MLS by the numbers

Does it matter who scores first? Which teams were the best at holding a lead? What’s the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow? We broke down all 340 regular season MLS matches, and here’s what we found.

This pre-season, Union manager Jim Curtin dropped a couple numbers on reporters: a clean sheet meant an average of 2.5 points taken from that game, and teams who conceded at least one goal got 1.2 points from the game on average. He then stated that one of his goals for his team was to not concede first. And while that might have been a slip of the tongue or not exactly what he meant, it got us thinking.

We had one question in mind initially: did it matter who scored first in a match, and if so, how much did it matter? We broke all 340 MLS regular season matches down, noting variables such as: who scored first, if the team who scored first then conceded, if a clean sheet was recorded, and if a multi-goal lead was taken. We then took this information and calculated the points per game for teams in these various situations. Here’s what we found:

There were 314 instances of a team scoring first in a match. (There were 26 scoreless draws this year.) The team who scored first gained 2.10 points per game on average from those games. (Conversely, teams who conceded first averaged just 0.64 points per game in those situations.) Or put another way, there were 233 matches which ended in a win this year and the team who scored first won 193 of them, which means 82.8 percent of matches which ended in a win went to the team who scored first.

In the 314 matches which did not end in a scoreless draw, teams conceded in 513 out of a possible 628 chances (counting each match as two chances, once for each team to concede). Teams who conceded at any point in a match averaged 1.01 points per game in that situation.

There were 167 occasions of a team keeping a clean sheet. Teams who kept a clean sheet gained 2.38 points per game in that situation on average.

Teams took a multi-goal lead at least once in a game 148 times. (Note: this only counts a multi-goal lead once for each game, so if a team goes up 2-0, concedes, and then goes up 3-1, it still counts as once). Teams who took a multi-goal lead at any point in a match gained 2.78 points per game in that situation. Put another way, teams that went down two or more goals at any point in a match got 19 points total in those 148 matches. Apparently the old saw about a two-goal lead being the most dangerous one only holds true for the team down two goals.

But does it matter who scores first if the team who scores first later concedes?

There were 199 occasions of a team scoring first and then conceding at any point after. Teams who scored first but then conceded later gained 1.58 points per game in that situation on average.

There were 314 1-0 leads this year. Teams had at least one lead at any point in a game 371 times, which means there were just 57 games in which each team had a lead. In other words, the team who conceded first went on to take a lead at any point in that game less than 1 out of 6 times. That’s a tough way to get three points.

While we weren’t able to determine the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow, we were able to determine that scoring first even if you concede later is much better than conceding first.

Scoring first, while putting the team in a great position, isn’t the whole battle though. The team still has to convert that 1-0 lead into points. Which teams were the best at taking 1-0 leads, and which teams were the best at converting 1-0 leads into points? (Note: INIT is the number of times that team scored first, INIT PPG the points per game that team gained when they scored first).

On left: how many times a team scored first. On right: PPG when scoring first.

The Red Bulls were the best in MLS at getting out on the right foot, establishing a 1-0 lead 22 times. As anyone who followed this season will tell you though, RBNY was rather pedestrian at turning those leads into wins, which the numbers on the right bear out. FC Dallas on the other hand was nearly automatic when scoring the first goal, dropping just two points all season after jumping out to an initial lead.

If we take another look at the amount of times teams scored first, all but four did so half the time or less. (Scoreless draws, where no one scores first, are partially to blame for this.) This means that the rest of a team’s points come in situations in which they started down 1-0. Who started down the most, and who was the best at making the most of a 1-0 deficit? (Note: V INIT is the number of times that team conceded first, V INIT PPG the points per game that team gained when they conceded first.)


Resiliency, thy name is the Galaxy, who went down 1-0 14 times and somehow more than doubled the league average of points gained in that situation. (Having the best offense in the West helps.) Also of note: over half of MLS’s playoff sides are above the league average in gaining points despite going down initially. This makes a certain amount of sense, as good teams should have the ability to adjust and gain points regardless of who scores first.

We looked at who was the best at scoring first and who went down more often than not. Let’s take a look at how each team got their points. (INIT here is total points gained when scoring first, V INIT is points gained when conceding first. The last column is scoreless draws.)


The thing that jumped out at us right away was every single team, bad or good, gained at least 22 points from matches in which they took a 1-0 lead (INIT). In stark contrast, exactly no one gained more than 21 points from matches in which they went down initially (V INIT). This goes back to our statement that scoring first is better, even if you ended up conceding later in the match.

How about home and away? Who was the best side in terms of gaining points at home, and who was the best on the road?


No one gained more points at home than the Red Bulls (41). A good part of this was the Red Bulls’ 2.82 PPG when scoring first at home, second in the league only to Portland’s 2.83. As the numbers above reveal, the Timbers were night and day depending on where they played. At home, only RBNY, Dallas (40), and Colorado (39) gained more points. On the road, only Chicago (5) gained less than the Timbers (6).

Who had the most clean sheets? That would be Colorado with 13, followed by Dallas (12), RBNY (11), then Toronto and Sporting Kansas City (10). Others:

9: DC, LA, Houston

8: NYC, NE, Columbus, Chicago, Seattle, San Jose

7: Vancouver

6: Montreal, Philadelphia (who was also the only team not to play in a scoreless draw), RSL, Portland

5: Orlando

Who played in the most games in which they had at least one multi-goal lead? That would be the Red Bulls again with 15, followed by NYC and Dallas (12), and then LA (10). Others:

9: DC, Columbus

8: Toronto, NE, Philadelphia, Seattle, SKC

7: None

6: RSL, Vancouver

5: Montreal, Orlando, Portland, Houston

4: San Jose

3: Colorado

2: Chicago

That Colorado only had three multi-goal leads all year and still ended with 58 points is a testament to their defense. They allowed only 32 goals all year, 7 less than LA and Toronto allowed, and by far the best in the league.

Switching gears a bit…

Part of my analysis of each match was when each goal was scored. To do this, I broke each match down into fifteen minute windows: three windows in the first half (kickoff through the 15th minute, 16th minute to the 30th minute, and 31st minute to half time), three windows in the second half (46th minute through 60th minute, 61st minute through 75th minute, and 76th minute through the 90th minute), and then second half stoppage as its own window. Here’s what I found:

There were 956 goals scored in the regular season. This is when they were scored:


There’s a steady increase in goals scored as the game progresses up until the 60th minute or so, when it’s customary for managers to make their first substitution. There’s a slight dip there (174 goals were scored in the window after halftime as opposed to 143 scored in the following window) but then an increase again to 162 in the final fifteen minutes of regulation time. The biggest surprise to us was the amount of goals scored in second half stoppage, a whopping 64! Put another way, if you took the goals scored in each window and calculated how many goals were scored per minute for each window, second half stoppage time would have to exceed five minutes to come down to the rate at which goals were scored in the window immediately after half!

We also broke down goals scored per window by team to take a look at times in a match when a team appears stronger or weaker. To do this, we charted each team’s goals for and goals against in each window and came up with their goal differential for each window. Here’s what that looks like (click to enlargen):


This chart bears out some things we’ve noticed either by watching matches or looking at other data, like RBNY is bad at holding on late (-7 goal differential from the 76th minute on) or Chicago was bad at any point in a match (negative goal differentials for every window). By charting things out like this we got a sense as the season progressed as to when a team might strike or fade before the match started, due to previous patterns.


This is admittedly a lot of data. It’s possible and even likely that more can be determined by this than we have done. If you’re reading this and wish to use the data to extrapolate or base other studies on, feel free; just give us a shout out and a link back as a source when you do. Also, if you’ve read this article and wish to know something we haven’t posted, it’s possible we’ve already broken it down. Just ask us. Thanks!

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