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To start, this is not an analytics post. I’m aware of sample size issues and such, but this post is mostly meant to use Opta data in tandem with basic game statistics and common sense to look into Montreal’s approach to the 2013 MLS campaign.

Major League Soccer is a fascinating league in that it appears to be somewhat of an outlier compared with Europe. I recently ran a TSR/PDO analysis on the MLS 2012 season and there is very little correlation between table position and total shots ratio. There is some discretion here: it’s only one season. But there are other examples of MLS being “weird.” Teams with less than 50% possession tend to win more, for example.

There are all sorts of possible explanations for this discrepancy, including the lack of promotion relegation leading to less emphasis on defense, the higher importance of individual skill over team play, the state of officiating etc. Until we get more information on this topic, this is all speculation. But in understanding what makes MLS weird, we might understand a bit more of what influences an overall league “style.”

I have my own hunches as to why MLS is an oddball. For one, I’ve always thought the general lack of coherence sometimes in defense in MLS reduces the need for sending in crosses from the flanks. Direct play may yield higher dividends in front of goal (again, if someone wants to run the numbers here, please do).

Anyway, Montreal in some ways reflects the odd MLS norm with regard to both possession stats and shots ratio. In three of their four matches, Montreal enjoyed less possession (they had 50.2% possession against Toronto). Additionally, in all four of their victories, they took fewer overall shots but had more shots on target.

However, the statistics on crosses stands out:

Oppostion v Montreal Open Play Crosses For MTL Open Play Crosses Against MTL
Seattle Sounders 6 27
Portland Timbers 5 25
Toronto FC 9 20
New York Red Bulls 3 20

Some of this can be explained by Montreal’s stalwart central defense, strong enough that teams may be forced to play down the flanks. But it’s clear from the Opta passing/shots data that Montreal is working their attack through the middle. Often it comes on the counter attack (which we here love for obvious reasons). Here, here, here and here are Montreal’s key pass, through ball, and shots data from Montreal’s last four matches.

Montreal may know something its opposition doesn’t about the nature of play in MLS. Crossing needlessly in this league is a waste of possession, and defenses are porous enough to play effectively on the counter through the middle to win (a philosophy that may or may not coincidentally matches the current Italian preference for narrow formations). Again, this is not hard science, but a guess based on four games so far.