MLS teams are scoring fewer goals, and that is a good thing

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MLS teams are scoring fewer goals than they did when the league was founded, should fans be concerned?

Goals seem to be disappearing in Major League Soccer. Since its official inception in 1996, the average goals per game have gone from a high of 3.57 in 1998 to 2.62 in 2013. That is a loss of almost an entire goal a game! I was curious to see if there was a trend to the data, and in fact there is:

Fans need not worry, the goal isn’t going away anytime soon. Look at the last five years, seasons 2009 to 2013. After a rather dismal 2010 which saw the league score an average 2.46 goals per game, the numbers have stabilized (even risen a little).

What accounts for such a large difference from the beginning of the league until now? Why have the goals stabilized? There isn’t one clear answer to that question, but there are certainly several factors in play.

The nature of the league has certainly affected the style play. In the early years, MLS experimented with a number of rule changes in an attempt to ‘differentiate’ itself and appeal to American fans. While those rules ended up being phased out, it wasn’t until 2003 that MLS adopted FIFA standards. Coincidentally, that can be considered the beginning of the “leveling off” in goals scored (2.50 – 3.00 gpg).

More recently, the league has adopted the Designated Player rule and allowed more foreign player roster positions. The salary cap is up, and American stars are returning to the league. With an increase in available talent comes an increase in parity across the league.

That’s all well and good, but isn’t fewer goals still a bad thing? It sure does sound negative, less scoring often isn’t something professional sports strive for. What could possibly be the benefit of going from over 3 goals a game to 2.6?

The answer is quality of play. More goals does not equal better soccer. The best leagues in the world score between 2.6 and 2.8 goals per game. At this “sweet spot,” teams have found a balance between scoring and defense. The worst teams know that every game they have a decent chance to win. There are more stars, improved passing, faster players and overall a better product on the pitch.

Fans come to see goals, but what makes them so much more special than touchdowns, runs, and 3-pointers are their rarity. Celebrations are longer, cheering is louder, and relief is felt deeper because the goal is the ultimate reward for a supporters’ faith in their team.