At the beginning of each week, MLSsoccer.com and OPTA will highlight one aspect or trend from that weekend’s action using analytics and events during the match to explain what forces are at play and how they pertain to the big picture.
Although fans, media and players alike would probably prefer the 30-yard laser beam into the top corner, it’s a team’s play inside the 18-yard box that truly determines attacking potency.
So while the occasional curler from David Beckham or pile driver by Graham Zusi grabs headlines, it’s the point-blank tap-ins, tidy finishes past stranded goalkeepers and garden-variety headers that separate the MLS’ attacking elite (New York, Seattle, Kansas City, Real Salt Lake) from the also rans (Toronto, Montreal, Philadelphia).
|Top and bottom three teams in 2012||Goals inside the box (excluding PKs)||Shots inside the box (excluding PKs)||Efficiency|
|Real Salt Lake||8||40||20.0%|
Even more specifically, it’s the teams that are most efficient in the 18-yard box that end up on top of the scoring charts in the long run. And since the start of the 2011 season, no team in MLS has been more prolific or efficient inside the confines of soccer’s equivalent to the red zone than the New York Red Bulls (see chart at conclusion of story).
In fact, Hans Backe’s men owe their hot start in 2012 to an absolutely lethal finishing touch inside the penalty area, more accurately to Thierry Henry and Kenny Cooper’s absurd start with the ball at their feet in front of net.
A little more than a month into the 2012 season, Henry and Cooper are perched atop the Golden Boot race with seven goals apiece for one reason: they haven’t wasted their chances in the 18-yard box. On average, MLS sides have converted 18.1 percent of their shots inside the penalty area into goals (see chart above). Meanwhile, New York has finished an astounding 48.4 percent, with Henry and Cooper accounting for 12 of those 14 strikes.
|Player||Team||Goals inside box (excluding PKs)||Shots inside box (excluding PKs)||Efficiency|
Even more impressive than the duo’s raw production is the efficiency they’ve relied on to put up those numbers. Unsurprisingly, Henry and Cooper are atop the individual charts when it comes to penalty area efficiency as well, walking the ball back to the center circle exactly 60 percent of the time they manage to uncork a shot in the box (see chart at right for the five most efficient finishers in 2012 who've taken at least eight shots inside the area).
The reason for that gulf in efficiency – one that relies, admittedly, on small sample size – comes down to a combination of the locations from which New York’s duo takes their shots, the placement of those strikes and, of course, a little luck. Below are shot charts and goalmouth maps for Henry and Cooper, along with fellow early season standouts Chris Wondolowski and Kei Kamara for comparison.
Kenny Cooper (left) and Thierry Henry (right)
Chris Wondolowski (left) and Kei Kamara (right)
As you can see, the Red Bulls’ workhorses do almost all their damage from the area surrounding the six-yard box and their efforts are clustered around the outer reaches of the goal. While Wondolowski’s shot chart resembles his fellow Golden Boot frontrunners when it comes to shot selection, his goalmouth map shows less precise finishing – which doesn’t seem to matter too much since so many of his goals are from pointblank range.
On the other hand, Kamara’s charts show why shot location is so important to efficiency. Despite leading the league in shots, he has just three goals (predictably all from less than 10 yards out), while his charts shows a propensity for hopeful strikes from distance and central placement.
But as incredible as New York's finishing has been, the law of averages says New York can’t possibly keep this up.
That doesn’t mean, however, that they aren’t extremely well positioned to be the most efficient team inside the penalty area this season. The hope being that their attacking efficiency will help cancel out some of the issues that have plagued Backe's backline in March and April as goalkeeper Ryan Meara continues to wait for his first clean sheet.
With Cooper and Henry patrolling the 18-yard box for a full season, it's entirely possible that New York could convert better than 25 percent of their chances inside the area this season. And although that's not a recipe for success in and of itself, it's certainly a start en route to the trophy the New York franchise has been chasing for their entire existence.
Shot efficiency inside and outside the 18-yard box since the start of the 2011 season
|Team||Goals from inside the box||Shots from inside the box||Goals to shots ratio inside the box||Goals from outside the box||Shots from outside the box||Goals to shots ratio outside the box|