Since 2011, there have been 1,151 shots taken in MLS directly from free kicks. Of them, 61 of these shots resulted directly in goals – giving MLS an overall free kick conversion rate of 5.3 percent.
Of the free-kick goalscorers, David Beckham leads all players since 2011 with an impressive tally of five goals in 44 shots – nearly doubling the league's overall conversion rate over the same period. Impressive, no doubt.
The problem is that past success is not always a good predictor of future success. Since players have limited opportunities to score free kicks, their raw numbers often fall prey to small sample sizes and random variance. And, regardless of how this column tends to treat them, soccer players are not robots. They are living and breathing random number generators.
As it goes, "almost" only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. But it is fair to assume that accuracy, regardless of success, is a better indicator of future success.
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This week, OptaPro suggested a method for measuring which players happened to be the most accurate free-kick takers in the English Premier League. Since Opta collects the beginning and ending coordinates of MLS free kicks, it's possible to use the same type of analysis on players this side of the Atlantic.
By measuring how much a player's free kick varies from the target on an average basis while controlling for the distance and angle from goal when each shot was taken, it's possible to measure just how accurate a player's free kicks have been.
On average, since 2011, Chris Tierney of the New England Revolution has been the most accurate free-kick taker in Major League Soccer. Since 2011, a Tierney free kick has ventured only 7.81 degrees from its target on average. That's almost twice as accurate as the MLS league average of 14.3 degrees during the same time period.
*For MLS players attempting at least 20 direct free kicks since 2011.
Not to take any well-deserved credit away from Tierney, but it's important the clarify that the title of the "most accurate" and the "best" free-kick taker is not the same thing. While accuracy is a very important factor in free-kick success, it's not the end-all, be-all. The ability to hit the ball with considerable pace and/or swerve greatly augments raw accuracy. It is here, perhaps, where we may lean in favor of proven success from Beckham's cultured right boot.
Also, looking at the pure average angle of error is perhaps a bit misleading as the measurement may fall haywire to a few outliers. To illustrate this, let's compare Beckham's free kicks to Tierney's. In the illustration below, Tierney's unblocked free kicks are represented as circles on the left while Beckham's are crosses on the right.*
*Shot locations are folded over a vertical axis through the middle of the goal and pinned to the nearest post.
After removing a few of his outlying free-kick scuffs, Beckham finds himself at a similar level as Tierney on the average.
By stepping away from raw conversion rates and wading into the minutiae of detail collected in today's modern game, valuable insight can be carefully extracted. While raw accuracy can't tell us how to determine the best free-kick taker, it can certainly be used the whittle that list of potentials down to a more manageable – or scoutable – size.