Understanding soccer by looking at the stat line

Published Mar. 31, 2012 10:28 a.m. EDT

Statistics are integral to almost every sport. Baseball has home runs, hits, runs, ERA, and even more in depth statistics. Football has touchdowns, passing rating, yards gained to name just a few. It's the language that all fans use when arguing who's best.

While soccer does have it's statistics, they aren't as plentiful as baseball, football, or even hockey. Most people will stick with goals and assists. Jeff Cunningham and Brian McBride are neck and neck for the all time team goalscoring lead. Cunningham leads 64 to 62, but that only begins the debate between fans.

Assists in soccer identify the creators who set up a goal with a savvy pass. Columbus legend Guillermo Barros Schelotto set the standard in 2008 with his 19 assists and earned the MLS MVP Award. His deft passing touch and pinpoint corner kicks spurred the team to an MLS Cup Championship.

The focus on goals and assists glosses over much of what happens during a game. It can be hard to understand what role a stay at home defender or holding midfielder plays in a game. These players statlines often read 0 Goals and 0 Assists. They don't have a batting average to refer to, however with the rise of Sabrmetrics in baseball and beyond, some people are looking for more information about the players often ignored in the statistical worls.

Companies such as Opta have jumped into this gap. They catalouge every action during the game. It's a lot of data, but it helps explain the roles that the non-goalscorer has in soccer. MLS partnered with Opta last year to do the statistics for all of the league's games. They take a look at each shot, pass, tackle, foul, save and catalog it. Then they put it online for any fan to dig into. This offers a roadmap into some of the more abstract parts of the game.

These stats can confirm what you may have already realized. The 6'4" defender Chad Marshall towers over most players on the field. This is a valuable asset when the opposing team boots the ball in the air, a player good in the air. Looking back to last weekend's game against Montreal he won 10 headers, including one shot, this was more than any other Crew player. Over time, it becomes evident that Marshall is good in the air, but a quick look at the numbers confirms just how dominant he is.

The defensive midfielder can often be a brusing tackler, Rookie midfielder Kirk Urso doesn't fit that mold. He's more of a technical player than a rugged tackler. He also isn't a goal scorer and he's supposed to play defense first. His role is to keep the pressure off of the defense, get the ball back, and play safe passes to players further up the field. It's not a flashy position and one that's often overlooked.

Last Saturday against Montreal, he played the role he was asked to play. He was looking for the ball, getting 105 touches, third most on the team. He had 66 passes and completed 55 of them for an 83% completion rating, most were latteral to winger Eddie Gaven or his midfield partner Mirosevic. This is type of work required by a player who is supposed to be the link between offense and defense and not turn over the ball. He get the ball to the people who lead the offense.

In depth statistics can also go beyond the simple goal and assist stats for a player. Olman Vargas may have scored his debut goal on Saturday, but he also played a very good game beyond that. He was tasked with being the target forward, the man who holds up the ball and finds another offensive player to get the ball to. He was outstanding, completing 23 of 24 passes, often laying off the ball for others in better positions.

Of course, as in any sport, the stats don't tell the whole story. The Crew's second goal of the day, a header by Olman Vargas, appears as a dot on the screen or as a single goal in the stats page, the same as Mirosevic's penalty kick. It certainly doesn't sum up the teamwork and artistry that went into the goal.

Head Coach Robert Warzycha praised it following the match, "The second goal was just beautiful. It was a good pass, a good cross, and I'm glad Olman (Vargas) had that goal I thought that was really something." later adding "That was a perfect shot.”

As it is in any sport, the stats and charts are tools; they can help explain a game that can appear simple and complex at the same time, but it's the on the field action that keeps the fans of all ages rivited. It's the perfect defensive effort, beautiful move, or breathtaking goal that keeps even statheads coming back the next game.