With the 2012 MLS season now behind us, the LA Galaxy's fourth MLS Cup firmly written in the record books, and another year of Opta Chalkboard data tabulated and distributed via MLSsoccer.com, we have our first chance to take a look at the past two MLS seasons and do some serious compare and contrast dirty work.
By looking at average positions of more than 300 MLS players, we can get a small glimpse into the progress that our league is making.
Here are the average player locations for the 2011 MLS regular season:
Here are the average player locations for the 2012 MLS regular season:
A few things immediately pop out. The first is that there seems to be an overall forward shift in average position between 2011 and 2012, and the numbers back that up. In fact, the average event location in 2011 inched forward from 50 yards from the defending goal to 53 yards in 2012 (while the standard deviation remained relatively constant).
What this shift means is open to interpretation — and your guess is just as good as mine. But, If I were to venture one, I would postulate that this suggests two things: First, teams are becoming more focused on holding possession in their opponent's half of the field; and second, that teams are aiming to press higher up the field defensively. Both of these tendencies would cause more events to transpire in the attacking half.
Perhaps some proof lies in the fact that the percentage of total passes that traveled less than 20 yards increased from 40 percent to 45 percent between 2011 and 2012. MLS is seeing more and more short, quick passes, especially in the attacking half of the field. If you've been waiting for that shift away from the long ball, this is evidence that it's happened.
The second thing that pops out to me when looking at the player positional differences between 2011 and 2012 is the growing importance of fullbacks as a primary source of team width. In 2012, it's tough to identify a single true left midfielder. Nearly all of the left-side width for MLS teams this season were provided by surging wingbacks.
It is possible that some true advanced wingers are being obscured by the fact that this graph is taking a true average of position over the course of the season. A hypothetical winger that played leftwing for the first half of the season and right-wing for the second half of the season would consequently have an average position in the middle of the field. But I expect that these examples are few and far in between.
The last observation I have about the trending tactics of MLS is that the line between midfield and striker roles are becoming increasingly nebulous. As tactics worldwide are trending toward more and more subtle "between-the-lines"-type player roles, this isn't very surprising.
Here is a look at the average vertical position of each player vs. the standard deviation of their vertical position (2012):
The trend is clear. As a player's average position pushes up the field, the more likely they are to deviate from their average position. Essentially, this suggests that players who play closer to the opponent's goal have more tactical freedom. The strength of this trend has increased from 2011 and 2012 — and for a league that's still finding its style and culture, that's really exciting.