Is it really all about scoring goals?

Over the last month or so I’ve been in discussion with Soccer coaches and trainers across the world, one thing stands out when asked their opinion on this question, the lack of consensus on the importance of scoring goals.

Below are sampled comments from both domestic and international professionals that are members of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America.  NOTE:  The spelling has not been adjusted to emphasize that those thoughts were from folks outside the US.

  • “I think it is useful to bear in mind that ‘winners are former losers’ and the goals scored are only the numerical outcome of the match. To focus on the goals only is equivalent to having less than one eye open – if that is possible – in your analysis.  An interesting question is how do you use the analysis and rich experience of losing in one match to fuel future wins? Losing is a treasure trove of why things went wrong and making positive analysis of how mistakes can be prevented or minimised.” Gilbert Valentine.
  • “So for me as a coach of teams in a club atmosphere where most players are not looking much past hopefully playing for their high school teams, I focus on player development. I want my players to have passion for the game and have the skills necessary to play at whatever level they can and want to attain.” Kelly Moller
  • “I emphasise when coaching the importance of passing and teach players how to overcome the opponents’ defence using passes that penetrate. This leads of course to teaching supporting players where and when to go to receive a pass. Possession is a springboard to penetration.” Jack Gallagher
  • “Although a little counter intuitive, there was an article (I think) last year about the Bundesliga & how possession was over valued as a marker for winning games.” Mark Grody
  • “I think it depends on the level. In professional games it is certainly about the goals scored.” Malcolm Paice
  • “Scoring goals, especially at the youth level is the final result but may also be the result of one-two dominant players. Technical development, especially receiving and creating opportunities is a key component to player development.”  Paul McNally
  • “The objective of the game is to score more goals than your opponent, but in soccer scoring is not as easy as in other sports. The buildup or progression in order to increase the opportunity to score is important. When a team has no goal scoring opportunities due to lack of proper progressions, then we see a team that is weak.” Lorenzo Murillo

Here are my thoughts on answering this question working from the Process I’ve developed on Possession with Purpose…

There are six key steps in my process and all center around answering the question:  How effective is my team penetrating the opponent final third and creating chances for my team to score goals?

The steps:

  1. Gain possession of the ball,
  2. Retain possession and move the ball,
  3. When the opportunity presents itself penetrate the opponent’s defending third,
  4. Take a shot when provided a goal scoring opportunity,
  5. Put that shot on goal,
  6. Score the goal.


  • This process does not measure the ability of the defense to stop the opponent from executing the six steps successfully; that is a separate process (Dispossession with Purpose) to be covered in a future article.
  • One feature about this process is that Steps 4 and 5 have one individual executing a shot that is hopefully on goal – the first three steps can rely on any number of teammate to ensure the individual who executes Steps 4 and 5 has the best opportunity for success.

Here are the average percentage success rates for each step for MLS in 2013:

  1. Gaining possession of the ball:  Average % Possession (as expected and always will be) = 50%.
  2. Retaining possession and move the ball:  Average % of Passes Completed = 75%
  3. When the opportunity presents itself, penetrate the opponent’s Defending Third:  Average % of Passes Completed in the opponent’s Defending Third = 22%
  4. Take a shot when provided a goal scoring opportunity:  Average % Completed Passes in the opponent’s Defending Third that generated a Shot Taken = 20%.
  5. Put that Shot on Goal:  Average % Shots on Goal compared to Shots Taken = 33%
  6. Score the Goal:  Average % Goals Scored compared to Shots on Goal = 30%


  • The two steps with the lowest success rate in MLS last year were steps 3 and 4.
  • There were 8 teams in MLS that averaged over 50% Possession; LA Galaxy, Portland Timbers, Real Salt Lake, Sporting Kansas City, Houston Dynamo, Seattle Sounders, DC United, and Montreal Impact.  Only DC United failed to make the playoffs..
  • Thirteen  teams averaged greater than 75% pass accuracy; Real Salt Lake, Portland Timbers, Montreal Impact, La Galaxy, DC United, New York Red Bulls, Seattle Sounders, FC Dallas, Vancouver Whitecaps, Houston Dynamo, Sporting Kansas City, Colorado Rapids, and Philadelphia Union.  Only one team made the Playoffs last year that didn’t exceed 75% accuracy in Pass Completions (New England Revolution).
  • Twelve teams exceeded 22% in Passes completed within the Attacking Third versus Passes Completed across the entire pitch; they were LA Galaxy, New England Revolution, Portland Timbers, Chicago Fire, FC Dallas, Real Salt Lake, San Jose Earthquakes, Sporting Kansas City, Toronto FC, New York Red Bulls, Vancouver Whitecaps, and Houston Dynamo.
  • Here’s where Direct Attacking Teams begin to try and leverage a more direct approach in successfully penetrating and creating goal scoring opportunities versus teams that take a more possession oriented approach.  Hence we see Toronto, Chicago and San Jose above average while Colorado, Seattle and Montreal drop below average.
  • 10 teams exceeded 20% Shots Taken versus Passes Completed in the Attacking Third; they were Chicago Fire, Philadelphia Union, FC Dallas, Montreal Impact, Columbus Crew, Colorado Rapids, San Jose Earthquakes, Houston Dynamo, Chivas USA, and Sporting Kansas City.
  • Only 4 of the 10 teams that exceeded the average made the Playoffs and that, for the most part, every Direct Attacking team last year in MLS made the top 10 and the two teams with the best percentage were Chicago and Philadelphia.
  • Again, here is where the Direct Attacking teams seem to outperform their more possession oriented counterparts.
  • It appears that while the more possession oriented teams generated fewer on-goal shots, they finished higher in the League Table than their direct attacking counterparts. Is that a result of poor player selection to go along with poor player skills or is that more about what style of attack the Head Coach prefers?
  • Ten  teams exceeded 33% Shots on Goal compared to Shots Taken; they were Montreal Impact, Real Salt Lake, New England Revolution, New York Red Bulls, Chicago Fire, Vancouver Whitecaps, FC Dallas, Portland Timbers, LA Galaxy, and Chivas USA.
  • Only 6 of the top 10 teams that exceeded the 20% Shots Taken ratio were in the top 10 teams that exceeded the 33% Shots on Goal ratio.
  • And only one of those six that exceeded the average Shots on Goal ratio, while exceeding the 20% Shots Taken ratio made the Playoffs – Montreal – and many agree that, while a possession based team, they were  effective on the counterattack and that took advantage of their opponents being out of position when possession.
  • Ten teams exceeded 30% Goals Scored compared to Shots on Goal; they were New York Red Bulls, Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps, Real Salt Lake, New England Revolution, Seattle Sounders, Colorado Rapids, LA Galaxy, FC Dallas, and Sporting Kansas City.
  • Only two of those teams didn’t make the Playoffs – Vancouver and Dallas.  Neither manager will be back for 2014.
  • When reviewing all the data it appears that the two toughest steps for a team to perform successfully are Steps 4 and 3, in that order.
  • In both cases these steps require penetration and creation of a goal scoring opportunity; some teams choose a more direct fashion while some rely on possession-based movement.
  • In both cases the success rate is 22% or below – one approach seems to indicate “quantity” while the other approach seems to indicate “quality”.  When looking at the end results it would appear “quality” exceeds “quantity” as more Possession oriented teams made the Playoffs than Direct attacking teams.
  • Of all the teams in MLS last year only one team (DC United) had a lower success rate in Goal Scoring (17.60%) than either Step 4 (20%) or 3 (22%).
  • As noted in my End of Season analysis of DC United is it any surprise they have added Fabian Espindola and Eddie Johnson to their ranks?
  • In Portland, under John Spencer and his direct style of play, Kenny Cooper didn’t score many goals (8); with New York, and a possession oriented style of play, he scored 18. In 2013, and a return to more direct play, he managed only 6 at FC Dallas.
  • While I hesitate to predict goal tallies, it would seem reasonable that a healthy Kenny Cooper will probably have better individual results with Seattle than he did with Portland or Dallas.

In closing…

  • Head Coaches/Managers get sacked regularly based upon results but the dialogue isn’t usually about a lack of goal scorers, it’s more likely about a weakness in how the team moves the ball forward with direct, possession oriented attacking, or a combination thereof that includes counterattacking and penetrating the opponents defense.
  • Prozone, a noted professional sporting analysis company, offers the following in this  article… “Using data from the last ten seasons of the Premier League, Anderson and Sally compared the value of a goal scored and the value of a goal conceded. They found that scoring a goal, on average, is worth slightly more than one point, whereas not conceding produces, on average, 2.5 points per match. “Goals that don’t happen are more valuable than goals that do happen,”

Bottom line at the bottom; Is it really all about scoring goals?  For me, after reviewing the evidence, NO.  What are your thoughts?

Next up my End of Season analysis on Columbus Crew with continued fine tuning of my Dispossession with Purpose (defensive team performance) analysis.

You can follow me on twitter at

I’d like to thank Alan Bedward, Mark Grody, Kelly Moller, Lorenzo Murillo, Rich Pekmezian, Mike Christ, Michael Borga, Richard Carter, Malcolm Paice, Julian Dowe, Antonio Reis, Sergio Rozental, James Bruno, Gilbert Valentine, Jack Gallagher and many many others for their contributions and thoughts about their answers to the question – Is it really all about scoring goals!

Part I of this series was written in October, 2103 – It can be reviewed here:


Chris Gluck

Chris Gluck

I have been covering the Portland Timbers and Major League Soccer, as a community blogger/analyst for the Columbian Newspaper, since June, 2012. Since then my involvement in soccer analysis has expanded to include participating in the Regional Emmy Award Winning Soccer City PDX TV Show (Comcast Sports Northwest). My unique analytical approach has been published in Europe and presented at the World Conference on Science and Soccer 2014. I also appear regularly as a co-host on Rose City Soccer Show and the Yellowcarded Podcast. You can find my work on, PTFC Collective and Prost Amerika.

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