Comparing MLS Goalscoring Rates to Recent History

The week of the All-Star Game is upon us. Most teams in Major League Soccer hit the midway point of their season a few weeks back, the Gold Cup just finished, and the CONCACAF Champions League is starting soon. This seems a decent time to step back from the season, take stock of the trends so far, and begin to anticipate the push to the playoffs.

The first part of this process is to plot the rates at which each team scores and concedes so far this season.

Goalscoring Rates Across MLS


The scatterplot above includes all league games played through July 27th. Offensive output is plotted along the horizontal axis, while defensive concessions determine the vertical placement. The ideal position is at the upper left corner of the plot, signifying a prolific offense coupled with a very stingy defense. The worst placement would be the lower right – an anemic offense combined with a porous back line.

With that in mind, Kansas City comes out looking very strong while the Chicago Fire appear to be bringing up the rear. In between are teams that do one or the other very well. Toronto FC scores more frequently than any other team, but their defense is almost equally bad. On the other end of the scale, the Colorado Rapids feature the league’s stingiest defense but they also average less than one goal per game.

How do these figures compare with history, however? Is any of this notable, or are these trends something we see every year? To address that question, I pulled the numbers for the past four seasons in Major League Soccer. This covers the period in which league schedules have been 34 games long – which seems like a reasonable timeframe to examine.

Goalscoring Rates Against History: 2011-2014

This plot compares the current season with those teams that made the playoffs (green dots) and those that missed out (red dots). A few things stand out immediately.

  • There have been some particularly bad teams in MLS the last few years. The worst in this plot is the 2013 DC United squad, followed by the last three years of Chivas USA. This year’s Chicago Fire team looks extremely competitive by comparison.
  • While Kansas City leads the pack in 2015, there have been a number of better teams – although the gap at this end of the spectrum is not so pronounced as it is at the bottom. Further, no team has a monopoly of the best seasons. Depending on your perspective, there are about half a dozen team-seasons that surpass Kansas City: two came from Kansas City itself, another pair came from Los Angeles, while Portland and Seattle are also represented.
  • This year’s Colorado Rapids team is unprecedented. No team in the surveyed period has featured the combination of offensive ineptness and defensive strength that can be found at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park so far this year.
  • The position of Columbus may be more precarious than I previously thought. While Crew SC sit in second place in the Eastern Conference, and feature the league’s leading scorer and assist man, their placement in the above plot is right on the edge of the line between playoff teams and outsiders. The cause is easy to pinpoint – the team surrenders goals at the rate of one every 60 minutes.

Looking at the above plot, one question that comes to mind is whether a midseason analysis such as this can reliably predict the final standings. I have not attempted to answer this question, but others may have done so already. If you know of any, please share them in the comments or reach out to me directly.

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