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Passing Out of the Back

Should a goalkeeper play a Long Ball or Short Pass? Here is an informal look at how 'keepers in Major League Soccer distribute the ball and the possible relationship it has with results and goals.

Trevor Ruszkowksi-USA TODAY Sports

Alex O of Tempo-Free Soccer and (more recently) Sounder at Heart took a look at each starting MLS GK's distribution figures. In particular; Long and Short passing and the percentage complete.

As noted in his post, a 'keeper's role in terms of passing is completely different from the outfield players but when put up against others in the same position you can find some interesting callouts, if not meaningful. Here are three points:


Perhaps it is the English in me but the first thing I looked at was how well goalkeepers connected on their long ball attempts. The theory is that if teams are successful in that then they probably score more. This thinking goes way back to Charles Reep was a RAF Wing Commander who wrote about “long ball theory" during the middle part of the last century. Boiled down; Reep believed there was an association between fewer passes and goals.

While most these days will tell you that just booting it down field is the wrong thing to do, you’ll see in the data that most MLS teams love to put it up for grabs (surprising note; it happens more often in the Premier League).

Team PPG : Descriptor

1.44 : GOOD Long Ball Passing % (Top 6)

1.35 : BAD Long Ball Passing % (Bottom 6)

Goals For per Game : Descriptor

1.33 : GOOD Long Ball Passing % (Top 6)

1.33 : BAD Long Ball Passing % (Bottom 6)

Predictably, a team that has a keeper with decent long ball distribution does better but what was sort of a surprise was goals for per game. The same? Where were the better results coming from then? Let’s take a look...

Goals Against per Game : Descriptor

1.19 : GOOD Long Ball Passing % (Top 6)

1.39 : BAD Long Ball Passing % (Bottom 6)

That is a significant difference. Having a ‘keeper with smart long ball distribution might not get you more goals but this does suggest that it helps keep the goals against rate down. By a large margin. Makes sense.


What is odd about looking at short passing % is that teams with lower completion rates did measurably better, which is counter intuitive. At first...

Team PPG : Descriptor

1.24 : GOOD Short Ball Passing % (Top 6)

1.54 : BAD Short Ball Passing % (Bottom 6)

Goal Diff : Descriptor

-0.08 : GOOD Short Ball Passing % (Top 6)

+0.19 : BAD Short Ball Passing % (Bottom 6)

That was confusing to me so I looked at how often the teams were passing short. The bottom group was playing possession more out of the back, on average, than the top group. So naturally their percentage was lower.

Also, two of the top short passing percentages were DC and Toronto FC which are driving the results into the abyss.


The odd results in short passing lead me to looking at what goalies liked to do and not at completion percentage. Here is where I found that teams that play it short out of the back do better.

Teasing out teams/goalies that play the ball long most of the time is probably the most telling. Here are the teams who play over 80% long ball from the keeper position.

% of time Long Ball played : Team

85.1 : Toronto FC

84.5 : Colorado Rapids

84.1 : Columbus Crew

80.1 : San Jose Earthquakes

...and here are the teams who play the long ball least

58.4 : Real Salt Lake

60.8 : Sporting KC

63.2 : Los Angeles

64.8 : Montreal Impact

Of the four above you have the two teams who are currently have a legitimate shot at the Supporters’ Shield (RSL and Montreal).

A little bit further down the list but still playing short you have New York, Seattle, New England and Portland. The commonality here is playoff caliber teams.

Team PPG : Descriptor

1.63 : Play the ball short (<70% of the time)

1.10 : Play the ball long (>80% of the time)

Goal Difference per Game

+0.32 : Play the ball short (lowest 6 teams)

-0.22 : Play the ball long (>80% of the time)


It can be a little dangerous to pull out a few things like this and draw big conclusions but I do believe it is safe to say that playing possession out of the goalkeeper position is the right thing to do in Major League Soccer and if you are playing it long you best have a good distributor.

Some out there might be shaking their heads and saying ‘of course it is’ but spending a little bit of time with goalie distribution you see that there are still a lot of clubs that don’t subscribe to that theory (again, check Tempo-Free Soccer’s site for EPL data).

So, the data is here to support a closer look at playing short out of the goalkeeper position. How often and under what circumstances would be the next questions that might need to be answered but there is enough here to determine there is a relationship worth exploring.

Thanks for reading.

The Columbus Crew’s GK, Andy Gruenebaum, plays the ball deep more than 16 other MLS teams with an average pass completion percentage (both long and short).