The world of sports changed in the past two decades. The utilization and advancement of computers have developed statistics into a microscope to examine the miniscule details that compose the games we love. This beautiful game is no different, technology is catching up and now MLS stats can be tracked like never before.
Unlike football, basketball, or baseball (the king of stats-watching), the sport of soccer is somewhat different. The game is moving at all times, on and off the ball, and the stat that matters most, the goal, is only contributed by a fraction of its players. Defensive players don’t get the credit they deserve; it’s not as easy to quantify their production compared to the players who handle the ball in the offensive third.
In this day, a website like Squawka.com is essential for the fan of soccer. They compile massive barrels full of live data so you can sit, stare, and be amazed. Not only do they provide the stats for passing accuracy or successful crosses, Squawka uses all the data to grade every single player that touches the pitch. It’s a stat they call the Squawka Player Performance Score, a wonderfully non-creative name with tons of imbedded evaluation.
According to their website, the SPPS is calculated using 14,323,744 different data points and shoved through a fancy, complicated formula. Passes, shots, shots on goals, fouls, blocks, and many more are joined with aspects such as left or right foot, full-speed or dead ball, pass length, location of the taken shot, and everything imaginable. Scores are then categorized by attack, defense, and possession before being added up into the final SPPS. No player can escape the stats-harvesting monster anymore. When it’s all said and done a player gets a score for each game — an average score floats somewhere around 20, and any number below zero is bad, any number greater than 50 is exceptional.
Let’s take a list of all the MLS players in 2013 and see who stood out using the SPPS as the standard. Click that link. It’s an interactive chart that shows you some surprising stats about the league you thought you knew.
The number one overall player was Darlington Nagbe, the third-year, 23-year-old midfielder from the Portland Timbers with a combined SPPS of 1438. That’s an average SPPS of 37.84 per game with his best game scoring a SPPS of 98, coming on October 7th against the Vancouver Whitecaps where he got a goal and an assist and a 94 percent passing accuracy.
Coming in second was Portland defender Will Johnson, scoring a 1434. What you’ll notice is that Johnson averaged a better score than Nagbe, but due to the fact that Nagbe played six more games in 2013 he got a higher aggregate score.
It’s hard to know exactly the value of a stat without giving it some context, so let’s see how Johnson and Nagbe compared to the MLS MVP Mike Magee of the Chicago Fire. Ol’ Magic Mike came in third in the league with SPPS of 1420. So according to the SPPS, Magee wasn’t the most valuable player last season.
Statistics are a great way to evaluate players. It gives hard, quantitive data that can be used to find a player efficiency. But I don’t think it should be the end all, be all. Sports are there to be watched and enjoyed live, where the improbable happens at a moments notice. The perfect usage for statistics are along side the action that happens on the field. Seeing how a goal was scored — being passed back and forth to set up a shot that rebounds off the crossbar only to be rebounded and driven home by the striker — is immensely more entertaining than just seeing the numbers representing the goal.
I’m not very good a viewing soccer stats. The game itself is more important. But I will make an effort to add a more statistical look to MLS Multiplex as the season begins in a little over a month. If you’ve got any good recommendations for learning about soccer stats, let me know in the comments section below, or through my Twitter account: @ARench89