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Climbing the Ladder: Assists through the years

Next to goals, assists are probably the most common soccer statistic. On any player profile or statistics page, the two are sure to be found side by side. But while assists may seem easy to understand, unlike goals, they can be surprisingly complex.

The definition of an MLS assist hasn’t been static over the league’s history, and then there’s also the complication of secondary assists. Let’s take a closer look at the assist, as well as some more detailed statistics from the 2011 season.

1. What’s a secondary assist, and why does MLS use them?

For starters, it’s not as simple as one goal equals one assist. For each goal scored, there’s the possibility of two assists on the play. The goal scored by Landon Donovan in MLS Cup 2011 is a fine example. Robbie Keane’s short pass behind the defense to Donovan was the “primary” assist, while David Beckham’s flick on header to Keane merited a “secondary” assist for his contribution.

Why does MLS have the option of recording two assists per goal? It dates back to the old North American Soccer League, which was the first soccer league to pay any amount of attention to statistics. The NASL presumably adapted the rule from ice hockey, where the final two players to touch the puck before the goal scorer are given assists. However, not every goal in MLS is automatically given two assists. Only those second-to-last passes which are considered to directly lead to a goal are awarded secondary assists.

Same thing for primary assists; if a player receives a pass and stands still for 10 seconds before dribbling toward the goal and shooting, it would be counted as unassisted.

2. The definition of an assist in MLS has changed over the years

While not every pass to a goal scorer is an assist today, it used to be different in the league’s early years. From 1997 to 2002, “consecutive possession” was the rule as it is in hockey. The final two passes were given assists, even if they had little direct impact on the scoring play.

Team Assist Breakdown in 2011
Team Assists Per Goal Primary Secondary
CHI 0.85 0.67 0.17
CHV 1.10 0.76 0.34
COL 0.77 0.59 0.18
CLB 0.72 0.53 0.19
DAL 1.07 0.81 0.26
DC 0.82 0.65 0.16
HOU 0.91 0.62 0.29
SKC 0.70 0.54 0.16
LA 0.90 0.65 0.25
NE 0.79 0.63 0.16
NY 1.06 0.82 0.24
PHI 0.86 0.70 0.16
POR 0.95 0.70 0.25
RSL 0.86 0.73 0.14
SJ 1.03 0.78 0.25
SEA 0.89 0.61 0.29
TOR 0.86 0.75 0.11
VAN 1.09 0.75 0.11

Also, shots off the post or even saved shots could be counted as assists if another player knocked in the rebound. That led to much higher numbers for those years, fueled mostly by more secondary assists. For example, there was an average of 1.34 assists-per-goal in 1999, 2001 and 2002, all record marks for the league when notching an assist was easy to come by under the previous standards.

Thankfully, those days are in the past. There was an average of .90 assists-per-goal in 2011. However, it does make it hard to compare records for those years to the others because of the large differences. For instance, over the last four years there have only been a total of 21 players to reach double digits in assists. But in 1998, there were 22 just for that season alone.

3. Team assist breakdowns for 2011

How many assists-per-goal did each team have last season, and how many were primary and secondary? There doesn’t seem to be any correlation between these numbers and success, either overall or just for offense. However, it may be possible to infer something about the style of play from these numbers.

Chivas USA had the most assists-per-goal (1.10). They were also one of the teams near the top of the possession statistics, as were New York, who also had a lot of assists. However, Real Salt Lake, another team noted for their ability to keep possession, only ranked in the middle of the pack. Sporting Kansas City had the fewest (0.70) despite finishing tied for second in goals scored.

For primary assists only, New York (0.82) led the way with Columbus (0.53) in last. For secondary assists, Vancouver (0.37) were on top while Toronto (0.11) finished bottom. Toronto FC actually finished with only four total secondary assists, or one for every nine goals scored, which indicates they may not have been playing the way Aron Winter wanted them to.

4. League leaders in primary assists for 2011

While they count the same in the record books, primary assists are a better way to tell which players directly set up goals. Last season, the same man led the league in both primary and total assists. Brad Davis notched 12 primary assists and 16 total, beating out David Beckham (11 and 15). Mauro Rosales trailed with 13 total assists (10 primary) and Dwayne De Rosario (12 total, 10 primary) came in fourth.

Overall, the top players didn’t change too much this year. Robbie Rogers and Steve Beitashour both had 100 percent primary assists (seven). What’s more interesting are the players who moved downwards. Two players with at least five assists had more secondary ones than primary: Jack Jewsbury (three primary, five secondary) and Graham Zusi (two primary, five secondary). In addition, two players had an equal amount: Dax McCarty and Andy Najar had three of each.