Portland Timbers, Major League Soccer and Europe’s Elite Leagues

This post was originally offered up on Stumptownfooty – the SB Nation blog site I write for when I cover the Portland Timbers – given there is up-to-date info in here about how some European Leagues finished (with respect to Possession with Purpose) I felt it worthy to re-post my article here for my overseas readers/followers.

We are 21 weeks into the season and parity thrives; or is it simply that poor play in possession and passing accuracy leading to parity while simply narrowing the focus of purpose to penetration pays?

Perhaps that’s a bit cynical, but when being a cynic I like to step back and take a look at the statistics.

This past year I measured team performance in three elite European Leagues; the English Premier League, Bundesliga, and La Liga.

What got measured were the following statistics, the outcome of which generates my Possession with Purpose Index. If you are new to PWP read here.

  1. Total Passes Attempted,
  2. Total Passes Completed,
  3. Total Passes Attempted into the Attacking Final Third,
  4. Total Passes Completed into the Attacking Final Third,
  5. Total Shots Taken,
  6. Total Shots on Goal, and
  7. Total Goals Scored

In all three leagues there was a clear pattern: the more of numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4 resulted in more of numbers 5, 6, and 7. This held true for the UEFA Champions League as well as the 2014 World Cup too.

The bottom line is that more means more in those elite leagues measured.

So, with great frustration I wonder what exactly is going on with the Timbers.

What held true in Europe for 2015 held true in the 2013 Major League Soccer season; but in the 2014 and 2015 seasons it does not.

The common sense results we expect to see given a possession-based team with top flight passing accuracy simply are not there in Major League Soccer.

So, is that a bad thing?

Those who have set up the league to create more parity should be slapping each other on the back; teams with poor passing accuracy but a few standouts (be them physical speed demons or real, high quality soccer players) are taking the points.

If you are not convinced, here’s the hard data:


The important bits are the Average Points versus the four digit numbers in the middle column: what that shows is a single number (Index) that represents the composite total of accuracy in the seven areas mentioned earlier.

Higher is better – lower is worse. Note that when looking at the final number (the R), the relationship of the two columns for La Liga, Bundesliga, and EPL all hover at or near 94% – meaning teams that are more accurate, in everything they do, across the entire pitch, are better and earn more points per game than teams that aren’t accurate.

So, in looking at MLS (the red shaded zone) it’s pretty clear that accuracy, across the entire pitch, in the major activities of a game does not drive points earned.

In other words, the cynical side of me offers that less is better; this is what the statistical output looks like for a league with parity.  Or mud in the eye for those who expect common sense, as witnessed in our favorite leagues overseas, does not apply in MLS.

What does this mean for the Portland Timbers?

To date, the Timbers are 7th best in overall possession (51.47%); 4th highest in overall passing accuracy (79.23%); 8th best in penetration per possession (25.27%); 4th best in passing accuracy within and into the Attacking Final Third (64.50%); and 7th best in overall shots per penetrating possession (18.18%).

Where issues remain are shots on goal per shots taken (6th worst at 33.94%) and goals scored per shots on goal (4th worst at 25.86%).

To correct those finishing issues the Timbers have purchased Lucas Melano; we can’t argue that the Timbers haven’t taken at least one step to improve their team during the transfer market.

They have.  What remains is more patience; then we might actually see some pedigree-type possession with purpose from Portland.

In Closing:

In case you missed it here’s a link to our latest Rose City Soccer Show where Kip, Will, Dan and myself share some thoughts on the season so far.  Be sure to look for our next show to release sometime Thursday evening.

Best, Chris


2 thoughts on “Portland Timbers, Major League Soccer and Europe’s Elite Leagues

  1. Hi Chris, i’m another fan of your PWP and I like so much the thinking process you’ve applied to create your Index. You’ve explicitly said that you wanted: ” Create an objective Strategic Family of Indices, with publicly made available data…” but online i’ve not found any public source that shows the numbers of attempted and completed passes into the attacking final third. Can you help me with this stuff?


    1. Thanks for your kind words – fourfourtwo.com offers European Football stats while MLSSoccer.com offers MLS stats….


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