Assessing the Blame: Part Three - Long Balls

USA TODAY Sports

There are long balls and there are long balls. They can be effective, neutral and just distant turnovers. Oddly, Sounders FC's keepers are not as often the source of punts to change field position, but the defense and the deep mids can be. Sometimes that is problematic.

Long passes are generally less effective than short passes. This passes both the eye test and the statistics test. The theory is rather simple. The distance traveled means that accuracy is more important and that the defense has more time to react. The Saturday night loss did feature more long balls than typical. Of note crosses at a certain distance are long balls, so are certain throughballs. What matters is the distance traveled.

Seattle Sounders FC by either rate or counting stat are not a long ball team. But on the year some of their greatest moments have come from more direct play. What was different against the San Jose Earthquakes though?

It started with 70 total long balls, a nearly 50% increase in long balls over the team average. Which if long balls are a 50/50 situation just creates a lot of turnovers with the only positive being that the 'Quakes had to either punt themselves or work a series of shorter passes to get into the attack. Either of those create the same flaws that Seattle had to face.

The problem comes with long balls that came from particular players. Looking just at players that attempted more than one long ball during the loss you can see who was poor and who was not.

Name P PA% LB ALB LB %
Osvaldo Alonso MC 91 9 7 78%
Zach Scott DC 70 7 3 43%
Leonardo Gonzalez DL 62 7 1 14%
Andrew Weber45' Sub 67 7 4 57%
Michael Gspurning45' GK 73 6 4 67%
Servando Carrasco MC 85 6 6 100%
Lamar Neagle FW 58 3 3 100%
Djimi Traore53' DC 79 3 1 33%
Marc Burch ML 68 3 1 33%
DeAndre Yedlin DR 86 3 1 33%
Eddie Johnson FW 76 3 2 67%

The best defender at playing it at distance was Zach Scott, but he's under that 50/50 mark. But if he were a man drowning in the long ball a mere single ball would have given him new air. The rest are just bad.

But, those two deep mids? They were great again. They echoed what they did in the previous long ball based wins against San Jose and Dallas. Alonso and Carrasco were 13 for 15 (Carrasco was perfect). The two forwards in the match were good.

This may be an obvious statement but better passers tend to be better passers basically at any distance. And so the fact that poor passers are taking so many long passes. For Scott the punt was 10% of his passing action (below the team average). Leo sat at only 11%. None of the other defenders were in a double digit percentage of their passes being long.

Could that still be too many long balls from natural defenders? Probably. Being infrequently bad is worse than being more frequently good. They only completed 29% of their 24 punts. The non-defenders/non-keepers? They were at 81% on 22 deep balls.

Like much of soccer analysis the problem is not in a "thing" but in a specific thing. Long balls were not the problem. The problem was who took the long ball. The keepers took more than usual, probably due to the high pressure from Gordon/Lenhart. That also forced more long balls from the less effective backline.

Again, long passes are not the problem. In fact, a study of the EPL have shown that long ball completion percentage has some correlation to winning. Those same winning teams also attempt the pass over distance less often (like Seattle does).

The nuance in the long ball discussion is not whether the long ball is good or bad. It is about who is taking that long ball. Seattle has good long ball players. They need to use that pass. Seattle has bad long ball players. One of those groups needs to use the pass and the other does not.

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