The year 2011 was one to remember for Major League Soccer, and not just on the field.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber used the words “buzz” and “momentum” to describe the year back when the new NBC television deal was announced, and that seems fitting. There’s certainly been more attention and respect from the media, and expansion continues to add new passionate fan bases.
It’s also been a good year for fans of statistics, as MLS and Opta entered into a partnership. Opta collects detailed statistics, which allows for more in-depth analysis of players and teams. It’s made features such as the Castrol Index (Chris Wondolowski finished first) and the chalkboards for individual matches possible.
In honor of the end of 2011, let's take a look at several of the most interesting Opta stats from the past season.
Dominic Oduro is fast, which everyone has known for quite some time. However, in 2011 his improved finishing combined with playing for a Chicago team that relied on him as their top scoring threat led to a breakout season. Not only did he end up being one of the top contenders for the Golden Boot, the Fire hit man finally became someone for opposing defenses to fear, especially on the counterattack.
Oduro easily led the league in that category, with twice as many fast-break goals (four) and fast-break attempts (18) than any other player. Four out of 18 successful fast breaks may not seem like a great percentage, but it’s actually a little better than the league average. Three teams finished without a single fast-break goal: Columbus, New England and Vancouver. Incredibly, the Revolution only had two fast-break attempts for the year.
One thing that was especially notable came in the form of individual defensive statistics. Defenders get only a small percentage of the accolades that top offensive players do, and it’s encouraging to see more quantitative measurement on that side of the game.
One stat Opta tracks is duels won; that is, those 50-50 balls that are up for grabs in air or on the ground (actually, about 83 percent are on the ground). Columbus Crew stalwart Chad Marshall led the league by winning 76.3 percent of the duels he was involved in, followed by Portland's Eric Brunner (70.2 percent) and Colorado's Marvell Wynne (70 percent). Defender of the Year Omar Gonzalez (69.5 percent) was fourth and Seattle's Jeff Parke (68.7 percent) rounded out the top five.
A big chance is defined as “a situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score.” In practice, it’s not that easy. Only 41 percent of big chances ended with goals, though that does include when shots are blocked or fluffed.
Who were the league’s top finishers in those situations? Of those who had at least five big chances, the top five consisted of Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder Camilo, the Chicago Fire's Diego Chaves, Toronto FC newcomer Danny Koevermans, D.C. United hero Chris Pontius and FC Dallas star Brek Shea. The worst finishers were former FC Dallas winger Marvin Chávez and Columbus rookie Tommy Heinemann, who each finished 0-for-6.
Finally, it was reported often during the race for the Most Valuable Player award, but it bears repeating. Houston Dynamo winger Brad Davis led the league in chances created, and not by a small amount; he ended the regular season with 118, with no other player even reaching 70. His closest competitors were LA's David Beckham, Philadelphia's Sébastien Le Toux, Seattle's Mauro Rosales and Sporting Kansas City's Graham Zusi.
While the Dynamo may have relied more on Davis for their attack than those other players and their teams, it’s still an incredible statistic. It was great to see one of the league’s most undervalued players over the years finally get plenty of attention.
Remembering the former players who passed away in 2011
While 2011 was a great year for the league, it wasn’t without sad news. Unfortunately, there was another such incident a week ago. Catê, who played a single season for New England in 2001 and was the team’s leading scorer, died in a car accident in his native Brazil.
He was the fourth former MLS player to pass away during 2011. The others were Uche Okafor, the Kansas City defender who played for Nigeria in the 1998 World Cup, Bobby Rhine, the longtime Dallas stalwart who had been the team’s color commentator, and Winston Griffiths, the Jamaican best known for rattling the crossbar in extra time of the 2002 MLS Cup for New England.
Three former players passed away in previous years, for a total of seven overall. The others were Mickey Trotman in 2001, Jefferson Gottardi in 2003 and Damian Silvera in 2010. It may be more common to read these stories as the league matures, but it shouldn’t be happening yet. The oldest former player in league history is Hugo Sánchez, who is currently only 53.