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Why can't MLS teams defend?

Friday 17th August 2018

If you’re a Manchester United fan hoping against hope that Jose Mourinho will allow his attackers to live up to their name rather than be auxiliary defenders, Major League Soccer is an excellent refuge. Very few teams in the league can defend effectively. Goals abound. Before a lynch mob filled with coaches, players and supporters amasses behind MLS Commissioner Don Garber to set me straight, I have proof. I also think I understand why goals are easier to come by stateside although I’m not certain it’s good for the league in the long run.

The Proof

In bemoaning Mourinho’s bunker mentality, I trotted out a telling statistic. A team’s goal:points ratio indicates whether sides are offensive or defensive-minded and if they are poor at one or the other. It does so because football’s nature enforces a law that teams will average close to one goal scored for each point earned in the table. If your club scores slightly more goals than points, they’re an attacking side. If they score a little under, they emphasise defence.

In a 38-game season, virtually all clubs finish within ten goals, above or below, their point total. Those with a wider margin favour attack or defence to an extreme. Mourinho’s United is uber-defensive. So is Atletico Madrid. Conversely, Real Madrid struggled in La Liga last season, scoring 94 goals but compiling just 76 points. The Merengue's attack was--news flash--more dangerous than your ex showing up at a strip club, but their defence was markedly inferior after Pepe and Danilo left with only youth players signed to replace them.

In the 2017/18 Premier League season, there was near equal distribution between attacking and defending philosophies. Ten clubs scored a few more goals than points earned; nine scored fewer; West Bromwich Albion broke even with 31 in each category.

MLS’ 2017 campaign wasn't so equitable. Thirteen of 22 teams scored more goals than points, a distinct majority. Eight scored less. Orlando City finished with a matching 39 points and goals.

Peeling back another layer, the 13 high-scoring MLS clubs combined to garner 102 more goals than points, averaging 7.8 extra goals each. Meanwhile, the eight clubs with fewer points than goals averaged three apiece, with Sporting Kansas City and San Jose Earthquakes skewing the numbers. They were 16 goals to the negative between them, with the other six franchises just eight below par. Attacking teams ran rampant while defending sides only had a marginal effect on opponents.

Compare that to the Premier League, where the ten positive clubs were 49 to the good and the nine negative sides were 72 goals under their collective point totals.

The conclusion? It’s easier for MLS teams to score than Premier League clubs. Defence dominates the English top flight, although it is a much more balanced competition.

The Premier League’s 20 clubs scored 1,028 goals in 2017/18, playing 38 games apiece, for an average 1.35 goals per game per squad. Over their 34-game season, MLS’ 22 teams scored 1,110 goals. That 72-goal advantage in 12 fewer games played [760:748] tells you defence is not a force in Major League Soccer, where teams averaged 1.48 goals per match in 2017.

The Reason

The short answer to why MLS doesn’t value defending in the same manner as the Premier League is it’s America.

Sporting culture in the United States is geared to spectacle. From a neutral perspective, the average fan is more entertained by touchdowns than goalline stands, home runs than strikeouts, dunks than blocks, and, three-pointers [from Downtown!] as opposed to short and mid-range jumpers. Scoring is king.
MLS is less than 25-years-old. The NFL and NBA are approaching 100 and 75 respectively. Baseball began in the 1870s. Soccer is attempting to gain a foothold in a culture where other games are deeply rooted. It must appeal to the market, which means emphasising scoring.

The league’s unique salary cap plays into that strategy. Teams rarely use their three wage exemptions, aka [unlimited] designated player money, on defenders. They look for midfielders and forwards who can contribute to the attack. Even ageing, tired, disinterested DPs going through the motions for one last payday have more ability in their little finger than nine of ten MLS players on regular wages. The phrase 'scoring for fun' applies more literally to players like Josef Martinez, Bradley Wright-Phillips and now Wayne Rooney.

Rumour has it Jose Mourinho sent the former United captain a fruit basket after seeing that highlight. For his part, Rooney was too gassed to do much more than offer a thumbs-up for the ovation he received for tracking back to cover for his goalkeeper, who had been in the opposition 18 for the corner kick, robbing Will Johnson of possession and a goal, then lumbering halfway back before launching a perfect cross from 40 yards that Luciano Acosta headed home. In the 96th minute. For the win. That’s one way to enjoy your retirement. You can rest while VAR confirms the goal.

The former Manchester United and Everton star has played seven games for DC United. In the first three, he played a half-hour twice and an hour once, registering a single assist. In the last four, he’s gone the full 90[+] three times and was substituted on 86 minutes Wednesday evening, after his brace had helped the Black and Red to a 4-1 victory over Portland Timbers. That brought his total to three goals and three assists, including that ridiculous effort against Orlando. Rooney's MLS goal contribution rate is 1:87 minutes. His 32-year-old legs needed 190 in the Premier League for the Toffees last season.

Coming off a cruciate ligament injury, 36-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic has 15 goals and 5 assists for LA Galaxy in 19 appearances totalling 1,423 minutes. He’s pitching in once every 71 minutes.

The Problem

While players like Rooney and Ibra are allowing MLS to market itself as an exciting product to attract new supporters, knowledgeable fans don’t want it so easy. They want to see their stars earn goals. The intensity when defenders are the match for technical wizardry makes for a more gripping spectacle. The league claims its goal is to rival the top European leagues. It must present a more balanced product to accomplish that aim.

From an international perspective, the USMNT will not take the next step towards World Cup glory if it cannot develop strong defenders. Major League Soccer needs to embrace football as it was meant to be played. It must find a way to entertain while also developing defenders who can carry the American game forward. Otherwise, it will remain a novelty act both in American sport and the global football community.

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Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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