Central Winger: Passing graphs reveal Seattle weakness
As the revolution in soccer statistics has spread across the globe, we have gained access to not just a larger volume of data – but also more granular data.
Perhaps one of the most useful contextual insights MLS has gained from this surge is the specific on-field locations of every attempted pass, which are elegantly graphed through OPTA's chalkboards.
The visualization below maps the passing patterns of the entire league for the current 2012 season. Each circle represents a portion of the field; the volume and the color of each circle represents the relative amount of passes and completion-rates from that area.
For example, a large green circle would represent an area that sees a large total of passes that are completed at a relatively high rate. Conversely, a small red circle would represent an area of the field that has a low amount of attempted passes that tend to be completed at a low rate.
By looking at the completion rate of passes from different locations on the field (and remembering that teams are attacking from the right toward the left), we can find some very intuitive results. As expected, passes in the middle of the field tend to be successfully completed at the highest rate. There are plenty of reasons why this would be the case – including the tendency to place highly skilled passers in the middle of the field.
Also, it seems that passes in a team's own half are completed at a higher rate than passes attempted in the opponent's half. Since opposing teams are obviously going to apply more defensive pressure in their own half – making pass completion more difficult – there should be no surprise here.
These trends represent league-wide tendencies. It's also interesting to look at team-specific visualizations and see how they compare against the league average.
This is Real Salt Lake:
It's immediately clear that Real Salt Lake are a better passing team than the league average. This should be expected from the team whose captain – defensive midfielder Kyle Beckerman – leads the league in completed (and received) passes. Beckerman has completed 894 passes through this weekend, 159 more than Dax McCarty of the New York Red Bulls, the next closest in the category and the focus of last week's article.
This is the Red Bulls' chart:
With even larger (and greener) circles than the league-leading Real Salt Lake, it's hard to discount New York's pole position at the top of the Eastern Conference. Clearly they're comfortable spending time on the ball, and use that to their advantage.
This is the Seattle Sounders:
This is perhaps the most interesting visualization of the bunch.
Seattle seem to have passed significantly worse than the league average in multiple key central areas. For one of the league's best sides, and a team that boasts Osvaldo Alonso, one of the league's best central midfielders, I would have expected to see something entirely different.
But the numbers on this don't lie: the Sounders' offense is struggling. Good thing for them, then, that their defense has been the league's best, giving up just four goals all season and keeping them in the hunt while the attack tries to get on the same page.
Devin Pleuler is a computer science graduate from Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, where he played on the men's varsity team as a goalkeeper. He's certified as a coach through both the USSF and NSCAA, and writes the Central Winger analytics column for MLSsoccer.com.