Skip to Main Content

STATS Playing Styles Offers Growing MLS Market Opportunity for Richer Media Analysis


There hasn’t been much lacking from the Seattle-Toronto MLS Cup rematch in terms of promotable storylines – except for true quantitative analysis to help contextualize them and show how the 2017 version could be more entertaining than 2016

By: Kevin Chroust

MLS got it right this season when it elected to schedule playoff matches for midweek, and the structure conveniently delivered an opportune conclusion. It culminates in the favorable narrative of an MLS Cup rematch between Canada’s largest market and one of the league’s most popular clubs, and both sides arrive rich with subplot.

The historical storylines of this final go well beyond Seattle-Toronto Part II: It’s a dream matchup of the club striving for the first domestic treble in MLS history – Toronto – versus the club plenty anticipated might accomplish the feat a few years back. Seattle never reached that level of success with what many would consider its most talented rosters, but here it is trying to at once deny another club of that feat while itself becoming the third repeat champion in MLS history.

Not bad in terms of avenues on which to hype the Dec. 9 matinée in Toronto.

But there remains the question of how North American media can better engage soccer fans in a market that’s still relatively new to the sport and a sport that’s still conspicuously devoid of the kind of statistical tools to make that job easier. Moving MLS out of the weekend competition it faced with American football gave MLS more of an audience to work with, but how does the league keep that audience’s attention?

U.S. sports fans are used to quantitative analysis to augment or fuel the above storylines, and that’s an area where soccer has historically lagged.

STATS Playing Styles can help.

First, it’s of note to acknowledge the league’s recent gains thanks at least in part to its shift in viewership tactic. It’s been an autumn of headlines pointing out rating declines in the NFL, yet according to Sports Business Journal, regular-season MLS viewership across all networks was up four percent from 2016 and 41 percent from 2014. In Canada, TSN/CTV and TVA were up eight percent from 2016. Heading into its telecast of the weekend’s final, ESPN reported a 38 percent increase for its playoff audience. This coincides with MLS selling out advertising inventory for all of its U.S. network affiliations for the regular season, playoffs and MLS Cup.

No one’s getting burned, so it follows it might be time to double down and enrich media coverage to make the most of fan engagement.

It of course helps that the rematch of last year’s MLS Cup worked out as it did, but regardless of matchup or audience, the fluid nature of soccer has always been difficult to objectively analyze with relevant metrics on levels fans of other U.S. sports expect. STATS can now do just that.

For Seattle and Toronto, the on-pitch storyline painted by Playing Styles pits the league’s two most up-tempo teams.

Toronto has been one of the most dominant regular-season clubs in MLS history, and a win puts it in the discussion for the best MLS team of all-time. Let’s first glance at what that looks like in terms of style for the club that won the Supporters’ Shield – with a league-record point total, tied for the most wins (Seattle 2014) and tied for the second-most goals in league history – and the Canadian Championship (the U.S. Open Cup is typically associated with the treble, but being a Canadian club, Toronto doesn’t participate). Here are Toronto’s 2017 regular-season styles measured against league averages:

Toronto’s 2017 regular-season playing styles measured against MLS averages (0%). (Graphics by Stephan van Niekerk)

Playing Styles shows Toronto might not differentiate itself from the league average quite as much as one might expect given the level of dominance shown on the traditional table with team goals and points. However, notice its fast-tempo style is 58 percent above MLS average, which led the league. Fast tempo is defined as a possession in which the player releases the ball to a teammate in less than two seconds or the player dribbles at a high tempo, which is all objectively measurable thanks to STATS’ plentiful Tier 6 data.

The Reds’ MLS Cup counterpart followed in second for fast tempo:

Seattle’s 2017 regular-season playing styles measured against MLS averages (0%).

Seattle wasn’t quite as much of a fast-tempo side as Toronto, but it differentiated itself from the league in other ways – most notably build up (plus-30 percent) and sustained threat (+25), which combined with fast tempo, make up the typical profile of a dominant possession-based attacking side.

This is just the foundation of what Playing Styles is capable of displaying. It provides match-by-match breakdowns of team and individual possessions with their associated styles, which styles were present on shots and goals, how each player affects each style with offensive and defensive contributions, and much more. In short, it’s a tool that can complement an analyst’s keen eye and help get the point across with objective data rather than simply trusting otherwise unsubstantiated opinion.

As for the 2017 MLS Cup, an interesting consideration is how the above styles have carried over – or not carried over – into the postseason. Toronto scored three goals in four playoff matches, advancing to the final on a 3-2 aggregate spanning four matches against New York and Columbus, so it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that the most dominant club in the regular season played conservatively in the Eastern Conference semifinals and finals:

Toronto’s 2017 playoff playing styles measured against league averages (0%).

The Reds sat in more, relying on counter attack and direct play with increased frequency. Compared to the regular season, they displayed increases of 11 percent in counter attack and 22 percent in direct play.

The Sounders, conversely, went at playoff teams with far more dynamism. Their direct play dropped off, while the previously discussed possession-based styles flourished:

Seattle’s 2017 playoff playing styles measured against league averages (0%).

It cost them nothing on the back end as they cruised through four games with Vancouver and Houston on a 7-0 aggregate. So much of what’s been said about them in recent weeks has had to do with not giving anything up, and while the back line and goalkeeping deserve plenty of credit for compiling the longest shutout streak in MLS playoff history, Playing Styles gives more complex context to the success. It shows the Sounders’ midfield and attacking players certainly deserve some credit for the impressive run of clean sheets. They’ve made things quite a bit easier on their defense with that possession-based success, not to mention a high press that’s increased its presence by 28 percent from the regular season.

That’s how each club’s regular season compares to their postseason runs. Let’s now move onto the specifics of these teams actually playing and how we can reach deeper levels of matchup insight using Playing Styles.

It’s one thing for media to point out how Seattle hasn’t defeated Toronto from the run of play over the past two seasons. They played to a 1-1 draw in their 2016 regular-season meeting in Toronto, went goalless before Seattle won in penalty kicks in last year’s final, and Toronto won 1-0 in Seattle on May 6 this year as Jozy Altidore converted a 23rd-minute spot kick. This gives us some surface-level historical context. Take it for whatever it’s worth. It adds another level of analysis and insight to consider a match in detail.

Looking into the playing styles for each club in last year’s final, it’s easy to see that neither club asserted itself beyond the 8-0 discrepancy in shots on goal, which makes it seem like the Reds might have flat out dominated the match. Toronto, despite that advantage, was at -21 percent of the league average for sustained threat. Seattle, meanwhile, was -70 percent of the league average for fast tempo in that match, which works out to 200 percent less than its playoff run from this season.

With neither team asserting itself in possession-based styles, one might think counter attack and direct play came into play. Not so. Toronto was at -34 percent for counter and -30 for direct play. Seattle was -41 and -27. It was a very conservative match that fit the profile of a tight final.

We could spend all day analyzing the specifics of why the 2016 final played out as it did. We’ll pick one and run with it in Playing Styles to show how things may open up this year. The tool allows us to dig down to individual roles, of which there are plenty of interesting ones to choose from on both of these teams.

Let’s consider the value of Clint Dempsey, who wasn’t around for last year’s playoffs but has three of Seattle’s seven 2017 playoff goals. It’s well known that Seattle won last year’s title despite not putting a shot on target in 90 minutes of regulation or 30 minutes of extra time. It wasn’t just the final. Without Dempsey, that’s just how Seattle played last postseason.

We already noted above how that’s been anything but the case this postseason and Seattle has exerted its dominance over the past four games, three of which Dempsey has played in. Dempsey’s offensive contribution percentage to the team output when on the pitch is 22 percent this season. Significant to say the least. It’s the second-highest rate among regulars on either Seattle or Toronto, sandwiched between Altidore (23) and Sebastian Giovinco (21). In the playoffs, Dempsey has upped that to 27 percent, which is greater than the two prolific Toronto attackers combined (25).

Dempsey missed the playoff opener in Vancouver, a scoreless draw in which the Sounders put one shot on frame with six total attempts. In their last three playoff matches without him, they managed a total of 15 shots. With him over the last three matches, Seattle has 40. And 13 have come from possessions characterized as crossing style, resulting in four goals. Dempsey scored two of those. It’s a style that was, like others, absent without Dempsey: The last three playoff matches without him furnished just three such shots off crosses.

This might be another away final for the Sounders, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to mirror the conservative style they showed in the previous one. From a media perspective, in this case, STATS Playing Styles offers a way to objectively show a U.S. audience how a soccer match might have more action.

Seems like something those with an interest in ratings could get behind.