Voices: Joseph Lowery

MLS' running leaders: Who tops the stats in sprints, distance covered & more

I don’t know about you, but I talk and think about soccer a lot. While I talk and think a lot about the players’ movements, weirdly, I don’t spend much time focused on their actual, physical running. How far are players running? How fast are they running? How often are they running fast? That kind of stuff. Strength and conditioning coaches certainly think about those things as they manage players’ loads in training and managers think about it too, as they work out lineup rotations and substitutions. But me? Not so much.

Now, there are good reasons why running, distance, and speed get swept under the rug during conversations about soccer. So much of the sport has to do with vision and spacing and an understanding of when and where to move, rather than just how much to move or how fast to move. Even across a wide variety of tactical approaches, understanding space is soccer’s most important concept and practicing ways to either expand or compress it is probably the most important application of that concept.

At the risk of stating the obvious though, players still need to move around the field to actually succeed at either expanding or compressing space. And that’s where learning about how much (or how little) players move comes into play from a tactical perspective.

Second Spectrum’s tracking data keeps tabs on a number of key movement statistics, like the total distance players and teams are running, the number of sprints performed by players, top speeds, and much more. By using some of these numbers to look at which MLS players move the most, move the fastest, and move the fastest most often, we can learn a bit more about the roles of various players across the league and how they impact their teams. So, without further ado, let’s find out which players are at the top of their movement class.

Most Total Distance per game: Russell Canouse, 12.269 kilometers

D.C. United move. Under Hernan Losada, D.C. have become one of the most active pressing teams in MLS, one of the most frequent high-pressing teams in MLS, and the team in MLS that covers the most ground. The heart of Losada’s ground-covering, pressing machine (with a twist of nice possession play in there too) is defensive midfielder Russell Canouse. No player in MLS moves more than Canouse on a per game basis. As part of D.C.’s double pivot in central midfield, Canouse regularly uses his mobility to disrupt plays defensively and is in the 98th percentile in terms of pressures per game and the 88th percentile in terms of successful tackles per game.

Canouse’s ability to step forward, win the ball, and then even start a counter-attack makes him a critical part of Losada’s midfield group — and makes D.C. extremely unpleasant to play against.

Runners-up: Sean Davis (11.72 km), Jackson Yueill (11.69 km), Eduard Atuesta, (11.53 km).

Top Sustained Speed per second: Niko Hansen, 10.205 meters

He hasn't been a regular starter under Adrian Heath for Minnesota United, but Niko Hansen currently holds the top recorded sustained speed in MLS this season. His pace of 10.205 meters per second beat out a number of other rapid players including Ruan, Luis Diaz, Diego Rossi, and Cade Cowell.

Though Hansen isn’t the most well-rounded attacking threat, he can use his speed to disorganize an opposing defense. Typically playing on the right side of Minnesota’s attack, Hansen makes active runs off the ball: His 15 off-ball runs per game put him in the 74th percentile in the league. For Minnesota United, using Hansen as a direct, straight-line threat out wide provides a different attacking dimension while Emanuel Reynoso creates centrally.

Looking at the players with top speeds just under Hansen’s 10.205 m/s, LAFC’s Tristan Blackmon stands out. Blackmon has the third-fastest sustained speed in MLS this year with 10.149 meters per second. Having that kind of speed on the right side of his defense is an asset for Bob Bradley.

Runners-up: Ruan (10.162 meters per second),Tristian Blackmon (10.149), Luis Diaz (10.142).

Most Sprints per game: Diego Rossi, 24.3

Whether he’s playing on the left side of a front three or as part of a two-forward front, Diego Rossi uses his speed to put defenders under pressure. No one gets up to speed quite as often as Rossi, who averages a league-leading 24.3 sprints per game. Just for reference, Second Spectrum’s sprint threshold is anything over 25 kilometers per hour, which is the max speed of several different types of electric scooters. So yeah, Rossi motors up and down the field. Because he gets up to speed early and often, Rossi is a real threat to break behind opposing backlines and help LAFC maneuver into space.

Take LAFC’s most recent game — a 2-0 win against Austin FC — as an example. In the 89th minute, Rossi, who is playing as a central attacker in this clip, spotted a gap between Austin’s center backs, broke into space, received the ball from Carlos Vela, and slotted the ball home.

If you’re a defender, the last thing you want to do is track Rossi while he accelerates past you 24 times per game.

Runners-up: Michael Halliday (22 sprints per game), Ruan (21.75), Julian Araujo (20.36).

Most Walking Distance per game (among midfielders and forwards): Gonzalo Higuain, 3.9 kilometers per game

Now, soccer isn’t all about speed, sprints, and distance. Sure, those things are important, but like I said earlier, much of the game has to do with understanding when and where to move rather than just how much and how fast to move. MLS has a number of players who read the game very well and bide their time before making a move off the ball. Though it might seem counterintuitive, “biding your time” often means walking.

Some of the best forwards in the league are the players who walk the most. Inter Miami’s Gonzalo Higuain walks (a speed anywhere from 0-7 kilometers per hour per Second Spectrum) more than any other MLS midfielder or forward, covering 3.9 kilometers per game at a low speed. Though Inter Miami have struggled in 2021, Higuain’s patient movement off the ball and creative passing on the ball have made him one of their lone bright spots this year. Looking at Miami’s roster, only Lewis Morgan has more key passes than Higuain.

In addition to Higuain, fellow strikers Raul Ruidiaz and Chicharito are also both in the top ten midfielders and forwards in terms of distance covered while walking this season. Sometimes it pays to watch while the game moves around you.

Runners-up: Raul Ruidiaz (3.8 kilometers), Albert Rusnak (3.8), Kellyn Acosta (3.8).