Climbing The Ladder: The truth behind possession game

This season, MLSsoccer.com has introduced expanded stats for each individual game, including percentages for the amount of possession, duels won and passes completed.

The first of those three, possession, is the one most likely to be seen on a television broadcast and most likely to be discussed by the commentary crew or fans. But what impact has the amount of possession had on the results of the 2011 regular season so far?

1. Possession hasn’t lead to wins, at least in individual games.

Possession vs. PPG

Possession Games Record PPG
50.1-54% 90 24-30-36 1.20
55-59% 71 20-27-24 1.18
60-64% 41 8-16-17 1.00
65+ 13 3-5-5 1.08

In his March 4 Armchair Analyst column announcing the league’s new relationship with Opta, Matthew Doyle wondered if MLS teams would end up being more like Barcelona or Borussia Dortmund when it comes to possession. That is, would they win by dominating it or conceding it?

Two-thirds of the season later, and it’s turned out to be the latter. Overall, 133 of 216 games this season have ended with a winner. But contrary to what might be expected, teams who’ve won the possession battle have more often than not ended up on the losing side: 55 wins vs. 78 losses. The average winner gets 48.4 percent and the average loser gets 51.6 percent.

What about the games where one team dominated the ball? Did having a large advantage increase a team’s chances at all? The answer is no. As the amount of possession goes up, the results don’t get any better (at right).

Teams with more than 60 percent have actually done worse. That may be because grabbing a narrow lead means that the leaders shift into a more defensive posture as their opponents push forward. Indeed, six of the seven highest ranking losses are 0-1 scorelines.

2. Which teams lead the league in possession per game?

In the table at  right, PPG refers to the current rank in the overall league table based on points per game, since all teams haven’t played the same amount of games.

Top Possession Teams In MLS

  PPG TEAM POSS. % MORE LESS
1 4 RSL 58.3 21 1
2 12 NY 56.6 22 3
3 11 CHV 53.5 19 5
4 1 LA 52.4 15 10
5 10 HOU 52.4 16 8
6 5 CLB 50.9 12 12
6 5 CLB 50.9 12 12
7 3 SEA 50.5 13 12
8 7 PHI 49.8 10 12
9 8 DC 49.7 9 13
10 9 SKC 49.7 12 11
11 6 COL 49.3 13 13
12 14 SJ 49.0 9 15
13 17 CHI 47.9 9 14
14 2 DAL 46.9 8 16
15 13 POR 46.9 7 16
16 15 TOR 46.7 9 17
17 18 VAN 46.3 7 17
18 16 NE 43.7 4 20

This represents the average possession for all of a team’s games this season, and unlike the numbers in individual games, this does seem to have at least some relationship with winning. Still, several teams are out of place, including New York, Chivas USA, and Houston. Those three teams are in the top five for possession, yet aren’t in the top half of the table. Meanwhile, FC Dallas are only 14th in possession despite being second overall.

More/Less refers to the amount of possession a team has had in each individual game (Philadelphia and FC Dallas actually splt the possession in their match last weekend). RSL have had the majority in all but one game this season, which was the 3-0 win at home against New York on Aug. 6. That was their 21st regular-season game, which means that they started the season with more possession in all of their first 20.

New York are currently close to besting that streak, as they’ve only lost the possession battle three times, and not since the seventh game of the year. That makes 18 games in a row for the Red Bulls, but they have only two wins in that span (2-5-11).

RSL also had the most possession in a single game, which occurred on May 7 against Chivas USA, with 75.6 percent. That was the game in which Javier Morales was injured, as Chivas played the majority of the 90 minutes with nine men, but only lost narrowly on an 87th-minute Will Johnson goal.

3. How have teams fared with more and less possession?

Philadelphia are one of the teams in the middle of the pack possession-wise, right around 50 percent on average. However, there’s something notable about their stats: They have yet to lose in any of the twelve games that they’ve had fewer possession (5-0-7). And they’re not alone: Houston (2-0-6), New York (2-0-1) and Real Salt Lake (1-0-0) can also join them in that category; all four are undefeated when they’ve had less of the ball.

On the other hand, five teams have really struggled when they’ve had more of the ball: D.C. United (0-5-4), Portland (0-6-1), San Jose (0-3-6), Toronto (0-6-3) and Vancouver (0-4-3) have not won in any of the games in which they’ve had more possession.