is how they’re performing, on the field, compared with other soccer leagues around the world.

“They are always very interested to see where they sit and compare with other global leagues,” Dennis said. “They’ve been very open minded in allowing us in and allowing us to help in that. Obviously with the Premier League and other leagues, they’re established, so it’s a different mindset. But MLS are trying to develop their product. We get a pretty unique insight into the league.”

We will find out more on that, very shortly.


If you ask any soccer fan in England over a certain age about an assist, they wouldn’t know what you’re talking about.

Now, go and ask any soccer fan in the world under the age of 25 about who’s the leading assist man in European soccer now, and they’ll probably spout out about 10 different names, with Mesut Ozil usually near the top.

The advent of recording the assist in English soccer, crazy as it seems, is just over 10 years old. I visited Opta’s offices with NBC Sports’ national columnist Joe Posnanski back in August, and my colleague was flabbergasted that assists had only just become relevant in the PL.

In part, you have Opta to thank for that.

“We’ve had them since 2001, but a couple of our guys got footage of every game and we now have assists, all-time, in the Premier League,” Matt Furniss, Opta’s Senior UK Football Editor said. “We have goal types as well, headers, set pieces, penalties. So we also have in-depth data about each goal. And we can see who has the most assists in Premier League history.”

For American sports fans, the assist is a key component of recording a player’s productivity. But in England and other soccer nations, a player was never historically categorized by the number of assists he made, he was just known as “the creative one.”

source: Reuters
Back in the day Mesut Ozil would have been classed as “that tricky chap” and his assists wouldn’t have been counted… now they’re categorized.

Rob Bateman, Opta’s Director of Content, breaks down the assist category as it’s evolved over the past few years.

“The assist is an interesting one,” Bateman said. “We used to collect it and if someone had eight assists and somebody else has two, then immediately you’d make the assumption that the former is a more creative player. But we have got a little bit subjective with this thing we call ‘big chances’ where we class that as chances where the striker should score. So you can kind of look at players who are creating much better chances.”

Big chances are becoming more widely used in soccer circles, and the players who created the most ‘big chances,’ the Mesut Ozil’s and Xavi’s of this world, are worth their weight in gold.

Opta’s stats are helping to pick out not only the most creative players, but the players who are the best at being the most creative… have a think about that.


For me, one of the most telling moments of my investigation into how Opta works with Major League Soccer came when speaking with Dennis about exactly how they help MLS to improve the league.

“On the recruitment side we provide statistical reports to the league and the clubs to assist in the decision making process for potential transfers,” Dennis said. “That’s something that is obviously not really done in any other league. That’s been good. The big challenge in the US is to get clubs to compete with other global leagues, while adhering to the strict financial limitations and improving the quality.”

So, Opta’s role in MLS is now so prominent that they’re advising the league on which players to buy and which markets to look to. And with MLS’ centralized model of player recruitment, a la Clint Dempsey in Seattle, Opta seems to be the main scouting resource behind many of the players heading to MLS.

That’s huge.

Asking a stats company to help with transfers is something none of Opta’s other league partners do, MLS trusts the stats, and in turn Opta want to try and help raise the level of Major League Soccer. It’s a win, win.

source: AP
Get use to seeing more South American players heading to MLS, as Opta’s office in Uruguay will help to unearth Latin American gems (see, Diego Valeri) on the cheap.

“The sport is a different sport here,” Dennis continues. “They’re constrained by the cap, massively. So, the big challenge in the US is to try and improve the sport. You could argue it’s the fourth sport, but really it’s the fifth in the minds of most American sports fans.”

And to try and help MLS thrive, Opta has looked at new markets within the global game where the league can buy cheaply from. Hence one of the reasons why an office was set up in Montevideo, Uruguay, last year.

“There’s a recruitment reason for doing it,” Dennis said. “Because leagues like the Premier League and MLS are interested in those players. So it opens up a brand new market. I think a lot of MLS teams look to that area, because the players are cheaper. That’s a market they can go and do business in, whereas if you look at Europe, they can’t shop there apart from a DP. Historically they’ve looked in Europe a bit, but there’s certainly a push in the South American leagues.”

With Latin America Opta’s next big project, you can already see the fruits of their labor benefiting MLS, recently the league released info on where each of it’s 549 players are from. The U.S. (304) and Canada (19) lead the way, but Colombia (19), Brazil (18) and Argentina (17) round out the top five. In the last 12 months Argentinians Diego Valeri, Matias Laba and Max Urruti have arrived, while 8.4 percent of MLS players are now from South America. Expect that number to grow.

To raise its’ profile amongst American sports fans, many believe MLS has to keep improving it’s product on the field, which it has clearly done over the past few years. Opta have been with them every step of the way.

“I think some of the work we do supports that,” Dennis said. “I wouldn’t say what we’re doing it on our own. But we are supporting the MLS, and they’re trying to put out a stronger product on the field. And they’re using data and analysis to try and understand that. So we’re a cog in the wheel really.”


But what about the other cultural differences or convergences between soccer in the U.S. and England, how does that play out in terms of the soccer stats industry?

“MLS followers, if you’re talking in marketing speak, it’s almost more of a middle class type of game,” Drew said, tapping his finger on the table rhythmically. “Whereas over here [England], you have that layer, but there’s also years and years of working class tradition, where people aren’t interested in stats. Which is fine.”

Opta US has been helped by American fans embracing stats in soccer. The image above represents the MLS Player Genome.

But as I sat in deep discussion with Drew and Opta’s Advanced Data Analyst, Sam Green, we began to speak about the unique and close relationship MLS now has with Opta, and how that mirrors the U.S. public’s affinity to stats in sports.

“We have a fairly close relationship with MLS at every level now” Green said. “The American fans are slightly more prepared and more ready to take in the numbers, and to think about it in this way. Because most of the national sports already have that kind of tendency. Compared to Europe, it has taken off a bit quicker in the States.”

When RBI’s, Quarterback ratings, rushing yards, PPG, WAR and many other measurable categories are thrown at you by U.S. sports franchises and media outlets every single day, how are you not going to know all about stats if you’re a sports fan in America?

Naturally, U.S. soccer fans seem to be the savviest and most encompassing when it comes to seeking out statistical trends in soccer.

Many argue you can apply stats to any sport and get positive results. So, is there a general rule?

“The skill with all this stuff is finding the balance between what you see on film and what you see in the numbers,” Drew said. “That’s what I think you’re beginning to see in some clubs, there are people who have an interaction between those different categories.”


The next big thing is what many at Opta see as some kind of ‘holy grail’ and that is, combining their own data with physiological and tracking data.

How a typical setup looks whilst using OptaPro. This incredible program is distributed to all of Opta’s clubs.

That would be a real game-changer, and clubs are hurriedly working behind the scenes to fuse these different types of analysis to create a system that can not only quantify a player’s performance in terms of passes, shots and goal, but also their meaningful runs forward, average position on the pitch and how they rank physiologically against the opposition.

It will be hard to achieve, but the guys at Opta aren’t ruling that out in the near future.

“I think the big breakthrough that the clubs wants to make is combining the event data and the physical data,” Bateman said. “If you actually log the physical data, you can log where the ball has gone but you can’t actually say what that event is. With a few of our clients this year, they’re all starting to use tracking data. So we now have a partner we work with and in the next few years we hope to have more than just speed and distance appearing on the screen. Nobody is using that data to say, ‘this is how many presses’ or ‘this is how many runs down the line.’ We hope to do that.”

That’s something Green echoes, and believes if that next hurdle is achieved, Opta’s level of analysis could be raised even higher.

“A lot of those clubs will take both [physiological and performance data], but I don’t know how much they try and synchronize that data themselves,” Green said with an inquisitive glance at Drew to his left. “There are obvious advantages to be gained from paying attention to the movement. If you can combine them, it allows you to say a hell of a lot more about what players are doing and potentially why, and look at the structures and styles of play in a different way, that’s beyond what we can already do.”

Another factor that we discussed in Part I that will also become more prominent, is being able to track players together throughout their careers to see how good they are. Look at the image on the right from OptaPro, as they compare the careers of Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard and Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets. You can do this comparison for any player in any league Opta work with.

Opta can now compare different players, in every category, over the span of their careers. Steven Gerrard vs. Sergio Busquets number of passes in final third is shown above.

The numbers can help players at Scunthorpe be compared to Real Madrid. The ability to unearth raw talent across many different countries and leagues over time, at the click of a button, is astounding.

But there is one rather useless fact that you often see popping up during the game, is the stat ‘distance covered.’ But what does that mean?

“The one editorial question we always get is people asking about ‘distance covered.’ And if it’s not meaningless… it’s not far off it,” Green said with an exasperated look on his face.

If you think about the likes of James Milner, who is hailed as one of the hardest working players for both Manchester City and England, he certainly looks like he’s running around a lot and busting a gut for the badge. But is it meaningless work? Or is the tremendous shift he’s putting in having the desired affect?

Meshing Opta’s stats with a GPS and physiological database will help get an answer to that.

That’s the next step.


We’ve looked at the rise of certain stats and what Opta are planning for the future, but how is MLS using Opta’s information?

The truth is that although MLS is enamored by Opta, only a few of MLS’ clubs are really taking this stuff seriously. Is that because of rival companies or lack of funding for analytics departments? Perhaps.

But the aim now is to get as many MLS franchises as possible working with Opta’s deeper analytics. If all of this fantastic information is there for them to use, why wouldn’t they?

“It’s different [in MLS],” Dennis said. “You get Man City and Chelsea, who are two of our clients who use a whole range of our products and we have over 100 club clients. But in MLS we sort of work with two or three of the clubs on a match analysis level, and that’s still a level we want to get more involved in.”

On an in-depth level where Opta really helps them drill down on every single game they play, only two to three MLS teams use that. Of course, others sides may already use Opta’s stats that the league feeds them and be happy with that. From what I’ve seen and heard, stats, of any kind, are extremely prominent in U.S. sports. So it surprises me that MLS sides aren’t delving into the deeper analytics.

Stats aside, NBC Sports is helping soccer rise in the States with its TV coverage. So Opta’s work is now reaching new audiences.

“With NBC making all Premier League games available, there’s obviously an argument that MLS could suffer as a result. I don’t subscribe to that,” Dennis said. “I think that anything that gets the game out there more is a good thing. I think NBC have done a really good job and obviously they’re using our data which is great. They’re going to start using the touch screen as well for on-air analysis.”

With Premier League and MLS more accessible than ever in the U.S., Opta’s window of opportunity to showcase their talents is vast. Just one of the reasons why they’re keen to keep working hand in hand with North America’s top domestic league, especially as soccer analytics is on the rise in the US.

MLS’ website has their own ‘Opta Spotlight’ column and Devin Pleuler, who writes MLSsoccer.com’s ‘Central Winger‘ analytics column, is now employed by Opta US to help with their analysis of MLS. Add to that a vast multitude of blogs and writers looking at stats in U.S. soccer, and the market is booming.

“The community is getting a bit more savvy about it,” Dennis said. “There are more and more clubs who are beginning to develop their analytics teams, and MLS is trying to encourage that. Everyone is trying to apply the Moneyball concept to soccer. Will we get there? I don’t know.”

But it sounds like Opta, MLS and soccer analysts across the globe are going to have a wonderful time trying to unravel the myths surrounding the beautiful game.

“We want to cut through football and make it a lot better… but we don’t want to solve it,” Drew said. “Because then, well, it would be quite boring.”

Ballon d’Or shortlist announced: Aguero, De Bruyne in first batch

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 03:  Sergio Aguero (L) of Manchester City celebrates scoring his fourth and team's fifth goal with Kevin de Bruyne (R) during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Newcastle United at Etihad Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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The shortlist for the 2016 Ballon d’Or has been announced.

[ MORE: Conte the new Mourinho? ]

With FIFA ending its association with the award, French outlet France Football will now be naming the shortlist of 30 players who can be crowned the best player on the planet.

On Monday it has begun to release the shortlist in two batches of five names being announced every two hours.

Manchester City duo Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne were both named in the shortlist, as were Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, plus Diego Godin and Antoine Griezmann of Atletico Madrid. Gianluigi Buffon, Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala from Juventus were all named on the shortlist and so to was Borussia Dortmund’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

We will update this post as the day goes on, but here are the 10 nominees thus far…

Shortlist for 2016 Ballon d’Or

Sergio Aguero (Manchester City), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Borussia Dortmund), Gareth Bale (Real Madrid), Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid), Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City), Paulo Dybala (Juventus), Diego Godin (Atletico Madrid), Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid), Gonzalo Higuain (Juventus)

It’s prediction time! Who wins MLS Cup 2016?

KANSAS CITY, KS - DECEMBER 07:  The Philip F. Anschutz trophy is seen on the field before the start of the match between Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City in the 2013 MLS Cup at Sporting Park on December 7, 2013 in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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Because it’s extremely easy to predict what happens in MLS — yeah, right — PST’s staff has taken it upon themselves to predict the upcoming 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs, which kick of Wednesday night.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Links to each of our Twitter accounts have been included, because… well, you know why.

Joe Prince-Wright

Knockout round

Toronto FC over Philadelphia Union
D.C. United over Montreal Impact
LA Galaxy over Real Salt Lake
Seattle Sounders over Sporting Kansas City

Conference semifinals

New York Red Bulls over D.C. United
Toronto FC over New York City FC
FC Dallas over LA Galaxy
Seattle Sounders over Colorado Rapids

Conference finals

Toronto FC over New York Red Bulls
Seattle Sounders over FC Dallas


Toronto FC over Seattle Sounders

Nicholas Mendola

Knockout round

Toronto FC over Philadelphia Union
D.C. United over Montreal Impact
Real Salt Lake over LA Galaxy
Sporting Kansas City over Seattle Sounders

Conference semifinals

New York Red Bulls over DCU
TFC over New York City FC
FC Dallas over RSL
Colorado Rapids over SKC

Conference finals

FCD over Colorado


TFC over FCD

[ MORE: Power rankings — Going to the playoffs edition ]

Andy Edwards

Knockout round

TFC over Philadelphia
DCU over Montreal
RSL over LA
Seattle over SKC

Conference semifinals

FCD over RSL
Seattle over Colorado

Conference finals

Seattle over FCD


RBNY over Seattle

[ MORE: Decision Day madness in the West | And in the East ]

Kyle Bonn

Knockout round

TFC over Philadelphia
DCU over Montreal
LA over RSL
Seattle over SKC

Conference semifinals

Colorado over LA
Seattle over FCD

Conference finals

Colorado over Seattle


RBNY over Colorado

[ MORE: Three MLS sides advance to Champions League knockout rounds ]

Matt Reed

Knockout round

TFC over Philadelphia
DCU over Montreal
LA over RSL
Seattle over SKC

Conference semifinals

Seattle over FCD
LA over Colorado


RBNY over Seattle

MLS Power Rankings: Going to the playoffs edition

Seattle Sounders' Nicolas Lodeiro (10), Herculez Gomez, center, and Jordan Morris, right, celebrate a goal by Lodeiro in the first half of an MLS soccer match against FC Dallas, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016, in Frisco, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
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As we prepare for the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs, which kick off Wednesday night, we take one last shot at MLS power rankings, featuring only the 12 times still fighting in the postseason.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Which are the sides most likely to represent the East and the West in MLS Cup 2016? Let’s talk it out…

Eastern Conference

1. New York Red Bulls — Bradley Wright-Phillips scored 24 goals this season, including 14 in RBNY’s last 12 games. Sacha Kljestan finished the season with 19 assists, but should have had 20. Not to bury the lead here, but they haven’t lost a game since July 3 (9 wins, 6 draws). That’s an absurd run capped off with four straight wins to finish the regular season. Throw in the fact they’ll host the decisive second leg in every round up until MLS Cup, and it’s hard to see anyone else coming out of the East..

2a. D.C. United — Outside of Sunday’s finale in which Ben Olsen sat 10 of 11 regular staters — you’re not throwing me off your scent, buddy — DCU have destroyed everything and everyone in their path over the last month (four straight wins, by a combined score of 12-3). The strategy is simple: press high, win the ball, get it wide, get it in the box, Patrick Mullins will finish it. If they don’t win it early, they drop into a defensive shell that’ll frustrate you into a rage-quit.

2b. Toronto FC — Here’s my TFC theory: they’re better off playing in the knockout round, because Sebastian Giovinco, who’s only two games back from a month out with injuries, needs that extra bit of sharpness that’s still missing. Everything around the reigning MVP fell into place pretty well with him absent — the midfield diamond still ticks over best with Will Johnson on the field, and he should be back soon — and Jozy Altidore looks like a man possessed. They’re still TFC, though, and until they’re no longer “oh, that TFC,” it’s hard to totally trust them.

4. New York City FC — Is this team good? They won 54 points from 34 games, so of course they’re good on paper, but only three teams conceded more goals on the season (57). Of course, they outscored everyone (62). That’s rarely been the winning formula in the playoffs, though, and David Villa, for every wonderful thing he’s done his first two seasons in MLS, is still only one man.

5. Montreal Impact — Didier Drogba is still a member of this team, right? While he’s mostly inconsequential outside of the Impact lacking an impact forward off the bench, that’s just a bad omen to ride into the postseason, isn’t it? There’s not much to separate Montreal and Philadelphia other than if the Impact are to win a couple games in the playoffs, I know how they do it: Ignacio Piatti turns on video-game mode and draws 20,000 jaws to the floor.

6. Philadelphia Union — The Union, on the other hand, I have no idea what them winning a game looks like — theoretically or literally. It’s been two months since they’ve done it, they don’t remember what it’s like either. Bless Jim Curtin for trotting out a super-young defensive unit out there all season — they’ll be better for it next year — but they simply ran out of steam down the stretch (14 goals conceded in 7 games without a win).

[ MORE: Decision Day madness in the West | And in the East ]

Western Conference

1a. FC Dallas — I came really, really close — like, thisfreakingclose — to putting the Sounders at 1a, and FCD at 1b. The loss Mauro Diaz (torn achilles) last week and the transfer of Fabian Castillo in August would be season-ending blows to, quite literally, every other team in MLS. Yet, this is an FCD squad that is unbelievably deep, embarrassingly rich with talent all over the field, and motivated and prepared by the smartest coach in the league, Oscar Pareja. Papi will cook up a brand new scheme that’ll transform them into an impossible out in the playoffs, rather than the light-em-up attacking juggernaut they would have otherwise been. He is solely responsible for FCD at 1a.

1b. Seattle Sounders — Since Brian Schmetzer was named the interim head coach on July 26, the Sounders’ record is as follows: 8W, 4D, 2L. I could stop right there, and that’d be a solid enough case, but I’d be ignoring Nicolas Lodeiro, who has resurrected the a team that was truly dead when they quit on Sigi Schmid on July 24. Lodeiro’s numbers: 4 goals, 8 assists in 12 games played (all 1,080 minutes). Also of the utmost importance: the emergence of Cristian Roldan, a willing and able midfield runner who might just extend the career of Osvaldo Alonso by two or three years. You do not want to see this team in the playoffs.

3. Colorado Rapids — Speaking of teams you don’t want to see, purely from a standpoint of “they are annoyingly difficult to play against,” the Pablo Mastroeni’s Rapids conceded 32 goals in 34 games this season. If there’s one team in MLS 2016 that simply will not beat itself, it’s the Rapids. Their ceiling is mostly limited, but their bottom-out floor is higher than perhaps anyone else’s.

4. LA Galaxy — Saying the following goes against everything we’ve witnessed the last decade or so, but the Galaxy are something of a non-starter heading into these playoffs, from a standpoint of “we have absolutely no idea who or what this team is.” Robbie Keane played just 17 games all year (just six since the beginning of August), and it’s pretty undeniably Giovani dos Santos’ team now (14 goals, 12 assists). Gyasi Zardes hasn’t played since Aug. 27, and he may or may not come back to play in the playoffs after breaking his foot. Steven Gerrard has played 118 minutes in the last 10 games. That’s a whole lot of questions, and very few answers.

5. Sporting Kansas City — A shaky defensive team prone to costly mistakes at the most inopportune of times; no real focal point offensively, from a strategic standpoint. They do have a 16-goal-scorer in Dom Dwyer, and a dynamic playmaker (at his best) in Benny Feilhaber, but but the supporting cast has been mostly “meh” all season.

6. Real Salt Lake — The final seven games of the regular season is not a great time for your longest winless run of the campaign. Four losses, three draws in the months of September and October.

Combined rankings

2. FCD
3. Sounders
4. DCU
5. TFC
6. Rapids
8. Galaxy
9. Impact
10. SKC
11. RSL
12. Union

Serie A: Napoli end losing streak; Inter Milan beaten again

CROTONE, ITALY - OCTOBER 23:   Josè Maria Callejon (R) and Dries Mertens of Napoli celebrate the opening goal during the Serie A match between FC Crotone and SSC Napoli at Stadio Comunale Ezio Scida on October 23, 2016 in Crotone, Italy.  (Photo by Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images)
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ROME (AP) A visit to last-place Crotone was just what Napoli needed to end a three-match losing streak.

Roma also won against a lowly opponent, beating Palermo to reclaim second place from AC Milan.

Inter Milan, meanwhile, lost its third straight Serie A match to increase the pressure on coach Frank de Boer.

Despite losing center forward Manolo Gabbiadini to a red card, 10-man Napoli won 2-1 Sunday to spoil Crotone’s first top-division game in its home stadium.

Jose Callejon scored 17 minutes in and Nikola Maksimovic doubled the lead in the 33rd, shortly after Gabbiadini was sent off.

Aleandro Rosi pulled one back for Crotone in the 89th.

Gabbiadini was on the ground after being fouled by Gian Marco Ferrari and reacted by flicking his boot into the back of Ferrari’s leg.

It was Gabbiadini’s first red card in 153 career Serie A matches.

Ferrari was shown a yellow.

Both of Napoli’s goals were aided by poor defense.

Callejon redirected the ball in by the far post after a cross from Dries Mertens was deflected right toward him. Recently called up to Spain’s national team, Callejon has been involved in a league-best eight goals this season with six goals and two assists.

Maksimovic also scored near the far post, following a corner.

Napoli had lost two straight in Serie A and was also beaten by Besiktas in the Champions League this week.

Napoli is fourth, four points behind Juventus and two behind Roma and Milan, which beat Juve 1-0 on Saturday.

Promoted to the top division for the first time in its 106-year history, Crotone played its first three home matches 600 kilometers (375 miles) away in Pescara while its Ezio Scida stadium was expanded to meet league regulations.

The Calabrian club remained with one point.

“We did well in a situation that could have been very difficult, because Crotone was playing at home for the first time, the pitch wasn’t worthy of a professional match and we were down to 10 men after a half-hour,” Napoli manager Maurizio Sarri said. “I’m happy that the lads will rediscover some confidence.”

Here’s a look at the rest of the action in the Italian league Sunday:

Mohamed Salah scored from a tight angle shortly after the half-hour mark after being set up by Edin Dzeko.

Leandro Paredes made it 2-0 in the 51st with a free kick that surprised Palermo goalkeeper Josip Posavec.

Dzeko added another in the 68th, finishing off a pretty series of passes with a low shot from the edge of the area for his league-best eighth of the season – the same number of goals he scored in his 31 appearances last season.

Robin Quaison pulled one back for Palermo in the 80th but Stephan El Shaarawy quickly restored Roma’s three-goal advantage.

Mauricio Pinilla scored the winner for Atalanta with a penalty two minutes from time.

After Davide Santon was whistled for a foul on Franck Kessie, Pinilla drilled the spot kick into the top left corner, leaving Samir Handanovic no chance even though the Inter goalkeeper guessed the right direction.

Andrea Masiello had put Atalanta in front with an early header and Eder equalized for Inter with a free kick after the break.

While Inter defeated Juventus in September, it’s been a difficult debut campaign in Italy for De Boer, who was hired when Roberto Mancini resigned less than two weeks before the season started.

“The only thing we can do is work hard to get out of this situation,” De Boer said. “I want to see the squad have more courage with the ball. … It’s a tough time for everyone.”

Inter captain Mauro Icardi failed to put a single shot on target after being punished by the club for his comments about the team’s hard-core “ultra” fans in his autobiography.

Atalanta, which extended its unbeaten streak to four matches, moved up to eighth while Inter dropped to 14th.

Torino and Lazio remained level on points, six points behind Juventus, after a draw that was determined with a penalty kick from Torino’s Adem Ljajic in added time.

After Iago Falque put Torino ahead midway through the first half, Ciro Immobile equalized for Lazio against his former club in the 71st with an acrobatic effort.

Substitute Alessandro Murgia scored his first Serie A goal in the 84th for Lazio before Marco Parolo was whistled for a questionable hand ball to set up Ljajic’s spot kick.

Nikola Kalinic scored a hat trick and Federico Bernardeschi added two more goals as Fiorentina won 5-3 at Cagliari.

Sassuolo and Bologna drew 1-1 in an Emilia-Romagna derby, Empoli and Chievo Verona played to a 0-0 draw in which Chievo protested for a goal even though goal-line technology showed that the ball wasn’t fully in; and French forward Cyril scored twice for Udinese in a 3-1 win over visiting Pescara.

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/asdampf