MLS Soccer – Fouls in the Defending Third Part II (Ratios to Penetration)

I hadn’t considered a Part II (here’s Part I) to this evaluation until receiving a some great questions from one of my readers, Oliver Page.

His two-part question, yesterday, centered on this “Is there some data on passes conceded in final 3rd compared to fouls. For example I would imagine that Chivas concede many final 3rd fouls because a much higher % of the game is played there. I would be interested to see who has the worst discipline in terms of how many opposition passes it takes in order for a foul to be committed.”

In trying to help answer the first question I put together this table: 

Fouls Defending Final Third to Opponent Final Third Passes Attempted

Fouls Defending Final Third to Opponent Final Third Passes Attempted

The primary sort is on which teams have had Opponent Final Third Passes the most versus the least – the middle of three data columns.

Note that Chivas, who play what many to consider is a ‘bunker style defense’, is not one of the top teams yielding large volumes of Final Third Passes by the Opponent.

Indeed, it’s actually quite interesting to see that Toronto leads MLS in this category!

What might that mean?  In order to come up with a few thoughts I needed to go back to this table:

Fouls made in the Defending Third with PKs conceded

Fouls made in the Defending Third with PKs conceded

Note that while Toronto concede the most Passes by the Opponent in their Defending Final Third they also have the 7th best Goals Against in MLS!

That’s very intriguing….  Yet when returning to look at Chivas, their goals against is worst in MLS yet they are 3rd best in minimizing opponent passes in the final third! WOW…

Why is that?  It’s hard to make a judgment call without having additional evidence but I offer these questions for consideration:

  1. Might Toronto have a better system for closing linkage to prime striking areas?
  2. Might Toronto simply have better defenders?
  3. Might Toronto simply have better defensive coordinator coaching that better understand opponent attacking schemes?
  4. With this more attuned defensive scheme in the works will they still have enough attacking power to carry the team into the playoffs?

So in going back to Oliver’s question…  Are Chivas ceding more fouls due to higher amounts of opponent penetration?

I’d offer no.  So why might they be ceding more fouls with less penetration by the opponent?

That’s a hard question to answer and it’s most likely answers to that question are better offered by others with more knowledge about the internal workings of the Chivas team.

Some additional questions I’d consider as an analyst are:

  1. Do they have average players who are making more mental mistakes than might be expected?
  2. Do they have locker room issues?
  3. Is the Defensive Coordinator or other Coaching staff running an appropriate defensive scheme that doesn’t fit the players the team currently has on their roster?
  4. Who runs the Defensive Coordinator duties for Toronto?
  5. What is Toronto doing in getting behind the ball that is different from my team?
  6. What is Chivas doing in positional play that requires a greater number of fouls even though the majority of the team are almost always behind the ball given their ‘bunker style defending’?

In considering the second part of Oliver’s question – what is the ratio of fouls conceded to opponent passes attempted?

Here’s the first table now sorted by the last column (Ratio of Fouls / Passes):

Fouls conceded to Opponent Penetration Ratio

Fouls conceded to Opponent Penetration Ratio

The team with the highest ratio is Chivus USA – tied for fewest points in MLS; next up is Portland with FC Dallas and Sporting KC.

Many different angles here on the why and I’m not sure I can capture that with the limited amount of information I have from the public domain – but in considering the list one thing is pretty clear – the standings in the league (as a whole) are not directly reflected here.

But… might they be early indicators in how things play out as the season finishes?

I don’t know yet; for now it’s probably more likely we are seeing the influence of one or two players for a couple of teams (think of Collin for Sporting) versus a systematic issue with a couple of other teams.

In closing…

It’s next to impossible to dig deeper on this statistical analysis without knowing operational and tactical statistics for each team – but as an analyst, from a strategic viewpoint, it does provide a good indication that other things are going on within those organizations that aren’t “healthy”…

If I were a Team Owner or General Manager I would surely want to peel this issue back a bit more – especially since there are indications that outputs from this analysis ‘do’ show a relationship (in some fashion) to standings in the League Table…  perhaps others have a different view?

Study game film of the Toronto FC team to watch what approaches they are taking to minimize goals conceded when facing the most penetration of any team in MLS.

Best, Chris





  1. Oliver Gage (@G4gey)

    Thanks for looking into this Chris. Perhaps an explanation I could offer for Toronto at least is that they have a very well respected defender at the helm in Ryan Nelson with goo Premiership experience. I think they are happy to soak up pressure by being defensively organized in order to create space for Defoe et al.?

    Just a thought. If I were in charge its definitely something I would be thinking about!



    • Chris Gluck

      Olly, It was a very good question and it opened up a great contrast in the two different approaches associated with ‘bunkering in’ so-to-speak. One style is to yield penetration atop the attacking third (outside the 18 yard box) while the other approach is to pack in the space just above and within entry into the defending final third… two different styles of defending that may lead to two different approaches to attacking penetration… Thanks for that great question – it really helps reinforce that the PWP data, along with supporting data, can help paint an accurate picture on what is going on behind the scenes. Best, Chris


  2. Oliver Gage (@G4gey)

    Agreed Chris.

    I think it really goes to show that there’s so much more that goes on in terms of an purposeful approach to how a team defends or attacks than most people think. On face value some might say Toronto are this or that defensively but the case might be that their defensive strategy is based around what it creates in attack. As for Chivas, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that they need some work….