Voices: Joseph Lowery

How MLS’ top scorers get their goals and what it means for 2021

Let's talk about goals, shall we? To whet our appetite ahead of the new MLS season, we're looking back at last year to see how five of the league's best non-penalty goalscorers actually scored their goals in 2020 and what it means for 2021.

We have Second Spectrum data in-hand, so let’s dive in.

Raúl Ruidíaz
12 non-penalty goals, 9.07 xG · Seattle Sounders FC

Though Diego Rossi led the league in regular-season goals last year, Raul Ruidiaz had the most non-penalty tallies. Ruidiaz took 61 shots, scored 12 times and racked up 9.07 xG. Unlike other top scorers, Ruidiaz didn’t hesitate to shoot from distance. In 2020, his average shot distance was 15.314 meters, which was higher than any other top 10 non-penalty goalscorer.

Sixteen of Ruidiaz’s 61 shots came from outside the box and two of those shots landed in the back of the net. The rest of Ruidiaz’s 12 non-penalty goals came from inside the six-yard box (3) and from the area between the edge of the six-yard box and the 18-yard box (7).

Though Ruidiaz took more long shots than other top scorers, no MLS player scored more first-touch goals than the 30-year-old. The Peruvian notched eight goals with his first touch last season. With a tactical change brewing in Seattle as Brian Schmetzer shifts to a two-forward front in the absence of injured Jordan Morris, Ruidiaz’s ability to continue scoring with his first touch and with shots from distance will be critical to the Sounders’ success in 2021.

Kevin Molino
11 non-penalty goals, 6.59 xG · Columbus Crew SC

Though it looks like he’s going to miss the first chunk of the season with a hamstring injury, Kevin Molino’s decision to sign with Columbus Crew SC firmly positions Caleb Porter’s team as one of the favorites to win a trophy this season. All of Molino’s non-penalty goals for Minnesota United FC in 2020 came from inside the box. However, the particularly notable part about his goalscoring habits isn't where the goals came from. It's how.

Seven of Molino’s 11 non-penalty goals came from transition moments (a counter attack, an offensive move after a counter pressing situation, etc). That high percentage of transition goals stems from Adrian Heath’s direct offensive style, but likely won’t fit quite as well into Porter’s tactics in Columbus.

Still, Molino showed a consistent ability to combine in tight spaces in the buildup to his transition goals, which will serve him well with Crew SC. Instead of connecting with Emanuel Reynoso on this goal, Molino gets to play off of Lucas Zelarayan. That’s not a bad swap…

When he gets healthy, Molino and Zelarayan are going to be a powerful tandem in both transition and possession for Columbus.

Gyasi Zardes
11 non-penalty goals, 9.84 xG · Columbus Crew SC

If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: Gyasi Zardes lives off high-level movement in the box. The eye test tells you that, as do the stats. Zardes took 51 shots last year, scored 11 non-penalty goals and racked up 9.84 xG. Averaging his xG total across those 51 shots, Zardes’ shot quality was the second best in MLS last year among players with at least 30, only behind Morris.

While Ruidiaz hits some shots from distance, Zardes almost exclusively shoots from inside the box. All 11 of his non-penalty goals in 2020 came from inside the 18 and only two of his 51 total shots came from outside the penalty area. Zardes’ average shot distance (9.092 meters) was also shorter than any other player in MLS who took at least 30 shots last season. If it wasn’t already clear, Zardes likes the penalty area.

With his ability to manipulate defenders via off-ball movement as combined with quality service from Molino, Zelarayan and Pedro Santos, Zardes is yet again poised to be one of the most dangerous goalscorers in MLS.

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Robert Beric
10 non-penalty goals, 6.94 xG · Chicago Fire FC

Robert Beric did a little bit of everything for Chicago Fire FC last year. He served as an outlet, occasionally dropped off the opposition’s defensive line to combine with attacking teammates and scored goals. The vast majority of Beric’s shots (39 out of 51) and all of his goals came from inside the box. His shot distance was low, too. Beric averaged 12.98 meters per shot in 2020, which was the 12th shortest distance among players with at least 30 shots.

To add a little more context to Beric’s non-penalty goals, four of his 10 came from crosses and seven of them came with his first touch, which tied for the second-most in MLS last season behind Ruidiaz. With a similar group of attacking players surrounding him, minus Djordje Mihailovic, and another year in Raphael Wicky's detailed possession setup, ​Beric could be primed for another strong goalscoring season in 2021.

Diego Rossi
9 non-penalty goals, 8.37 xG · Los Angeles Football Club

The MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi winner from last season, Diego Rossi still managed to compile nine non-penalty goals in 2020. When playing on the left, Rossi wreaked havoc on opposing defenses by making outside-in runs from the left wing, into the 18-yard box and toward the edge of the six-yard box. Six of Rossi’s nine non-penalty goals came from the left side of the box — and to get even more specific, four of them came directly from that outside-in movement (which I am now dubbing the "Rossi Run").

Look at this goal that Rossi scored against the Portland Timbers last September. You can see him start his run from a wide position and then angle himself directly towards the left point of the six-yard box.

You can see the Rossi Run even more clearly on this 2D animated version of the above goal:

Sometimes the Rossi Run starts a little narrower and other times it starts a little wider, but Rossi certainly used that outside-in movement to be goal-dangerous in 2020. With Carlos Vela healthy and ready to take attention off Rossi in 2021, there might be even more space for the Uruguayan on the left this season.