Toronto FC's Michael Bradley says possession is overrated; do the numbers back him up?

Is possession “overrated”?

Toronto FC and US national team midfielder Michael Bradley sure thinks so.

"Possession is such an overrated stat," Bradley said to MLSsoccer.com this week after a Toronto training session. He went on to say, "It doesn’t mean that we don’t work on improving how we control games with the ball and control games by playing and moving, but there’s so much more to it. You have to have a way of playing and winning games that combines good football with mobility and aggressiveness and commitment to close down and make the game hard on the other team.”

There is, of course, more to the game than possession.

 But in the last few years, a debate has raged in the soccer statistical community about just how important possession is to a team's success. With the championships won by Barcelona and the Spanish national team, who play similar, possession-based systems, many fans and analysts predict success for teams that spend most of the game with the ball.

Others argue that possession numbers are often misleading, as teams may control the ball with passing near the halfway line but fail to create dangerous scoring opportunities. Some teams, of course, prefer to have less possession, searching for the perfect opportunity to produce a high-quality scoring chance via counterattack.

Even the definition of possession can vary based on who is collecting and analyzing the data. In Major League Soccer, possession is defined as a percentage of the game's total, based on data collected by MLS stats partner Opta. So, barring a 50-50 split, one team will always top the 50-percent mark for possession in any game.

To see how possession-based teams have fared in league play recently, I considered teams that controlled more than 50 percent of the possession over an entire season and looked up their final position in the standings.

Below is a graph that shows the percentage of teams with more than 50 percent of the possession who made the playoffs.

Percentage of Teams with over 50% possession that made the playoffs

As you can see, teams that have more possession are making the playoffs at an increasing rate. Last season, eight of the league's 19 teams topped the 50-percent mark, and seven of those made the playoffs (D.C. United was the lone exception).

So is possession overrated? That is still up for debate. It has, however, become a pretty good indicator of a team’s standing in MLS.