MLS and RSL: What is meant by physicality and athleticism?

MLS and RSL: What is meant by physicality and athleticism?


I reject many popular modes of thinking about our beautiful game. This shouldn't come as much of a surprise. For instance, I don't think it's all about effort or heart in a match, and I reject the notion that we need a "plan B" to pull when things aren't going quite to our liking.

Now, that's not to say that I don't share some views common here, but that's the way it is, isn't it?. We don't need a plan B when things are going wrong — we need to ensure that our plan A is working properly in all circumstances. Multiple plans are, I suppose, a good thing, but we don't need to just lump it long, hoof and hope.

But this all got me thinking: It is so often the case that we hear MLS described as a "physical, athletic" league in the realm of world soccer. Is that really the case? Let's set about defining that first, then we might begin to evaluate the validity of the claim. It is also worth considering that we're not the most physically oriented team in the league, and that might bias things a little.

One way we might determine physicality is in foul counts, and I must say, the refereeing issue necessarily pops up here. This season, we stand at about 26 fouls per match, which surprised me a bit. This puts us about on par with the English Premier League and below the Italian, Spanish and German top divisions. These are used as reference points, mind — not as points to which we should aspire.

Our relatively low foul count could mean a few different things. Does it mean fouls are simply called less? Is advantage played with more frequency? Are fewer violations committed? It is hard to measure this. I will venture that two of the three play into it, as I'm not sure advantage is really played properly most of the time here anyhow. We are certainly a slower league than, say, the English league, where the pace is furious and one-touch rules all. Some sides — like ours — do play more in that style than not, but some — er, most — take a slower approach to matches. This is illustrated in rates of passing and touches per match, which I don't have specific numbers on at current, but have previously explored. (I will write something about this soon, though. Don't you worry.)

So where else might we derive physicality and athleticism? Do we have bigger-than-average players? Do they run more in a match? Are they subjected to more injuries? Let's take this piece by piece. Our players really don't seem bigger than average players — which isn't to say we're not similar in size, but compared to some of the athletes that populate the English game, MLS isn't exactly towering. As undoubtedly the league with the most raw money pumped into it, this is perhaps understandable. When our players are earning a working wage (some more, some less) expecting finely tuned athletes is perhaps wide of the mark.

As for running — that's a hard thing to measure. If I had access to those stats for MLS, it might be easier to discern. Alas, we're left rather high and dry without that, so we can only really eyeball these things. Eyeballing is, of course, notoriously inefficient and unreliable, so we should be careful.

More injuries? Again, it's hard to say. A confounding factor exists: We play fewer games than the "big four" leagues in Europe (which are the easiest for me to find statistics on,) and there's less fixture build-up as a result. But we also have smaller squads on average, so that levels out in a way. Further, MLS also has fewer veritable internationals on the rosters, so fatigue from international matches is also less an issue for most sides. (Some clubs, especially the top clubs across the leagues and the more "cosmopolitan" in squad build, may have nearly their entire senior squads depleted during FIFA breaks.)

I suppose I really haven't said anything here, have I? I'm still rather uncertain as to whether our league is more physical than the average league or more athletic. I really suspect that it's a positive spin on "less technical" or "more prone to lumping the ball long than anything," neither of which sound particularly appealing. We do see a lot of back-and-forth action, though, and maybe that's why we see the descriptions. That lack of possession-oriented play lends well to those descriptions, too.

It all makes me rather glad I support a side that plays positive, possession-oriented soccer. We may not be the most technical side in the world, and we may not be full of the fastest wingers and non-stop play, but we do seem miles ahead of swathes of MLS clubs.