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.