In MLS over the past five seasons, the most elite scorers have been those who most consistently put a large volume of shots on target.
Earlier this month I looked at the shooting percentages of top scorers in Major League Soccer over the past five years. This was a follow-up to my previous look at team shooting percentage, and to what extent it could be repeated over several seasons.
It’s clear that, unless assisted by penalties, it is unusual for a player to sustain a shooting percentage over 40% for a long period of time and unheard of to sustain over 50%. Unless he is a true all-time great, if he has a 40% season not counting penalties he probably won’t keep that up over his career. Likewise, anybody of any proven scoring ability who shoots below 20% in a season is probably due to rally.
My theory is that, as a rule, the most reliable scorers are the ones who shoot most: that you’re more likely to get several seasons of high production from somebody who gets a lot of shots off than from somebody who “picks his spots” or however you want to put it for a low-shot-count-high-percentage shooter. This is because a high percentage is likely to be driven by luck: the difference between 30% and 40% can be one muff by a keeper, whereas shots are more frequent and therefore more representative.
The next question is to look at how often top scorers shoot. Is it a rule that, the more you shoot, the more you score? Is there a point of diminishing returns? Are players with extreme numbers of shots on goal more likely to repeat the feat than players with extreme shooting percentages? How many shots on goal is a good number for a top scorer to maintain?
My sample of players for this post is the same in my previous one: any player who scored six goals or more in an MLS season between 2008 and 2012, of whom there were 104 in all. To quote myself:
I chose six because, in my view, it’s the lowest number for a good-but-not-elite scorer: every team will basically have a six-goal scorer and a few will have more, but when you’re getting into that seven/eight/nine goal range you’re talking about players leading a few teams in scoring. It also provides a large enough sample to be helpful without being too large to work with.
As this table is massive, it is coming after the jump.
Please note that this table is larger than my previous one; on non-widescreen monitors it will look like a hot mess. I have therefore also made the table available in a separate HTML file (opens in new window) which will hopefully appear more clearly.
|Angel, Juan Pablo||14||41||1955||1.887||12||37||2133||1.561||13||40||2593||1.388||10||32||2314||1.245||4||18||1004||1.614||53||168||9999||1.512|
|De Rosario, Dwayne||7||34||1948||1.571||11||36||2444||1.326||15||36||2226||1.456||16||44||2781||1.424||7||26||2195||1.066||56||176||11594||1.366|
|Le Toux, Sebastien||1||12||1457||0.741||14||48||2520||1.714||11||30||3060||0.882||5||16||2552||0.564||31||106||9589||0.995|
|Schelotto, Guillermo Barros||7||27||2216||1.097||12||25||1816||1.239||9||27||2545||0.955||28||79||6577||1.081|
|van den Bergh, Dave||7||19||2228||0.768||3||14||2446||0.515||10||33||4674||0.635|
This table, as well as the one on the separate page, is sortable: click on a column header to sort by it. A glance will suffice to show that most of the best scorers shoot more.
The table above lists all players with at least one six-goal season, but when I speak below I will generally be restricting the players by the number of minutes they played. This is because rate statistics such as shots on goal per 90 minutes are useless unless they’re accompanied by a reasonable number of minutes; the fewer minutes played, the less meaningful the rate. Vancouver’s Long Tan had 3.21 SoG/90 this past season with the Whitecaps; wow! But he only played 28 minutes before being traded to DC. Flip the coin around, and of course Omar Salgado’s 0.226 SoG/90 doesn’t mean he’s a terrible attacker; he played a mere 398 minutes then he got hurt.
Of the 71 players on this list with at least 3,000 minutes (generally requiring two seasons as a regular), seven of the top ten scorers in goals per 90 minutes have at least 1.25 shots on goal per 90 minutes*. The three exceptions, Alvaro Saborio, Landon Donovan, and Jaime Moreno, were all helped by scoring penalties: Saborio was 8/8, Moreno was 11/12 (more than half his goals came from the spot), and Donovan was 16/17.
There is an strong correlation among these top scorers with more than 3,000 minutes for goals to increase with shots on target. For your satisfaction, below is a graph of cumulative shots on goal per 90 minutes, with a line of best fit, against cumulative goals for 90 minutes for the players listed above with more than 3,000 total minutes.
As shots on goal increase, goals increase. Many top scorers with relatively few shots are players like Donovan, Moreno, or Steve Ralston, who scored a disproportionate number of penalties. Others are close to the 3,000 minute mark and provide unsettlingly small sample sizes compared to 9,000-minute men like Angel, De Rosario, Montero, Cooper, and other truly established talents. There are also at-least-part-time midfielders on the list, such as Dominic Oduro, Jack Jewsbury, and Marco Pappa, who score on a relatively small proportion of their shots. But that’s what you would expect; a midfielder will spend less time in prime scoring position than a forward even if he shoots frequently.
Which forwards have high shooting rates but relatively low goal rates? Camilo Sanvezzo, with 1.306 SoG/90 and 0.364 G/90, is one, but he has played only 4,203 MLS minutes and his numbers were kneecapped by a lousy 2012 season; he’s also spent many of those minutes out at left wing. Smart pundits will tip Camilo to recover. Kei Kamara, with 1.301 SoG/90 and 0.336 G/90, and Sanna Nyassi with 1.262 SoG/90 and 0.241 G/90, also stand out. But Nyassi plays wide even more frequently than Camilo and if you were to draw up the theoretical epitome of a low-percentage scorer it would be these two: quick enough to beat defenders but not skilled enough to get in prime positions, shoot from everywhere even when you wish they wouldn’t, and still manage respectable scoring numbers. Nyassi and Kamara are the only 3,000-minute players who can even loosely be called a forward with an SoG/90 over 1.1 (the top 30 in our sample) and a G/90 below 0.3 (the bottom half).
“Just shoot more” is not magic; there is such a thing as a wasteful shot on target. You can see Nyassi on the graph: he is the first big spike above 1.2 (the next spike is Oduro, and we can argue until the cows come home about whether he counts as a forward). The point at which you’re shooting in the top 15 of 70 but scoring in the bottom 25 of 70 is the point at which you should arguably be more selective. But even there, at the very epitome of “if any top scorer is shooting wastefully it’s that guy,” Nyassi’s goals per 90 puts journeyman scrubs like Alejandro Moreno and Ryan Johnson in the shade. We come to the question of how many shots Nyassi would be taking from his teammates and how many can that possibly be?
When a player is in the top 25 in MLS shots on goal he will tend to be at least a six-goal man. Exceptions are usually midfielders (2011 Khari Stephenson and Eddie Gaven, 2010 Brad Davis, 2009 Atiba Harris, and many more) or forwards who have scored in this league but were shit out of luck that season (2012 Camilo, 2009 Chad Barrett and Chris Pontius, and though his salad days fall outside our sample 2008 Scott Sealy). No MLS forward both consistently posted big shot numbers and never got a season in the six-goal club since 2008. Macoumba Kandji, for example, had a free-shooting 2009 (1.233 SoG/90), managed only four goals, but has also never since come within range of 1.00 SoG/90.
So if players who shoot on target more tend to score more, the logical implication is that a player who can consistently get shots on target should be considered a good scoring bet, even if they have a season or two where their goal total is down. Anybody who wrote off Thierry Henry after his 2010 season with 0.210 G/90, for example, would be feeling pretty stupid. 2008 Brad Davis was nobody’s idea of a goalscorer from midfield, but his rates stayed reasonable and suddenly he’s a consistent offensive threat when healthy and attacking. Omar Cummings’s “renaissance” after a tough 2011 was just his shooting rate returning to normal (don’t be surprised if Justin Braun pulls the same trick in 2013), and on 6 or 7 from Brek Shea if he continues his 2012 pace, as his shooting rates are trending the right way even if his percentages have fluctuated. On the flip side, Alejandro Moreno, Nate Jaqua, and Danny Mwanga had big seasons they couldn’t repeat; of course not! Their shot rates were never high enough (although Mwanga, young and developing, might get there).
When I discussed shooting percentage, I observed that it was very rare for players to repeat extremely high percentages. To quote myself:
But plenty of players have shot above [Brian] Ching’s 46.34% once. In the past five seasons, seventeen players on twenty-one occasions have shot at least 50% and scored more than six goals in a year. Of the 17 from 2008 to 2011 only five ever repeated it. Of those five, only Brian Ching did it without scoring a disproportionate number of penalties, and Ching’s 2010 season was weird even for him (he scored seven goals on nine shots, which is just way out of whack even with his career percentage).
In short: an average of over four players a season will shoot at that level. He will seldom do it again. If he does, he was almost certainly opportunistic with his penalties. There is one exception to this rule in the past five years, and he had the benefit of a small sample size in his second successful season.
The highest shot rate in the 3,000 minute club belongs to Kenny Cooper with 1.646 SoG/90. If we do what we did with Ching and look for players who just beat the champion once in a single season (say over 1.7 SoG/90), we come up with seven players who, on eight occasions, managed to cross the 1.7 mark (at least 1,500 minutes): 2008 Kenny Cooper and Juan Pablo Angel, 2009 Jeff Cunningham, 2010 Edson Buddle and Sebastien Le Toux, 2011 Chris Wondolowski, 2012 Stephen Lenhart and Chris Wondolowski (again).
When we looked at players who had big scoring seasons driven by high shooting percentages, there were names nobody would, in retrospect, consider elite snipers: Shalrie Joseph, Jimmy Conrad, Nate Jaqua, Jorge Perlaza, Patrice Bernier, and that’s without counting those who couldn’t do anything in open play but just banged in penalties like Jaime Moreno or Steve Ralston. Only Brian Ching stood out as a consistent high-percentage shooter. But of our seven players with great shooting seasons, six are consistently high-volume shooters. The exception is Le Toux, and Whitecaps fans will argue to the death about whether he has been misused.
Cooper, Wondolowski, and Angel are the three top-shooting players over the five-year sample in our 3,000 minute club. Buddle is fifth, Cunningham is ninth, and Lenhart is tenth; plus, as the youngest player on the list, Lenhart will naturally be a developing talent compared to the other veterans.
While Wondolowski is the only player of the seven to repeat such a high-shooting-rate season, Cooper has come damned close twice (missing out in 2010 because of inadequate minutes and in 2012 by 0.05 SoG/90), Buddle was over 1.5 SoG/90 in his only other 1,500-minute season, and Angel has spent our five-year sample aging out of his prime while still producing high numbers.
In short: elite shooting is strongly linked to elite scoring. There are next-to-no examples of MLS forwards who consistently shoot at an elite level without scoring at one, although there are a very few forwards whose spectacular volume of shots may not be worth their still-quite-high volume of goals. Players who have high SoG/90 seasons in a significant number of minutes are likely to remain elite scorers; the same cannot be said of players with high shooting percentage seasons.
* — Chris Wondolowski (1.55 SoG/90, 0.656 G/90), Jeff Cunningham (1.365 SoG/90, 0.603 G/90), Alvaro Saborio (1.227 SoG/90, 0.571 G/90), Conor Casey (1.27 SoG/90, 0.564 G/90), Edson Buddle (1.456 SoG/90, 0.550/90), Thierry Henry (1.376 SoG/90, 0.533 G/90), Landon Donovan (1.146 SoG/90, 0.509 G/90), Kenny Cooper (1.646 SoG/90, 0.509 G/90), Juan Pablo Angel (1.512 SoG/90, 0.477 G/90), Jaime Moreno (0.921 SoG/90, 0.472 G/90).
 — Massey, Benjamin. “Individual Shooting Percentages Among Top MLS Scorers.” Maple Leaf Forever!, December 7, 2012. Accessed December 27, 2012. http://www.maple-leaf-forever.com/2012/12/07/individual-shooting-percentages-among-top-mls-scorers/.
 — Massey, Benjamin. “Repeatability of Shooting Percentage in MLS.” Maple Leaf Forever!, November 26, 2012. Accessed December 27, 2012. http://www.maple-leaf-forever.com/2012/11/26/repeatability-of-shooting-percentage-in-mls/.