Central Winger: Think you can't ID a team using X's and O's? Think again!

Central Winger Sporting Kanas City

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ESPN soccer analyst Alexi Lalas posited a question to the American soccer Twittersphere on Tuesday that got me thinking.

"Think you know a 'style of play'?” Lalas asked. “If you were shown a team's movement using only X's on a screen, could you still ID the team?"

Followed by this: "Willing to bet it would be difficult even for 'experts' and even with teams/leagues we think we know."

I was inclined to agree with his proposition. The words "style," "system" and even "formation" are becoming increasingly nebulous, especially when we look at the highest levels of the game. But I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's impossible to distinguish teams by their style of play (and I'm sure neither would Lalas).

But, it's likely very difficult using only the naked eye. Luckily, our vision can be augmented by statistical analysis.

While Opta's chalkboards may not be the exact "X's" and "O's" that are being alluded to, they're at least a byproduct of them. We can track the coordinates of every pass's origin – i.e. the player who made the pass – and the destination of each pass is a glimpse into where the receiving player is about to be.

Before we dig in, it's important to define exactly what we believe a "style of play" is. The U.S. Coaching Curriculum mentions that "all teams will be encouraged to display an offensive style of play based on keeping possession and quick movement of the ball.”

In other words, a style of play can be based on the way a team keeps possession while on offense. For the sake of this experiment, we will attempt to distinguish teams based on their passing trends in the attacking half.

One passing trend that sees significant variation across Major League Soccer is the frequency of long (e.g. 30-plus yards) passes being attempted in the attacking half of the field. Check out the table below.

Team Long Passes Per Game Passes Per Game Percent
Sporting Kansas City 34.7 234.0 14.8%
San Jose Earthquakes 29.9 206.7 14.5%
D.C. United 29.3 209.9 14.0%
LA Galaxy 28.6 251.1 11.4%
Philadelphia Union 27.1 194.7 13.9%
Houston Dynamo 27.0 212.7 12.7%
Colorado Rapids 27.0 205.6 13.1%
Toronto FC 26.5 194.7 13.6%
Seattle Sounders FC 26.3 213.7 12.3%
Portland Timbers 25.6 249.4 10.3%
FC Dallas 25.6 172.1 14.9%
Columbus Crew 25.2 212.6 11.9%
Chicago Fire 24.0 185.6 13.0%
Vancouver Whitecaps 23.3 190.8 12.2%
Montreal Impact 22.7 179.0 12.7%
New York Red Bulls 22.0 209.2 10.5%
New England Revolution 21.6 199.7 10.8%
Real Salt Lake 20.4 236.2 8.6%
Chivas USA 18.8 167.4

11.2%

So far in 2013, Sporting Kansas City have been slinging the most 30-plus yard passes per game, nearly five more than any other team in the league. On the opposite end, short-pass oriented squads such as Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA are peddling around 40 percent less than the league leaders.

A few weeks ago, league-leading Kansas City visited Rio Tinto to take on Real Salt Lake in a matchup that is clearly cherry-picked for the purpose of this exercise. Keeping each team anonymous, the long-ball ratio in the attacking half looks like this for each squad:

Team Long Passes Passes Percent Long Passes
Team A 40 258 15.5%
Team B 19 161 11.8%

Who do you think is who? We don't need to run statistical tests to tell us that we are sure Team A is Sporting Kansas City and Team B is Real Salt Lake. But, I did run them -- we're highly confident. In a game like this, with teams and leagues that we are familiar with, it likely does not take an expert to tell the two teams apart from the X's and O's.

While a comparison of long-ball propensity may be useful for differentiating Kansas City from Salt Lake, it's probably not as useful for telling a Seattle squad apart from, say, Portland. But other metrics -- or even a combination of metrics -- certainly might.

The moral of the story is yes, we can identify teams by their style of play. And while some comparisons are a bit more stark like the one illustrated in this article, scratching the chalkboards may prove to provide additional insight on comparisons that are not obvious to even an expert's eye.