MLS / US Soccer History

Chasing 67: Josef Martinez and the American goal-scoring record

With nine games left to play, Atlanta United’s goal-scoring machine Josef Martinez has tied Major League Soccer’s single-season goal scoring record of 27, currently shared with Roy Lassiter (1996), Chris Wondolowski (2012), and Bradley Wright-Phillips (2014). At his current rate of 1.08 goals per game, Martinez is likely to finish the season with 37 goals—10 goals better than the current MLS record.

But what about historically? After all, while MLS works hard to keep it a secret, major league/“Division One” soccer has existed in the United States on two other occasions—the American Soccer League (1921-33) and North American Soccer League (1967-84). Both of those leagues featured great goal scorers, some of whom put up some truly staggering numbers.

I thought it would be fun to take a look at some of those numbers and see what number Martinez has to reach to have the greatest single-season for goal scoring in U.S. history.

Off the charts

While the so-called “Golden Age” of American soccer is still mostly in the shadows, most U.S. fans have at least some familiarity of the American Soccer League of the 1920s. If nothing else, a review of the list of U.S. Open Cup champions reminds us of some of the great teams of that era: Fall River Marksmen, New York Nationals, and, most familiar to fans, Bethlehem Steel.

In 1924-25, Bethlehem forward Archie Stark had a season for the ages, scoring an incredible 67 goals over the course of 44 games.

Archie Stark (falling) gets sandwiched by two Fall River defenders in 1920s ASL action

Unfortunately, many fans are quick to dismiss Stark’s season, simply because it was so great. “67 goals?  It must have been an amateur league.  Didn’t they have goalkeepers? Was there no offside rule?”

Such remarks ignore the fact that, in all American sports, special athletes have managed to have incredible seasons which, to modern eyes, appear statistically impossible to equal today. Baseball has two well-known examples: Jack Chesbro’s 41 wins in 1904 for the New York Highlanders (now Yankees), and Roger Maris’ 61 home runs in 1961 with the Yankees (which, for reasons that would warrant their own article, is always mentioned alongside Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs in 1927). Today, where a pitcher is having a great season if he manages to get to 20 wins, and 45 home runs is considered a prodigious effort, those numbers look like something out of a video game. Nevertheless, they are real.

(Yes, I am ignoring Barry Bonds’ 73 home runs in 2001—you can guess why.)

Other sports also feature records that seem to be so off-the-scale that our instinct is to simply poo-poo them. In basketball, Wilt Chamberlain’s averaging 50.4 points per game in 1961-62 for the Philadelphia (now Golden State) Warriors boggles the imagination. In hockey, Wayne Gretzky potted 92 goals in 1981-82 for the Edmonton Oilers, eclipsing the previous record by 16 goals.

These are all real numbers. The records exist. To ignore them because they are too great, or simply “old,” is simply not fair to the men who set them.

So, on the face of it, this is the hard fact: the American single-season goal scoring record is 67 goals.

Influences

While it is wrong to simply dismiss truly epic single-season records as being “too good to be true,” or “old,” it is fair to consider some of the factors that may have contributed to their existence, and to try to “smooth” the numbers to come up with a figure that is more in line with what we would expect to see today.

In the case of Stark, one easy adjustment is taking into account he scored his 67 goals in a 44 game season. Having a 10 game advantage over Martinez in goal scoring opportunities is a bit unfair. As a result, one can simply take Stark’s goals-per-game rate, multiply it by 34, and see that he would have scored 51 goals.  Still impressive, but not as mind-blowing as 67.

Simply adjusting for games played is fair, but it does not tell the whole story. While summarily disregarding records as “old” is unfair, it is legitimate to consider some of the factors that might have contributed to their existence. For example, it is pretty much taken as a given that Gretzky’s remarkable record was possible, in no small part, because of a considerable dilution of the NHL defensive talent pool in the wake of massive expansion and before the widespread acceptance of European and Russian players (or the arrival of quality U.S. players–the “Miracle On Ice” had occurred only two years earlier). Similarly, it is often suggested Maris was able to hit 61 home runs because the American League had expanded by two teams that year, diluting the pitching talent.

In Stark’s case, it should be noted that, in 1924-25, the American Soccer League expanded by half, going from 8 to 12 teams. As a result, expansion was surely a factor in his legendary season.

Of course, there are other factors at play besides expansion—styles of play, tactics, etc. Consider baseball—in 1904, Chesbro was starting (finishing most games) and relieving, because that is what pitchers did back then, so he had plenty of “win opportunities” not available to pitchers today; in 1927, Ruth could feast on starters who were expected to pace themselves, and would often labor into the later innings, as opposed to today’s batters who are seeing 90+ MPH fastballs in every at bat.

In 1924-25, Stark’s teams would have been playing in the offensive 2-3-5 formation, which was obviously heavy on offensive thrust.  Also, the offside rule had recently undergone some changes–in 1924, the concept of “passive offside” was introduced, while in 1925 the rule was changed from three defenders between a player off-the-ball and the goal to two. Defenses may have struggled to cope for the changes, leading to more (and easier) goal opportunities. Goalkeepers did not wear gloves. And so on.

(Then again, Stark played the 1924-25 season in a league that used a leather ball that would weigh a ton when wet–which was not uncommon, as the ASL played a traditional schedule and winters in the northeast tend to be soggy. He also had to play two games a week–Saturday and Sunday, back to back. The equipment was prehistoric. Fitness and nutrition was nonexistent. And so on. So it is not as if he had it easy.)

In sum, there have been a lot of changes to the way soccer has been played over the years, even if the game itself has remained unchanged – in other words, the laws of the game have remained fairly consistent.

While there is no perfect way to account for these differences, Rob Jovanovic introduced a metric called “Competitive Index” in his 2012 book, Moving The Goalposts.  (How CI works is described at length here).

Applying CI, we can get some sense of how Stark’s 67 goal season (as well as the “modern” U.S. scoring record) translates to 2018 standards.

Playing it forward

For the purposes of this analysis, we are going to be looking at two single season goal scoring records: Stark’s 1924-25 season, and the “modern era” record of 34 goals, scored by Giorgio Chinaglia in 1978 with the New York Cosmos (in a 30 game season).

“I AM KEEEENALEEEYA!!” Chinaglia got to honor himself 34 times in 1978.

[“Wait a second,” you are thinking.  “Chinaglia scored 34 in four fewer games than Martinez is going to get? That must be the record—problem solved.” Not really. Read on.]

First, in order to “standardize” the seasons, Stark and Chinaglia’s seasons must be adjusted to account for a 34 game season (fortunately, as both men played in every game, this is easier than if we had to account for games missed). By simply taking their goals-per-game and multiplying it by 34, we see that Stark would score 51 goals, while Chinaglia would net 39.

Having done that, we can now adjust for competitive imbalances.

Under CI, the most competitive season would be a 0; as a result, the closer to zero your CI is, the “harder” it is to compete.

To date, the 2018 MLS season has a CI of 44.4—historically, the third least competitive MLS season (behind 2005 and 2001).  While this number may change in the coming weeks, it is what it is today. However, since we are not looking to “smooth” Martinez’ numbers against MLS history, it is this 2018 number that we will use against the CIs in 1924-25 and 1978.

As it stands, both of those seasons were among the least competitive in U.S. soccer history—rapid expansion resulted in some truly wretched teams. The 1924-25 ASL season comes in at 63.1 on CI, while the 1978 NASL season comes in at 56.7—the second-worst of the Modern Era.

Using the CIs from each season, we can make some adjustments to the “raw” Goals/34 figure we arrived at earlier. We can estimate that the 1924-25 season was only 70% as competitive as 2018, and the 1978 season was only 78% as competitive.  As a result, the records of Stark and Chinaglia, “adjusted for inflation,” result in these numbers for 2018:

                        Archie Stark                          37 goals

                        Giorgio Chinaglia                31 goals

As it turns out, Martinez is on the cusp of what could be a truly historic season after all—at least in 2018.

To be clear–once Martinez scores number 28, he owns the MLS record, full stop. No one is trying to de-legitimize that achievement. The point of this exercise is to see where Martinez would land among the all-time greats, adjusting for different eras and such. If he gets to 37, Martinez can statistically claim to have had a season as great as Stark’s in 1924-25, and fans can say they have seen a season for the ages.

The all-time chart

Just for the fun of it, I have made a chart—again, “smoothed” to 2018—of the top seasons in the ASL/NASL era. Besides providing an excuse to type names like “David Brown” and “Boston Wonder Workers,” it also gives us a chance to see whom Martinez is passing as he adds to his 2018 tally.

As you’ll see, some of the adjusted numbers are even more staggering than the real ones–topping the list is ex-Leeds United player Jerry Best, whose Fall 1930 campaign with the New Bedford Whalers translates into a whopping 78 goals today. In fact, the list is dominated by a number of players from the latter days of the ASL. This is not surprising, when it is recalled that, as the ASL contracted in its later years (in no small part thanks to the “Soccer War”), the level of competition improved significantly–better players on fewer teams has the opposite effect of expansion.  Since 2018 is (at least currently) statistically significantly less competitive than the last two years of the ASL, this is the result:

NAME CLUB YEAR GP G G (2018)
Jerry Best New Bedford Whalers Fall 1930 27 35 78
Johnny Nelson New York Nationals Spring 1930 33 43 56
Archie Stark Bethlehem Steel Spring 1930 19 28 44
Janos Nehadoma Brooklyn Wanderers 1928-29 48 43 43
Werner Nielsen Boston Wonder Workers 1928-29 53 43 42
Johnny Nelson Brooklyn Wanderers 1928-29 43 39 38
Bill Paterson Providence Gold Bugs 1928-29 35 33 37
Archie Stark Bethlehem Steel 1924-25 44 67 37
David Brown New York Giants 1926-27 38 52 35
James Leonard New York Nationals 1928-29 50 31 32
Giorgio Chinaglia New York Cosmos 1978 30 34 31
Archie Stark Bethlehem Steel 1925-26 37 43 31
Giorgio Chinaglia New York Cosmos 1980 32 32 29
Mike Flanagan New England Tea Men 1978 28 30 27

 

Anyway, it will be fun to see how high Martinez can climb on this chart.

 

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