Opta Spotlight: Statistically speaking, how MLS compares to soccer's biggest leagues

Opta Spotlight: MLS vs the World

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EDITORS' NOTE: Due to a miscalculation of MLS's 2012 stats from an outside contractor, a previous version of this article displayed some errors in the statistics, including goals per game and passes attempted. They have been corrected.

By 2022, Major League Soccer hopes to count itself among the global soccer elite.

On the path to that goal, by definition, the league will be compared to the likes of the English Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, the Bundesliga and Liga MX.

But already, the gap – at least from a game-to-game statistical perspective – isn't as wide as many Europhiles would have you believe.

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In gathering the numbers below, my intent was to compare the pace and nature of an MLS match to one in what most would consider elite international league. The results aren't necessarily surprising: MLS trended toward an open game and midfield battles. But it also compared well to its more-lauded brethren across the board.

Below are averages per team (not per game) over the course of a league match. MLS' data comes from the 2012 season, while the EPL, La Liga, Serie A and Bundesliga's totals are calculated using data from the 2011-12 seasons. The Liga MX's metrics were pulled from the 2012 Apertura campaign.

Team averages per game
  Goals Shots Attemped (Shots on Target) Goals to Shots Ratio Total Passes (Successful Passes) Passing Accuracy % Passes in Defensive Third % Passes in Middle Third % Passes in Attacking Third Long Passes Attempted Tackles Attempted
MLS 1.32 10.05 (4.44) 13.15% 436.11 (330.71) 75.83% 16.53% 53.99% 29.49% 55.78 17.78
EPL 1.40 10.51 (4.63) 13.34% 462.98 (354.34) 76.53% 16.21% 51.81% 31.98% 54.90 18.84
La Liga 1.38 10.19 (4.67) 13.56% 450.81 (334.35) 74.16% 15.90% 52.60% 31.50% 55.28 22.99
Serie A 1.28 10.25 (4.40) 12.47% 451.44 (344.44) 76.30% 14.20% 54.16% 31.64% 53.93 22.57
Bundesliga 1.43

10.11 (4.71)

14.15% 452.39 (340.14) 75.19% 17.96% 53.40% 28.65% 60.76 22.83
Liga MX 1.24

10.24 (4.29)

12.13% 411.37 (322.33) 78.36% 13.36% 55.42% 31.22% 42.56 20.54

Goals per match are obviously the first thing that jump out, and for good reason. The trend is clear: the more shots on goal, the more goals scored.

It's worth mentioning that the average MLS side is finding frame more frequently than teams in Serie A and Liga MX. Poor finishers? Hardly. The truth of the matter is that wayward finishing is a hallmark of the game at all levels. It's what makes the Robin van Persies and Chris Wondolowskis of the world so valuable.

Perhaps the most telling aspects of the comparison, though, are the passing numbers: namely, frequency and the area of the field in which each attempt occurs.

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This is where MLS may surprise some people, especially those who believe the league trends toward to the kick-and-chase dogma that values physicality over skill. While the European league outpaced MLS, clubs in the US and Canada fell in between Liga MX and their UEFA counterparts, an indicator of how conditions (namely heat) affect the pace of the game as well as identifying an area in which MLS must still progress.

Now, are players in La Liga generally more technical? Probably, but you may be shocked to see MLS record a higher passing accuracy than the birthplace of tiki-taka, which falls dead last in the category. It's important to remember that not all teams are Barcelona or Real Madrid, whose flash tends to skew the reputation of their domestic peers. Style varies from club to club, and the beautiful game is often only effective for a chosen few.

Meanwhile, it should surprise no one that the Liga MX ranks last in total passes and long balls. Much of that can be attributed to altitude, the Sierra Madre ranges sucking wind from hungry lungs and weather, as the Apertura season (August to December) corresponds with the hottest months of the year. But it also speaks to the nature of the Mexican game, with the numbers suggesting that the defensive line (as with Serie A) is farther back than their counterparts and that methodical buildup rules the day.

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MLS' possession distribution shaded slightly farther toward the defensive third and the long pass played a much larger role, but this doesn't seem to have negatively impacted goalscoring for either league. Forward possession, as Serie A's suffocating calcio shows, doesn't necessarily equate to goals.

But here's the rub – one that's more about sample size than anything else.

Last year represented an uptick in MLS' passing frequency from 2011, as nearly 14 more passes were completed per game (see chart below) and shots jumped as well.

Team averages per game
  Goals Shots Attemped (Shots on Target) Goals to Shots Ratio Total Passes (Successful Passes) Passing Accuracy % Passes in Defensive Third % Passes in Middle Third % Passes in Attacking Third Long Passes Attempted Tackles Attempted
2011 1.29 9.79 (4.28) 13.20% 422.79 (310.06) 73.34% 17.13% 52.96% 29.91% 61.35 17.28
2012 1.32 10.05 (4.44) 13.15% 436.11 (330.71) 75.83% 16.53% 53.99% 29.49% 55.78 17.78

Which begs the question: Is the improvement a one-year trend or an indication of the on-field progress necessary to take the league closer to its goal?

As Opta gathers more and more data, we'll have the answers to those questions. For now, it's clear: Statistically, MLS is perhaps closer to 2022 than it thinks.