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Scoring Goals in MLS Part Two: Forwards, Midfielders, and Defenders, or Who Scores?

Spreadsheets, tables, and numbers are back in this second part of Hot Time in Old Town's series on goal scoring in MLS. Today we look at where teams get their goals from -- forwards, midfielders, or defenders -- and if there is a hidden formula for success.


We’re hitting the numbers again in this second part of this ongoing series on scoring goals in MLS. In part one, I looked at the figure of the "true goal scorer," that magic player who, for teams without one, is almost always seen to be the "missing piece." Fire fans know what I mean. Recall that the strongest correlations arose between playoff match wins (72% of playoff victories, from play-in games to Cup finals went to teams with at least one player who scored 10 or more goals in the regular season) and MLS Cup victors (82% of championship teams had at least one such player). Nonetheless, the data did not, in my opinion, conclusively prove that the only way to succeed in MLS is with a true goal scorer. In fact, it turns out that such players are becoming less common.

In this installment, I take a look at possible alternatives. Are there teams that succeed without having a player who bangs in goals like it's nothing? Can "scoring by committee" also lead to championships by committee? My analysis here only uses data from the 2012 regular season. I would love to the whole history of MLS, but that was too big of a task for this article (look for an update over the summer, perhaps). Without any further ado, let’s try and find out.

Table 1 gives us a broad picture of where goals came from across the league in 2012. The league-wide average goals per team was 43.95, of which an average of 23, or 52%, were scored by forwards. Midfielders also contributed significantly, with 16.37 goals per team on average, while defenders put in an average of 4.58. These numbers by themselves aren’t especially surprising, though I personally expected forwards to have an even greater share of the total.

Table 1: Goals by position across MLS in 2012


Now let’s refine that picture a little. Table 2 places league-wide averages next to those of teams that qualified for the playoffs and of those that didn’t

Table 2: Goals by position for 2012 playoff and non-playoff teams

This picture is much more interesting. Teams that made the playoffs in 2012 scored 5.75 more goals than the league average and 10.15 more goals than teams that did not make the postseason. The major difference between playoff and non-playoff teams here is the distribution of goals among forwards and midfielders: teams that made the playoffs got 3.53% more of their goals from forwards and 3.45% fewer from midfielders than the league average. Non-playoff sides got 3.93% fewer goals from forwards and 3.82% more goals from midfielders than the league average. When we also consider that playoff teams scored more goals overall, the reason for the difference in distribution of goals becomes clear: their midfielders scored about the same number of goals (16.9, versus league average of 16.37), but their forwards scored even more goals (27.80, versus league average of 23).

To make what should be a very obvious conclusion, teams that scored more goals were more likely to qualify for the playoffs. Furthermore, it is specifically the contribution of their forwards that mattered most.

What about that true goal scoring figure? Do teams with a few players who score a lot of goals have greater success, or can "scoring by committee" be an effective strategy? Table 3 shows the average number of forwards, midfielders, and defenders per team who scored at least one goal in 2012.

Table 3: Number of goal-scorers by position


The overall variation here is fairly low, though on average playoff teams had 0.76 fewer players who scored at least one goal than non-playoff teams. The most significant difference is in the forward category: playoff teams had an average of 3.90 forwards scoring at least one regular season goal, whereas non-playoff teams averaged 5. This could mean a number of things, however. The best conclusion would seem to simply be that better teams get more consistent play from their starters and thus have fewer total players who see the pitch throughout a season. They are also more productive overall, with higher goals per player ratios across the field.

This could also be a tentative condemnation of the goals by committee approach, but not definitively so. Indeed, as part one indicated that the true goal scorer is becoming a rarer commodity in MLS, teams have to rely on more players for overall goal production. Furthermore, playoff teams actually had slightly (very slightly) more goal-scoring midfielders and defenders, both with better goal/player ratios, than non-playoff teams. This could also indicate just as well that overall quality has gone up in all positions, such that defenses are better at containing forwards and that players around the field are capable of putting the ball in the back of the net.

Having looked at all these league-wide averages, let’s get into specifics. As usual, there are always exceptions to the rule, proving that there is no one formula for success in MLS. For example, the numbers above have emphasized the importance of getting a higher percentage of goals from forwards, as well as racking up high goal totals in general. Sporting Kansas City, however, scored fewer goals than the league average. They could do this because they were defensively dominant and had an excellent goal differential, a stat I haven’t examined here. San Jose, the team that scored the most regular season goals (and had the highest percentage of them come from forwards), was knocked out of the playoffs in the first round. Other teams like D.C. and Chicago had well below-average percentages of their goals come from forwards. But take a look for yourself; Tables 4 and 5 lay out the numbers for all teams across the league, ranked in order of number of playoff appearances plus playoff wins.

Table 4: Goals by position per team


Table 5: Number of goal scorers by position per team


Clearly, there is a decent amount of variation across all teams, playoff qualifiers and otherwise. The MLS champion Galaxy got a percentage of goals from their midfield comparable to the average of non-playoff teams; New York got as much goal production from the midfield as their defense. Playoff teams D.C., Chicago, and Vancouver all got fewer goals from their forwards than four non-playoff teams. All teams rely on a variety of players to score goals; even Cup Champions L.A. had 14 different goal scorers across the regular season, whereas post-season flops Kansas City only had 10 and god-awful Toronto F.C. had 11. All that being said, peruse these tables and come to your own conclusions. There is a lot of room for more nuanced analysis on this topic. It would be beneficial to distinguish wide and central players, formations, maximums and minimums in each category, and, of course, to go further back in MLS history. All that will have to wait for another article. There’s a lot of data to look at and I certainly don’t have a monopoly on the interpretation of it (I’m happy to share the full spreadsheet, too, if anyone is interested).

Nonetheless, if we compare the Fire’s current situation to general league-wide numbers, it is clear that they need more from their forwards. This is something that fans have called for based on the team’s performance on the field, of course, but the numbers back it up, too. Last year’s most successful teams in the playoffs weren’t necessarily those that scored the most goals (read: San Jose), but they got better-than-average production from their front line. This isn’t necessarily to say that the Fire absolutely need a Robin van Persie, but they do need a better Dutchman than they have right now.