Stats In MLS: Completed Passes and the Standings

I will continue my attempts to quantify what’s happening in Major League Soccer through some statistics discussion. I’m going to put aside the Power Rankings for a week or two, but suffice it to say, Sporting Kansas City has not relinquished their spot at the top yet, especially notching a good away victory at Chivas USA. Real Salt Lake has reasserted their place near the top, but they haven’t eclipsed SKC just yet.

One of my general hypotheses about the sport of soccer is that passing proficiency leads to success. You can certainly have cases where possession is wasted and the counterattack spoils an otherwise dominant performance by a team. I think possession can be of overstated importance, as is discussed over at the MLS site through their column The Central Winger. I’m not talking possession, but more passing efficiency.

Part of the discussion becomes difficult because of the lack of pure data. If you read Jonathan Wilson’s book, “Inverting The Pyramid,” there have been many theories on build, and how many passes are too many passes. For instance, does an offensive build (from initial touch to final stab) of 6 passes have a better chance of creating a scoring opportunity than one of 12? I’d love to be able to analyze this within the framework of the Opta/MLS stats, but for the moment it would take an intense amount of personal data mining to drill to the right numbers.

Let’s just start with a simple hypothesis this week, and see how the data strings out for us: the team with the most completed passes per game should be the most successful. Why do I choose this assertion? I am a believer that if you’re going to give a statistic, there must be some positive to be gleaned from it. If MLS lists Pass Accuracy and Total Passes in their reports, then there should be some usefulness, right?

So let’s take Total Passes and multiply by Pass Accuracy. That theoretically should back-calculate to Completed Passes (maybe Accurate Passes is a semantically better choice, but I will go with the less esoteric). So through the first four weeks (plus a game each last night and tonight), which teams have averaged the most Completed Passes per match in the first four weeks?

So what can be drawn from these calculations? For one thing, the two best teams right now in terms of table points, Sporting KC and Real Salt Lake, are in the top 3 in completed passes per match. Additionally, 6 of the top 10 teams in completed passes per match are top 10 in the single table.

As can be the case with statistics, there are significant outliers. San Jose and FC Dallas are two of the worst in completed pass average, yet are in the top 6 in points. Up to this point, they have been able to find goals even without solid pass accuracy (Dallas has been at or below 70% accuracy in their last three matches, while the Earthquakes have been so in three of four).

At this point, I don’t think we can declare a conclusive answer to my stated hypothesis. I definitely think that good passing numbers tend to be a good influence on a team’s ability to succeed. In the cases where a team without good passing stats has found good results, it might come down to a good run of finishing. I will continue to monitor this statistic as the season progresses to see if it is impacts the way teams ascend and descend the standings.


7 thoughts on “Stats In MLS: Completed Passes and the Standings”

  1. Hmmm, interesting. I think that completed passes has less to be
    with success than not completing passes can lead to poor
    performance. There are many factors to consider, such as
    possession, solid finishing combined with solid defense, etc. Good
    article. I look forward to see where this ends up going over the
    next couple of weeks.

  2. Using basic statistics, you can calculate a correlation coefficient
    between the rank (league standing) and the rank of average
    completed passes…or any other statistic, e.g., goal difference.

  3. In America (and perhaps in other countries, I don’t know) everybody
    worships the short pass. The problem is you need to complete more
    passes to reach your objective, and if you loose the ball, it is
    often in the back and your exposed to the counter. The Rapids,
    under their old coach Fernando Cliejvo (I’ve thankfully forgot the
    spelling), whenever a player won the ball, would turn back toward
    our own goal and usually pass it back. The main goal was to keep
    possession. It was boring, and most games were low scoring. I’m
    sure statistically the Rapids completed a lot of passes.
    ___________ People undervalue winning the ball and springing an
    attack by playing it right away behind the defenders for a striker
    to run on to it. Yes this pass is more likely to be intercepted,
    but possession will be lost in your opponent’s half. And, if the
    pass is completed, the striker is on goal. I’m not against
    possession, but I think too many teams in the MLS (and in other
    levels of American soccer) undervalue the value of a quick
    penetrating ball to stretch the defense.

    1. When you say America, you mean US, they don’t undervalue it in
      Mexico, they use it to crush the Sounders in the last 20 minutes of
      the CCL quarterfinals, leaving me to cry and value it more.

      1. Yes, I meant the US. Santos Laguna also crushed Colorado with speed
        and penetrating passes. Although I can’t remember if they were
        counter attacks or came after extended possession. They are a great

    2. I probably couldn’t disagree more. I think that long balls are
      overused. This is just my personal opinion, but watching a game
      where the majority of the play where a ball is kicked across the
      entire field and there is a sprint to grab it first and score or
      kick it away is boring. That detracts from the excitement. It is a
      good tool to use, and an occasional secret weapon, but soccer
      should be passing (not necessarily super short Barcelona passes),
      possession, and good tactical and technical play. If they are a
      good team, what they create in the midfield or at net, or even how
      they defend, will be exciting. I actually look to my team the
      Earthquakes this and last year. Before that they overused the long
      ball. It is clear that they have done away with that and their new
      strategy is working. Last year would have been better if they had
      the depth that they had this year since they had so many injuries.
      This year, they are successful and exciting to watch, because they
      have improved their passing and fight for the ball every chance
      that they get. They also try to create magic in the midfield as
      well as in the box.

  4. This would be a far more interesting list if instead of table
    position you had done a ranking of point-per-game, thereby allowing
    for the fact that different teams have played different numbers of
    games. You already did it with the completed passes stat by taking
    average rather than total number of passes.

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