One of the (unfortunately) consistent themes through the Sounders' annual playoff campaigns is our main striker's lack of postseason production. It began with Fredy Montero, who was considered a playoff underperformer for years before being shipped off to win hardware in Portugal. And now that mantle has been passed to Obafemi Martins, who — despite consistently being the team's most dangerous player in the regular season — has yet to score a goal in 10 playoff matches.
You could come up with a lot of theories to explain why an obviously skilled and accomplished goal-scorer would run so dry in these elimination games. One is that it's just a small sample size, though through three years and multiple rounds of the playoffs (and quite a bit more if you want to try to account for Fredy as well), that's less likely. Another is that it's a character issue. . that Oba somehow lacks the composure to perform on the 'big' stage. But it's hardly plausible to think a player who scored goals to win the Coppa Italia for Inter and in knockout rounds in Europe for Newcastle lacks composure in big games.
Another theory is that Oba, as a heroic goal-scorer, feasts on bad defenses and bad teams. Cricket has a term — a flat-track bully — for batsmen who can rack up big scores playing in perfect conditions, but can't produce when the game gets tough. And despite the fact that MLS lets more than half its teams into the playoffs, that's still half a league of bad teams that are no longer in the picture. And the list of teams, especially in the West, quickly winnows down to very good ones late in the playoffs.
To explore this theory, I've looked back at Oba's regular season MLS goal-scoring over the last three seasons as well as those of comparable players — Robbie Keane, Sebastian Giovinco, Bradley-Wright Phillips, and Chris Wondolowski, all of whom are perennial goal-scoring leaders and league MVP candidates. For each I counted the number of goals they scored against the top 5 teams in the league (by Shield standings, and not including the player's own team), the bottom 5, and the middle half.
The data is pretty stark. Of the 40 regular season goals Oba has scored in his three years in Seattle, half have been scored against the bottom 25% of teams in the league. In 2014, that number was 12 of 17 scored against the likes of Chivas and Chicago. And only 15% of his goals are scored against the top quarter of the league.
But he's not alone. Giovinco (with admittedly only one year to look at) scored 63% of his goals against the bottom 5 teams, including 7 of his 22 against the two expansion teams NYCFC and Orlando. Wright-Phillips, still tied for the the most goals scored in a season in league history, has only scored 14% of his goals against top teams, the lowest among the five players.
Only one player stands apart, and it won't be hard to guess who it is. Over three years Robbie Keane has scored nearly 33% of his goals against the top 25% of teams in the league, and only 18% against the bottom quarter. That seems like the perfect kind of striker for the playoffs, and certainly contributed to the three championships the Galaxy have won in the five years he's been on the team. In that time Keane has scored 9 playoff goals. Wright-Phillips, thanks to a very good 2014 run, has 6. Oba as we know has none. Giovinco (in a single try) has none. Wondolowski has one career playoff goal — in 2010.
Note that this could just as well be tactical approach as the makeup of the player. The Galaxy have been a deadly counter-attacking team, especially in the Landon Donovan years. And counter-attacks will work well against better teams, who generally want to keep possession. But it won't work as well against poor teams, which could make for a team that isn't built to win Supporter Shields but is built to win in the playoffs, which is exactly what the Galaxy have done.
In contrast, teams with one of the non-Keane players on this list have won every Shield since 2012 but none have made the Final, much less won it. If Seattle wants to take that next step, they'll need to find a way to put together players or a system that can more consistently score against good teams, not feast on weak ones.