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Scoring Goals In MLS, Part 1: The "True Goal Scorer"

Who's going to score? That's a question that Fire fans have often had to ask over the last several seasons, let alone the dismal beginning to 2013. In this first part of a series on goal scoring across the league and its history, we take a look at the "true goal scorer." This is what many people feel is the missing key to soccer success in Chicago. Just how common has that player been in MLS and how important is he?


Up until the Fire’s win over New York last Sunday, much of the talk among Fire fans has been about the team’s need for a true goal-scoring forward. Although Maicon Santos’ brace in the 3-1 victory over the Red Bulls means that he is now on pace to score 13.6 goals this season, it seems unlikely that this issue has been completely resolved. Rumors have it that the team is actively pursuing such a player for the summer transfer market, but whether a truly "big name" will end up in Chicago come June remains to be seen. With all that in mind, I take a look this week at the history of the "true goal scorer" in MLS, the first in a multi-part series on goal scoring in MLS.

It’s not a coincidence that in a recent NBC Sports blog post, Steve Davis picked out Chicago’s Sherjill Macdonald as the opposite of what he calls the "classic striker," the Gerd Müller model player. You know, the guy whom inspired the line "all he does is score goals." Davis singles out Chicago and D.C. as teams whose front men have hustle and hold-up play but very low strike rates (4 goals in 19 appearances for MacDonald and 7 goals in 28 appearances for D.C.’s Lionard Pajoy). This, Davis argues, is why these two teams currently sit 8th and 9th respectively in the Eastern Conference. This is certainly not the only reason for these clubs poor starts to the season, but few would argue with Davis’ point.

To test just how important that true goal scorer is, I compiled data about forwards who scored 10 goals or more in a single season from the inaugural MLS season in 1996 through 2012. I did so by assembling a rather large and unwieldy spreadsheet (that I would be happy to share with anyone who is interested) out of data available on It is important to note that my data on goal scoring does not account for how many or which games a specific player appeared in and that the goals scored totals used are from the regular season only. Thus, even when I discuss the playoffs below, I’m only discussing a general correlation between a team’s overall performance and the statistics of players on their roster. I would love to account more closely for performance when specific players play (or don’t, for that matter), but unfortunately compiling all that data across the history of the league would be incredibly time consuming and may not even be possible based on what MLS provides online. Finally, I should also note that the data do not account for mid-season trades (like Dwayne DeRosario in 2011, who moved from Toronto to New York to D.C.); I have instead simply used whatever team attribution MLS has assigned.

With those caveats in mind – and I’d be happy to address them more closely if they raise significant concerns, let’s move to the data!

202 players have scored 10 goals or more in an MLS season from 1996 to 2002, yielding an average of 11.88 players marking 13.19 goals per season. This has ranged from a low of 7 players in 2007 and a high of 19 in 1998, as you can see in Table 1 below. What this table shows that is particularly interesting, however, is that while the number of players scoring 10 or more goals a year has varied relatively little from that average over the last 17 years, the classic striker is nonetheless becoming rarer with the expansion of the league.

Table 1: True goal scorers in league history


The average number of players scoring 10+ goals per team peaked in 1998, when each team had an average of 1.58 true goal scorers. It has steadily declined since, hitting a low of 0.54 true goal scorers per team in 2007. Last year the average was 0.68, the same year that Chris Wondolowski finally tied Roy Lassiter’s record for goals in a season (27). This number has remained below the league’s historical average of 0.97 10+ goal scorers per team since 2005.

Clearly, the dynamics of goal scoring and, therefore, winning have changed to some extent since MLS was founded. My point here isn’t necessarily to speculate on what exactly that may have been, but to try and figure out if having that true goal scorer still matters. Let’s turn to some other data.

Table 2 divides up players scoring 10+ goals a season based on their teams’ position in conference standings at the end of the regular season

Table 2: True goal scorers and regular season finishes


Here there is a correlation between teams with true goal scorers and high finishes in the table. 81% of teams that have finished first in their conference have had at least one player scoring 10+ goals; on those 29 teams (out of 36 first place finishers in total), there were an average of 1.66 players with 10+ goals per team and an average of 1.33 players with 10+ goals per all first place teams. Moving down the rankings, it is in the percentage of teams with true goal scorers that this pattern places out most clearly.

Does it make a difference whether teams feature decent goal scorers, marking 10-14 goals, or really exceptional ones, who can score 15 or more? Tables 3, 4, and 5 address this question.

Table 3: Teams with 10-14 goal scorers and regular season finishes


Table 4: Teams with 15+ goal scorers and regular season finishes


Table 5: Teams with both 10-14 and 15+ goal scorers and regular season finishes


The correlation gets a little fuzzier as the numbers get smaller. It would seem that having a player who can reliably score 10-14 goals may not be a strong predictor of a good finish in the league, whereas having players who can score 15 or more goals – or having some of both kinds – is generally tied to a higher finish, but the sample size is much smaller. This would seem like common sense however, as having players with that kind of strike rate, or multiple players with decent scoring records, should help teams win games. Nonetheless, it seems less definitive that having just one player who scores in the 10-14 goal per season range can radically improve a team’s chances of a good record.

Regular-season conference standings are only one part of the overall MLS picture, however. Indeed, most people would contend that it is the postseason that matters most, and rightly so. With that in mind, let’s take a look at whether or not teams with true goal scorers fare better in the playoffs. Table 6 shows the same data above for teams that have qualified for the playoffs and those that have won the MLS Cup.

Table 6: Playoff qualification, MLS Cup wins, and true goal scorers


65% of teams that have qualified for the MLS Cup playoffs have at least one player with 10 or more goals. What’s even more striking, however, is that 82% of teams to win the MLS Cup have had at least one such player. This is arguably the strongest link between the true goal scorer and MLS success. This is reinforced by the fact that 72% of playoff game victories, from play-in matches to Cup finals, were won by teams with at least one true goal scorer.

It would seem, thus, that there is something to Davis’ argument about goal scoring. Historically, MLS teams have finished better in the regular season and really excelled in the postseason when they have at least one player scoring 10 or more goals. Should the Fire therefore be worried? Statistically, the answer appears to be yes and the Fire’s goal scoring history will have to be addressed specifically in a separate piece. Still, the broader picture of how much true goal scorers contribute to success in MLS seems incomplete. The overall decline of the true goal scorer in MLS, for instance, would indicate that teams are finding a variety of other ways to win games in recent years.

Another example we can look at comes from the Supporters Shield. Only 10 out of 17 teams that have won that trophy have had a true goal scorer, good for just 59%. While this is more than half and therefore indicates that teams with such players do have a somewhat better shot at that trophy, it is a much less significant advantage than expected. Interestingly enough, those ten teams had an average of 2.40 true goal-scoring players; it would seem that Supporters Shield-winning teams either have a couple very high-scoring players, a powerful scoring-by-committee approach, or perhaps just really good defense. I’ll look more into this topic in the next part of this series on goal scoring in MLS, where I will break down how different teams got their goals in the 2012 season.