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OPTA Spotlight: Goals are up, but what does it really mean?

Here's an encouraging statistic no matter how you dissect it: Scoring is up 12 percent in Major League Soccer through the first four months of 2012.

Thus far into the season, teams are scoring at a clip of 2.64 per game through 146 regular-season contests. That's a figure that's up from 2.36 per game over the same period in 2011. But if goals keep finding the nets at this rate, the overall improvement over last season will only be 3 percent.

Does that suggest that goalscoring picked up that significantly in midseason last year? It certainly does: Starting in late June 2011, teams began scoring at a rate of 2.73 per game, upping the overall statistic for the season. And that suggests that this year's early scoring binge is a continuation of a trend that began last summer.

But the reason for that increase is a lot more encouraging than a mere increase in finishing.

*Comparison does not include Toronto FC's 3-0 victory in Montreal on Wednesday.

Goals in MLS on the rise

Goals scored: 2012 vs. 2011
  Games Goals Goals/Game Shots/G SOG/G Shots inside box/G Goals inside box/G
2012 146 385 2.64 19.98 8.99 11.76 2.28
2011 through 6/25 142 335 2.36 18.63 8.16 10.50 1.94
2011 overall 319 818 2.56 19.65 8.61 11.10 2.13

As you can see from the table to the right, the beginning of the 2012 season has indeed ushered in a significant increase in goals per game and total goals compared to the 2011 through June 25. Shots are up, shots on target are up and teams seem to be placing an onus on attacking opponents where they are most vulnerable: inside the 18-yard box.

Now, that all sounds great, until you compare 2012 to the full 2011 season. Through that lens, this season’s scoring bump looks more like the continuation of a larger trend, a mirage that appears bound to even out over the course of the next six months.

That may well be true, of course, but there’s more to scoring than goals. The driving factor behind 2012’s comparatively fast start appears to be the building blocks that are laid before the ball ripples the back of the net. The same building blocks that could very well usher in an even more potent conclusion to 2012, the same kind of jump that made up for 2011’s slow start.

Better with the ball at their feet

Passing per game: 2012 vs. 2011
  Total Passes Successful Passes Successful Layoffs Touches Touches in Opposition Box Big Chances Created
2012 889.21 660.62 22.57 1258.28 33.15 1.72
2011 845.50 619.09 14.29 1203.48 28.53 1.51

We're talking about passes, and the statistics show that MLS teams are becoming increasingly better at stringing them together, especially in the final third.

Not only has the number of passes attempted each game increased, but – more importantly – those additional passes are almost all successful and nearly all of them are coming in the midfield and final third. Teams aren’t simply pinging the ball around aimlessly in the back and unwittingly padding the numbers; they’re looking to advance the ball into dangerous areas and succeeding more often than not.

Forward passing per game: 2012 vs. 2011
  Fwd Passes Successful Fwd Passes Completion Percentage Fwd Passes, Final Thrd Successful Fwd Passes, Final Third Completion Percentage
2012 340.8 198.2 58.1% 81.95 43.60 53.2%
2011 331.3 188.4 56.9% 81.17 40.95 50.5%

The number of forward passes per game has risen by about nine attempts per match. That doesn’t seem like much, except for the fact that the rate of success for those passes has risen as well.

The net result is that around three more passes are being completed in the final third. That, coupled with the increase in overall scoring and scoring from open play, suggests teams are simply better at breaking their opponents down.

Boiled down to basics, more effective and cutting passing has led to an increase of 50 goals in 2012 in just four more games than were scored through June 25 in 2011. That's significant, even if the overall number of goals per game has only jumped by .28.

What does it all mean?

But why is that happening? Why are teams completing more passes overall and in the final third? Are teams more dedicated to pushing numbers forward or have defenses failed to keep pace with attacking progress?

Goals per game in Europe
2011-2012 EPL La Liga Bundesliga Serie A Ligue 1 Eredivisie
Goals/Game 2.81 2.76 2.86 2.56 2.52 3.26

Unfortunately, the answers aren’t simple or straightforward. That would be too convenient and, frankly, more than raw statistics are capable of explaining on their own.

What we do know, however, is that scoring in 2011 jumped by a smidge more than 15 percent from June 25 on, a sizeable increase that coincided with clubs beginning the push for the postseason and prevented league from logging a decidedly below average goals-per-game average

Should that same trend apply to 2012 – which is certainly no guarantee, but interesting to consider – the league would end the season averaging 3.04 goals per game. Realistically, any mark around or above the current pace puts MLS is decent company compared to the leagues that generally serve as benchmarks in the mind of the American soccer fan.

Unlikely? Undoubtedly, but still something to shoot for during a season in which attacking soccer appears to have taken a step forward on all fronts.