Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Elusive 15+ Goal Season: Why the Portland Timbers Are All Right

It'll totally make sense by the end...but only then.
If you asked me cold the number of goals a Major League Soccer forward needs to score in order to rate as "quality," I'd say 15 in a season. I've even thought of 20 goals as a reasonable haul for a real quality forward. True story...

Who knew I was the angry, disappointed father type (that I always feared I would be), because that figure doesn't hold up. First of all, a goal every other game is a great strike-rate in any league in the world; that's 17 goals a season in MLS. It's even further off in the context of MLS as a league. 15+ goal seasons are rare in America's top flight. How rare? Since 2010 (according to a...loosely statistical analysis (inviting peer review, people), an MLS forward has scored 15 or more goals in a single season just 21 times. And two players – the Los Angeles Galaxy's Robbie Keane and, of course, the San Jose Earthquake's Chris Wondolowski – account for a combined total of six of those twenty-one 15+ goal seasons. As for those 15 other occasions, call them wonderful exceptions to a rather stingy rule.

How many 20+ goal seasons have there been since 2010? Just five. And those are as follows (alphabetically by team, accidentally, because that’s how the data lays out):
Marco Di Vaio, Montreal Impact, 2013 (20 goals)
Bradley Wright-Phillips, New York Red Bulls, 2014 (27 goals)
Chris Wondolowski, San Jose Earthquakes, 2012 (27 goals)
Dom Dwyer, Sporting Kansas City, 2014 (22 goals)
Camilo Sanvezzo, Vancouver Whitecaps, 2013 (22 goals)
For the curious, I listed all the 15+ goal seasons below, by player, and after everything else. But, for the general purposes of this post, I counted a total of 72 times when an MLS forward(-ish*) scored more than 10 goals in a single season. According to my stroll through the stats page every friggin' club in MLS (DC United's excepted, because it's a frickin' mess; and here's a sample of where I'm looking), since 2010, the raw percentage that any forward will score 10 goals or more in a season boils down to about 30% (29.6% by a precise count; 72 out of 243 "statistical events").

And, by implication, those same 21 15+ goal players came out of that same pool, which translates a whopping 8.6%. More qualifiers: I say *forward-ish because the word "forward" doesn't always cleanly define. For instance, I included players like Landon Donovan and Chris Pontius in the head-count; neither player is a forward, strictly speaking, but both are "forward enough." This will bite me on the ass as soon as the next paragraph...

Last Thursday, I posted a history of the Portland Timbers' signings at forward, one in which the angle wasn't...let's call it entirely positive (it was posted as more of a "what went wrong?" think-piece). That's precisely why I picked through page after page of general MLS team statistics: in order to put the Portland Timbers past and current crop of forwards in the context of the rest of MLS (i.e., to pass my biases through a bullshit detector). The point I arrived at is that Timbers fans shouldn't be so hard on our forwards because, as it happens, scoring 10 goals per season as a forward isn't an easy thing to do in MLS. The 20+ club is – let's face it – ridiculously exclusive, and the 15+ line ain't exactly, it's-all-good-come-as-you-are.

In other words, whatever happens in 2015 (e.g. hopefully, a lot more), when he scored 10 goals in 2014, Maximiliano Urruti accomplished something last season that 70% of MLS forwards fail to do any given year (e.g. score 10 goals or more) (and  I just realized that's an entirely invalid percentage; it would vary year-to-year). More to the immediate point – i.e., since no one's talking (much) about trading Urruti or shipping him back home – Fanendo Adi looks pretty goddamn solid for a 10+ goals season in 2015, so, whatever his limitations (there are several), what's say we encourage the powers that be to seriously mull it over before they send Adi on his way (unless he wants to which point, shouldn't there be some kind of reflection as to why he didn't want to stay?). In other words, "what went wrong" isn't the question, so much as how does Portland continue the slow, steady progress evidenced by the numbers?

Finally, it's worth picking up the "forward enough" scare quote above, because it gets at something that's been on my mind since I embarked on taking this close look at Portland's forwards. MLS is full of players who generally commit to the attack more than they commit to defending. Here, I'm talking about not just Donovan and Pontius, but also old players like Guillermo Barros Schelotto (Columbus Crew SC), Luis Silva (first, Toronto FC, now DC), Lee Nguyen, Diego Fagundez and Kelyn Rowe (all New England Revolution, the first of whom belongs in the 15+ club), or, to name one of the most consistent and broad performers of the seasons under review, the Philadelphia Union's Sebastian Le Toux (OK, maybe just focus on 2010, 2011, and 2014). None of those players read to me as pure forwards, but each of them produce, or has produced, great offense for his team in recent years, if only for a given individual year...

...much like, say, Diego Valeri, who is a straight-up beast for the Portland Timbers. And without being a forward (which means I should have counted him - dang it! Anyway...). When he's healthy. And that brings me to one final thought. Or, embarrassingly, a quote of myself:
"Other [forwards] can bring the midfield into the game by good, quick combination play (thinking Urruti or Ryan Johnson here), which blurs the line between forward and midfield roles until they merge into 'attack.' For what it's worth, I think Portland's current crop of players does best in the big 'attack' mess."
I posted that on reddit in response to another (damn fine) exploration of Portland's history with forward signings posted over at the Portland Timbros main space. The point is, there are a lot of different kinds of forwards in MLS, or in any professional soccer leagues around the world, and more of them have melded into this big, shifting mass where midfielders, forwards, and overlapping outside backs interchange with an eye to scrambling the defense to puree. A pure forward – e.g. a player specifically dedicated to ignoring defensive duties (more or less) entirely to focus on scoring – has become something of a luxury player, much the way the pure attacking mid died in the 80s. What one gets, then, are hybrid players like, say, Eddie Gaven, or a player who evolves out of a pure striker role to shift out onto the wing like Teal Bunbury or Andrew Wenger. As for pure forwards, they've got to earn that indulgence, a la Wondolowski, Dwyer, or, to name another strongly consistent performer, Kei Kamara. Throw in Wright-Phillips as well, because he was in this mix, at least for a season.

Overall, though, this is a hard goddamn league to score in. Maybe all y'all knew that, but I didn't fully appreciate how hard till now. So, hats off to all the 10+ men out there. You're like the honor roll of your particular high school. You've earned those goddamn sashes, so wear 'em proud!

In closing, a list of the players who have scored 15+ goals in a season appear below. If you have one on your team, congrats! If you have one who has done so over time, you've found a goddamn unicorn. Asshole.

Mike Magee, Chicago Fire, 2013 (15 goals)
Robbie Keane, LA Galaxy, 2012 (16), 2013 (16), 2014 (19) (UNICORN!)
Gyasi Zardes, LA Galaxy, 2014 (16)
Edson Buddle, LA Galaxy, 2010 (17)
Lee Nguyen, New England Revolution, 2014 (18)
Kenny Cooper, New York Red Bulls, 2012 (18)
Thierry Henry, New York Red Bulls, 2012 (15) (Honorary UNICORN!)
Alvaro Saborio, Real Salt Lake, 2012 (17)
Chris Wondolowski, San Jose Earthquakes, 2011 (16), 2010 (18) (UNICORN!)
Obafemi Martins, Seattle Sounders, 2014 (17)
Clint Dempsey, Seattle Sounders, 2014 (15)
Dwayne DeRosario, Toronto FC, 2010 (15)

Conveniently, the last guy proves my point about the whole forward/midfield mash-up.

I'll dig deeper into these numbers soon. Because, fun.

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