The myth of the striker savior

Photo by Marjorie Elzy

The Philadelphia Union have been rumored to be poking around South America for the team’s next striker.

This is good, because soccer is a strong tie game – any positional upgrade makes the entire team better. However, it is not good specifically because it will correlate with the team winning more trophies or championships – a good striker simply isn’t enough to do that.

The recent history of goal-scoring

The bar for how to quantify a good striker is arbitrary, but a line many fans seem to use is 15 goals per season.

That number equates to a rate of one goal nearly every other game in MLS terms. Union fans know the threshold well because said tally has only ever been achieved by two hometown players: CJ Sapong and Kacper Pryzbylko. Both were beloved by fans in their record setting years, but neither is considered a reliable, season-long scorer.

But is that fair – on one hand the threshold itself, does it make any sense; and on the other the expectation that a team can consistently find player or players who can reliably do this?

The threshold – does scoring a lot of goals matter?

If having a player score a lot of goals on a consistent basis mattered, then teams that had talisman strikes would be more successful than their counterparts without them. It makes sense on the surface: more goals scored, in a game in which goals are scarce, should mean more wins.

The data doesn’t bear that out though.

Since 2010, from the generally agreed upon beginning of MLS 2.0 through its current 3.? iteration, there have only been seventeen players in Major League Soccer to score more than 15 goals in a season (or projected to have so far this year or in the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign) more than one time. They include the likes of Raul Ruidiaz, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Chris Wondolowski (who appears five times above that line and several more times just below it!).

In sum, it’s a group of well-respected attackers, each with his own highlight reel. The Union and any team would be lucky to have them on their roster.

Here’s the rub:

Of the twenty-two league-based trophies available to this group (an MLS Cup and a Supporter’s Shield each year for eleven years), the teams these players represented only won nine. That means it’s slightly worse than a coin flip’s chance in MLS as to whether having a great striker wins a team trophies.

If that’s what the league-wide data says, maybe the Union don’t need another attacker.

Are the Union strikers already good enough?

The Union’s existing striker corps, and particularly regular starters Kacper Pryzbylko and Sergio Santos, are well-loved in Blueville. They are also much-maligned as an inconsistent group, perceived as considerably less influential than the likes of the players mentioned above.

That’s probably fair, as only the Striker Muffin’s breakout 2019 campaign rises above any of the aforementioned repeated Onion-bagger’s single season tallies. But is it fair to believe this current group are less proficient with the ball in front of goal than the players they’re chasing on this all-MLS list?

Or more specifically, just because a striker had two great years doesn’t mean he’s a reliable MLS striker (see: Jay Simpson), and how can one determine which is which?

If 15 games per season is arbitrary, what does it mean in the global game to be a great striker?

Goals per game.

The best strikers in the world score at a rate of roughly one goal every other game, or a goals/game ratio of 0.500 (the data in this post is slightly outdated, but the overarching point is the same). This would mean the arbitrary line fans have drawn for their striker expectations isn’t so arbitrary after all.

Globally, Leo Messi leads the list with nearly a goal in every match, or a ratio of 0.8677, while the aforementioned Ibrahimivic checks in a 0.62. Original, late 1990’s era Ronaldo? 0.5607.

These are prolific numbers, but some MLS players aren’t far from them.

The timeless Chris Wondolowski has a scoring rate of 0.4253. Bradley Wright-Phillips is even better: he still holds a ratio of 0.5225, despite a smaller role in each of the last two season (in his best year, the former Red Bull was Messi-like, scoring at a rate of 0.8436).

Though the sample size Union fans have to work with in their own striker corps is certainly smaller than this list, and before locals go wanting for something shiny and new, it’s worth asking where players the Union have today stack up against these domestic and global pace-setting numbers?

  • Kacper Pryzbylko: 29 goals in 65 games – 0.4462
  • Sergio Santos: 15 goals in 53 games – 0.2830
  • Cory Burke: 18 goals in 52 games – 0.3461

No, your eyes don’t deceive you.

Kacper Pryzybylko scores more frequently than Chris Wondolowski in MLS, and that’s not including his Champion’s League tallies – a competition where he is currently the top scorer, bagging bulbs at an astonishing (but statistically small) rate of 1.2500 goals per game.

The Union past and the Union’s future

There have only been three record holders in Union history for “Most Goals in a Season.”

Sebastien Le Toux owned it first in a 2010 season where he scored 14 goals in 28 games, easy math at 0.5000. CJ Sapong broke the Ring of Honor member’s record in 2016 by writing his name 16 times in 33 games – 0.4848. Those are solid campaigns, the kinds of numbers Union fans pine for. The kinds of numbers Union fans have in their Striker Muffin.

The first two holder’s respective career numbers are far more modest however: 0.2552 and 0.2243 respectively. The kind of stats that are worse than those for which Union fans occasionally want to run players like Sergio Santos and Cory Burke out of town.

Scoring goals is hard, and doing so over any long stretch is not only hard but nearly impossible. There are 27 teams in the league with a total roster size of 777. Fewer than 10 players on that list will score 15 goals this season, and at best half of those will be doing for the second time or go on to do it again.

Scoring goals is hard, and finding consistent goal-scorers for any stretch is nearly impossible.

Before fans conclude that the rumored Brazilian will solve the problem, consider this: his lifetime goals per game ratio is the worst of the bunch: 0.1356.


  1. UnitedPenn13 says:

    If Pryzybylko were capable of trapping a ball rather than sending it 5 yards away from himself he could probably score more goals. His basic soccer skills are really poor.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      He’s not a #10, but has been tasked with that job because the team’s existing midfield isn’t filling that role – he can’t score all the goals and connect all the triangles, but he’s doing the most consistent job in Union history in the former.

      A bird is a terrible swimmer too.

      • UnitedPenn13 says:

        I don’t know what “not being a #10” has to do with trapping skills. At this level I would expect all field players to be able to trap a ball and keep in within a couple of feet from himself. I consistently see him trap a ball and it bounces 5 or 6 feet away from his body, and usually ends up in the possession of the other team. Trapping a ball is a basic soccer skill and I would think a professional would be better at it than he is.

    • I think Przbylko’s game is actually pretty strong. I’m consistently surprised by his ability with the ball at his feet. I think the issue is that he’s a genuine, classic #9 and isn’t playing like one.

      In the current Union system, he’s making runs with his strike partner — a rotating cast of characters — who are rarely on the same page. And because we’ve been ceding the midfield to our opponents, he’s dropping deep and training wide to find the ball. It’s no accident that when we’ve made changes and he shifts to a central role that he finds the back of the net.

      If we moved to a system with a single target man — 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, I think you’d see Przbylko score more regularly — that is if we can take some control of the midfield. Or maybe a better strike partner is the answer. I think Santos actually makes a better winger than striker. Burke is good, but not as good as Brzybylko

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        Matt DeGeorge (I think) posted a stat last night about Higuain having twice as many touches as Kacper or Gazdag. Most read it as an indictment of those guys, where as it’s much more an indictment of the rest of the team: they have to get the forwards the ball in the first place.

      • 100%. He needs service. What I like most about Przybylo, too, is that unlike a lot of our #9s in the past, he has demonstrated the ability to get separation and make his own shot. Does he make mistakes, shank balls wide or high, yeah, but how many strikers don’t?

    • I think he needs to be better at heading. Prime example was last night when he had a header he should have scored with. Instead he missed the goal completely.

  2. The thesis here is that the Union do not need a new difference maker at forward because few strikers hit the 15 goal mark in MLS. Given the goals per game of Kacper and Co., the current crop is good enough from a starter perspective.
    I’m not sure that this addresses the issue pundits across the league have noted about what it takes to win an MLS Cup: a true difference maker at forward who can win you a game in one moment. Out of the last 10 MLS Cup champions, only one did not have at least one DP forward start. I do not think that that figure is a coincidence. The Union are built for the long grind, partially due to the team ethos, but lack the individual game changer up top to challenge for MLS Cup.
    I agree that Davo is unlikely to solve the offensive issues. But I think that is also the point—he’s not good enough. We need a DP forward if we want a realistic chance at winning an MLS Cup, assuming we don’t buck a trend that applies to 90% of winners over the last decade.
    The other frustration here is that the team stated for years that developing and selling would create funds to buy difference makers to sprinkle among the homegrowns. Gazdag is not a DP, we’re bringing in a second division forward from Brazil, and it appears that we are not going to invest much of the $15 mil from Aaronson/McKenzie into the first team roster—as we were told would occur. No one expected the Union to go out and buy a $5 mil forward, but Gazdag/Davo are signings we would have made 2-3 years ago or more. The bar is raised.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      The question I have is what constitutes a “difference-maker.”

      A striker leading the CCL and scoring nearly a goal every other game qualifies for that metric – but if he’s also inexpensive, he suddenly doesn’t count?

  3. Gruncle Bob says:

    A couple thoughts.
    Goals per 90 is probably a better measure than gpg, especially for Sergio and Cory, who don’t always start.

    Adding most points in conference to the trophy metric might be interesting – so you have 33 “trophies” instead of 22. With unbalanced conference schedules the best team doesn’t always win the shield.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      Goals per 90 is definitely better, but I suspect Kacper’s numbers would be higher in that scenario. Most points is a good metric too, but they don’t give out trophies for that.

      • Kacper is the worst of our 3 strikers in goals/90 minutes. It goes Burke, Santos, Kacper.

      • Chris, I would think it’s the opposite, given that Striker Muffin has been an automatic 90-minute every-game player since approximately April 2019, while Burke and Santos have basically shared one spot. Santos, in particular, stands out as someone who’d benefit on a per-minute basis — if I’m reading his match log correctly, he’s only gone a full 90 one time in his Union career during the regular season.

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        Yeah, you’re all right here. Long day, bad math.

  4. Jeremy Lane says:

    We’d all like a forward like Messi, along with every team in the world. We can search, and maybe we’ll find him.

    However, we would definitely improve by sorting out the midfield we have right now. Play folks in their best positions, and put in kids like Sullivan, who has been excellent off the bench, and maybe our striker situation won’t be so annoying.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Quinn Sullivan is 17 years old. He does not yet have an adult player’s endurance.
      Recall Earnie Stewart’s explanations of engine building when he first came.
      Combining Sullivan and Bedoya is probably the best option for now. But that ties Jim Curtin’s hands for one of his subs, and he’s got to use two others to recondition Ilsinho and Fontana.
      It took Brenden Aaronson a year and more to build his engine at the MLS level, and he was not all that often a 90 minute player.
      If Tanner and Albirght bring either of the two rumored players over the line before August 5 the act(s) will characterize this season, IMO. Acquiring the players who will all be together next February to make a serious run at being a contending team.

      • Respectfully, I have to disagree with any matter-of-fact “he’s only 17” argument, whether it is about endurance, strength or skill.
        The maturation cycle of teenage physique is not uniform across the population.
        Now, if Jim cites endurance concerns as a reason that he’s not ready… well, let’s just say that he’s lost credibility on that topic by running the current regular squad into the ground.

  5. Andy Muenz says:

    The Union need another striker but not for the reason you mention. Because Sergio Santos isn’t a 90 minute player and Corey Burke is likely to miss at least 2 more games for World Cup qualifiers, they need another healthy body up top. Because they didn’t have that, Gazdig had to play up to for the first hour+ and was largely ineffective during that time. And since Gazdig might be in Hungary next time Burke is gone, it is even more important to have someone who is comfortable playing as a striker.

  6. Chuchú Bueno says:

    This is an interesting new angle on an age-old gripe for Union supporters. A couple of thoughts:

    – Although multiple 15-goal seasons is a good indicator of the quality of the striker, the effect of goalscoring on trophies can also be illustrated by the presence/absence of a 15 goal scorer on the winning team. From 2015-2019 (the last 5 full MLS seasons,) 7 of the 10 teams to post a Cup or Shield win featured a 15 goal scorer. If we extrapolate the 23-game 2020 season to a full 34 games, it is likely that Gyasi Zardes would’ve scored at least 15 for the Cup champion Crew while no Union players would’ve hit that mark in the team’s Shield run.

    – Since goals per game treats a 90 minute shift the same as a 5 minute cameo, a more instructive stat may be goals per 96 minutes. In goals/96, Kacper maintains a very respectable .5096, although he trails Wondolowski’s .5534. However, if we remove Przybylko’s 2019 career year from the equation and focus on his most recent work, the picture is less rosy. Since the start of the 2020 season, Kacper has scored at a clip of .417 g/96. This puts him right around MLS journeyman Patrick Mullins (.403) and a little ahead of Tesho Akindele (.371.)

    – A forward’s impact is not just limited to goal totals, and all of the Union’s attackers have failed the eye test this year. This is borne out by the g+ stat on the American Soccer Analysis website. According to g+, which is meant to encompass a player’s cumulative impact as opposed to strictly goals, assists, recoveries, etc., all three of the Union’s strikers contribute below the level of an average MLS forward. Kacper has a score of -.90, Santos is -1.61, and Burke is -.73.

    Overall, while I agree with Chris’s point that no one signing is a panacea for the team, I still believe that an upgrade at striker is in order.

    • So, per the math, Kacper = Patrick Mullins? That seems way more accurate and on target than this article’s premise of “we don’t need another scorer.” It’s clear we need a real scorer, and thanks for crunching the numbers.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      This is pretty spot on.

      Kacper and Santos were both basically a goal away last year from reaching the modified threshold, so I’m not sure it’s fair to throw out Kacper’s best season since the one after was pretty darn good too.

      I’m a big fan of American Soccer Analysis. Right now the Muffin has 11 goals in 20 games. He may be underperforming xG, but he’s still scoring at an elite rate.

      …and they still need another striker.

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