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Breaking down goals and assists in the MVP race

Let's take a closer look at the types of goals and assists some of the top MVP candidates have produced.

Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Prior to the final week of the season, polled 10 of its editors in its weekly ranking of MVP candidates. The top candidates were Obafemi Martins, Robbie Keane, Lee Nguyen, Landon Donovan, Bobby Boswell, and Clint Dempsey. Since all but one of the top 6 are attacking players, I'm going to exclude Boswell from this comparison, but it's not out of a belief that a defender shouldn't be considered for MVP.


There are three main goal categories I would like to examine: goals from open play, set piece goals, and penalties. I don't want to completely dismiss the value of penalties or set pieces, but I personally value open-play goals over set piece goals and set piece goals over penalties. I realize a lot of people value set piece goals as highly as open play goals. Others may consider penalties just as important as other types of goals.

Despite that, I think there is value in looking at goals scored according to category, just as tackles in American football are tracked according to whether they are QB sacks, tackles for a loss, solo tackles, or assisted tackles.

With that being said, let's look at how the MVP candidates compare as goal scorers.

Name Open Play Goals Set Piece Goals Penalties Unsuccessful Penalties Total Goals Scored
Keane 16 2 1 3 19
Nguyen 13 1 4 0 18
Martins 15 1 1 0 17
Dempsey 11 2 2 0 15
Donovan 7 0 3 0 10

If Keane had managed to convert just 2 of his 3 failed penalty attempts, there might not even be much of a debate over who deserves to win the MVP award this year. The fact that he failed to convert that many penalties is probably viewed as a negative, albeit a minor one.

You may be wondering how that breaks down according to minutes played. Let's look at how many minutes each player played and look at their per 90 scoring rates.

Name Minutes Played Open Play Goals per 90 Goals per 90
Keane 2549 0.565 0.671
Nguyen 2750 0.425 0.589
Martins 2600 0.519 0.588
Dempsey 2132 0.464 0.633
Donovan 2720 0.232 0.331


As with goals, there are different categories of assists. There are open play assists and set piece assists. There are also first assists and second assists. Since 1996, MLS has tracked second assists. Prior to the 2003 season, the 2 passes immediately prior to a goal were credited with the assist. Since then, the criteria for second assists have become more subjective. For a pass to qualify, it has to "significantly and directly" lead to the scoring chance in the opinion of the record keeper for the match.

It can be useful to group assists in distinct categories in a similar way to the categories of goals listed above. Let's look at how the top MVP candidates contributed to their teammates' goals in 2014.

Name First Assists Second Assists Set Piece Assists Total Assists
Donovan 14 5 3 19
Keane 9 5 0 14
Martins 12 1 0 13
Dempsey 7 3 0 10
Nguyen 4 1 0 5

Martins happens to be the only player in double digits in both open play goals and first assists.

Here are the minutes played and per 90 averages for each player:

Name Minutes First Assists per 90 Total Assists per 90
Donovan 2720 0.463 0.629
Keane 2549 0.318 0.494
Martins 2600 0.415 0.450
Dempsey 2132 0.295 0.422
Nguyen 2750 0.131 0.164

Total Production

In terms of open play, Keane has a slight edge over Martins as far as scoring goals is concerned and Donovan has a slight edge over him in primary assists, but who has the most impressive numbers when looking at overall production of the top MVP candidates?

Name Open Play Goals + First Assists OPG + FA per 90 Goals + Assists G + A per 90
Martins 27 0.935 30 1.038
Keane 25 0.882 33 1.165
Donovan 21 0.695 29 0.960
Dempsey 18 0.760 25 1.055
Nguyen 17 0.556 23 0.753

If you value open play goals over set pieces and penalties and/or first assists over second assists, you probably favor Obafemi Martins. If you believe all goals and assists are basically of equal value, you likely think that Keane should be the MVP this year. If you think per 90 averages should be considered, you may believe Dempsey deserves to be considered, even though he missed a big chunk of the season for the World Cup.

Of course, this is all based on numbers alone. There may be an argument to be made that Dempsey and Martins deserve credit for helping the Sounders get two big results against LA at the end of the season to secure the Supporters Shield.

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