Featured image: Chris Wondolowski celebrates after scoring against Chelsea in the 2012 MLS All-Star Game at PPL Park (Photo: Earl Gardner)
Unlike baseball, soccer is not a sport known for enthralling fans with individual records, or “races” as players chase them. Although the United States has tried to import hockey statistics like goals against average and assists into the mix, and sabermatricians are trying to introduce high-minded concepts as “touches” and “passes completed,” soccer remains a sport where only one individual statistic has any real relevance: goals scored.
Which is why, in a league that—quite frankly—has made very little effort to embrace its own history, never mind the history of the leagues that have gone before it, MLS did a nice job of hyping the “Wondo Watch” this past season: Chris Wondolowski’s chase of Roy Lassiter’s single season goal scoring record of 27, set in the league’s first season.
As fans know, the chase ended in a draw—Wondo was able to equal Rocket Roy’s record, thanks to the rather dubious award of a penalty kick. Still, even before Wondolowski’s achievement, there was a fair amount of debate over whether the new record should include an asterisk, as Wondo played more games.
Most folks now accept that “asterisks” for records are futile—schedules change, equipment changes, and no sport ever stays the same. For example, would anyone advocate putting big, black asterisks next to Wayne Gretzky’s NHL records, set during the infamous “air hockey” era of the defense-free post-World Hockey Association (“WHA”) merger era? Of course not. Even the most famous asterisk of all—the one next to Roger Maris’ 61 home runs in 1961—has long been erased.
No, Chris Wondolowski’s 27 goals are a remarkable achievement, regardless of games played.
This being America, though, we hate ties. So let’s return to those bygone days of MLS’ yesteryear and have a “shootout” to decide a winner.
Number of games played
Games played is an easy place to start. In 1996, MLS clubs played 32 games, and Lassiter played in 30 of them. In those 30 matches, Lassiter played 2580 minutes—an average of 86 minutes per game. This past season, MLS teams played 34 games. Wondo appeared in 32 of those games, playing 2813 minutes, or an average of 88 minutes per match. All these fancy numbers tell us that which we already knew—Wondo had two extra games to match the record. This should make Lassiter the winner in our shootout, right?
Not necessarily. While Wondolowski obviously played more minutes, there are other factors to consider, such as degree of difficulty. This concept has been embraced by hockey sabermetricians, with some interesting results. For example, in 1981-82 Gretzky scored an incredible 92 goals in 80 games, while Phil Esposito held the old NHL record of 76 goals in 78 games in 1970-71. Was the Great One really 16 goals better than Espo as far as single season productivity? No—not when one compares the two eras. Gretzky’s mark was set in the third year of the post-WHA merger: in an era when Russians and Europeans were not yet welcomed (or, in the case of the Russians, available), and the U.S. was not yet producing star players in the wake of Lake Placid, the Canadian pool of talent was stretched pretty thin to accommodate the 21 teams, and defense was non-existent. While Esposito also benefited from expansion (with the league having grown from 6 teams to 14 teams in four years), the WHA had not yet arrived, and there was sufficient talent to man the extra franchises. Defense and goaltending was still solid.
Difficulty of scoring
NHL sabermetricians have recognized these differences in eras, and have engaged in stat-heavy efforts to standardize goals scored in different eras. Using this approach, Gretzky has been credited with 73 “adjusted goals” for the 1981-82 season, while Esposito is still credited with 76 “adjusted goals” for 1970-71. In other words, goals were a bit easier to come by in 1981-82, and Gretzky’s total was adjusted to reflect that fact.
While soccer does not have anywhere near the number of workable statistics available to do a similar adjustment between 1996 and 2012 (and explaining how it is done in hockey warrants an article all by itself), we can try to look at some factors to determine whether goals were harder to come by in 1996 or 2012.
Anecdotally, some may be inclined to believe it was harder to score in 1996. Indeed, Lassiter himself suggested as much in his recent appearance on ExtraTime Radio. And it’s tempting to believe him—with fewer teams (10), one would presume there was plenty of talent to stock those first year rosters. Defenders around the league included the likes of John Doyle, Marcelo Balboa, Alexi Lalas, Jeff Agoos, Eddie Pope, and Peter Vermes—a formidable group. Also, as the first-year league featured players who had gained lots of experience in Europe and in the A-League, it was a poised group of individuals patrolling teams’ backlines. Surely, it was harder to get goals then, right?
“Not so fast,” says 2012. While MLS now has almost twice as many teams, this era allows teams to spend more money to acquire even better players, be they DPs or otherwise. The American player has evolved tremendously since the league’s era of Technicolor nightmare kits, and top-to-bottom has more technique (if not flair) than ever. Finally, fans of the current game can attest to the stifling defense nature of MLS play, where every square inch of the pitch is contested, and no one gets the space to exhibit real flair.
Statistically, 2012 may be right. In 1996, MLS averaged 3.4 goals per game; in 2012, that figure was 2.7 goals a match. Does this mean that MLS strikers in the late 1990s were better finishers? Perhaps—Lassiter had a 35.5 percent scoring percentage in 1996, well ahead of Wondolowski’s 21.3 percent rate this year. Or—again—maybe the defending was just that bad.
Style of play
The fact is that the MLS of 1996 to 2002 was just a looser game—the stifling physical and aggressive style that is now the hallmark of the league had not yet set in, and flair players had more of a chance to succeed. By way of example: in the six seasons following Lassiter’s mark, it was seriously challenged four times (Stern John—26 (Columbus 1998); Mamadou Diallo—26 (Tampa Bay 2000); Carlos Ruiz—24 (Los Angeles 2002); Taylor Twellman—23 (New England 2002). In the eleven seasons prior to this one, the 20 goal mark was only reached twice—Luciano Emilio (D.C. 2007) and Landon Donovan (Los Angeles 2008).
Why were goals more plentiful in 1996 and the years following MLS’ debut? As noted, style of play is a sizable factor. In addition, while today’s MLS teams can spend more money on players, the early MLS teams tended to have more depth—Europe was not the option it is today, and many of the good-but-not-great players who today tend to ply their trade in Scandinavian countries stayed to play in MLS. While this does not require one to conclude that the early MLS was a “better” league, the statistical data certainly shows it was more productive.
For whatever reason, goals are harder to come by in 2012 than they were in 1996. As a result, even with two extra games, Wondolowski’s 27 goals are a pretty impressive achievement. How impressive? Well, one qualifier to look at is the distance between him and the runner up. Wondo finished a full nine goals ahead of his closest competition, Kenny Cooper. In contrast, Lassiter was only four goals ahead of the second place finisher for the 1996 Golden Boot (Raul Diaz Arce of D.C. United). Indeed, Chris Wondolowski outscored an entire team in 2012 (Chivas USA). People can claim that two extra games gave Wondo an unfair advantage, but the fact is scoring 27 goals in this era is probably worth at least 30 in 1996. Also—while it really doesn’t mean much in a statistical analysis—it is worth pointing out 11 of Chris’ goals were game winners, as opposed to only 4 of Roy’s (incidentally, Tampa Bay won 20 games in 1996, and would have won the Supporters’ Shield had it been conceived prior to the season, so it’s not as if Lassiter was saddled with a bad team).
Still, Lassiter’s 1996 mark is still worthy of serious consideration. As noted, he was much more efficient in finishing his chances, scoring his goals on 46 shots (while Wondo needed 55). Also, Lassiter scored 24 goals from the run of play, while Wondolowski scored only 22—in this regard, it should be noted that Wondo took seven of his team’s eight penalty kicks in 2012 (scoring on five of them), while Lassiter split his team’s six penalty kicks with Carlos Valderrama (scoring on all three). Had Lassiter also been his team’s exclusive penalty kick taker, he might have netted 30 goals.
As with any case where you are trying to compare eras, there are merits to the argument for both sides. However, when all is said and done, however, it comes down to this: Chris Wondolowski’s 2012 season must be considered the greatest by a goalscorer in MLS history.
But how does Wondo’s magical 2012 season stack up all-time? Well you may ask—and the question will be answered soon in a forthcoming article.