In the 58th minute of the game between the New York Red Bulls and the Columbus Crew on October 19th, Midfielder Lloyd Sam blasted a shot off the arm of goalkeeper Steve Clark and into the net. The goal was the 900th of the MLS season, the first time MLS as a league had achieved that milestone. The regular season ended with 924 goals scored, which was 70 more or 8% higher than the previous high of 854 in 2012.
Even when looking at just goals scored per team this season was prolific. MLS teams averaged 1.43 goals per game, the highest level since 2005. And the goals per game are up 16% from the nadir of 1.23 goals per game that was established just back in 2010. Here's a look at the total goals scored and the goals per game over the history of MLS.
Shot quality versus shot quantity
The key driver of the goal scoring improvement was the quality of shots taken and not a question of quantity. There were only 21 more shots taken in 2014 compared to the league's previous high in 2012. That increase would only account for 2 of the 70 incremental goals scored. The other 68 goals are due to an 8% improvement in shooting percentage. Goals as a percentage of shots taken went from 10.2% in 2012 and 2013 to 11.0% in 2014. About half of that improvement was due to a higher percentage of shots being on target. Here's how the 70 incremental goals break down by reason.
Large investment in forwards
The increase in shooting percentage and ultimately goals is not an accident. Investment in offensive players is up even more dramatically than the goals since 2012.
Over the last two seasons investments in forwards has increased by $15.5M, while the investments in midfielders has stayed the same, and the investment in defenders has gone down slightly. In this light, perhaps it's not a surprise to see such a sharp increase in goals.
Most of the incremental investment has come from just two teams, with $13.3M of the net increase spent by Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders. They both invested heavily in four players in 2013; Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins, Gilberto and Jermain Defoe.
The extra money paid off for both the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC. Their goal scoring in 2014 was up a combined 22 goals compared to 2012 and a whopping 37 goals over 2013. Those 37 goals represented nearly half the increase in goals scored league wide between 2013 and 2014. The 2013 forward salaries are somewhat misleading as well, as they include a full year's high salary for Clint Dempsey. He spent most of the season with the Sounders unfit to make an impact. In reality, most of the investments in forwards occurred after the 2013 season.
With MLS front offices focused on bringing in the difference makers in front of the net, it's not surprising the goals are now coming. But is the current clip of 2.86 goals per game a respectable number?
MLS goal scoring compared to top leagues
SoccerVista tracks the average goals scored per game across more than 300 leagues. MLS ranks 100th in the world in total goals scored following this season. Here is how MLS goals stack up against the top leagues.
The top leagues listed here rank from 94th to 265th, indicating a skew toward being lower scoring leagues. MLS is near the top and right in line with the English Premier League right now, which can't be a bad thing. But those two leagues are a good deal more offensive than the other top leagues in the world.
If the league continues to draw star forwards and keeps under-investing in defenders, then the league runs the risk of losing credibility as the goals scored per game creep higher. However, at this point there is certainly no cause for alarm. In fact a celebration is in order for the continued improvement in league quality, and hope for more talent as the league continues to increase its television and sponsorship revenue. But where MLS is spending this money is definitely a trend to keep watching in the off-season.
Perhaps it is fitting then that another New York Red Bull, Bradley Wright-Phillips scored the final league goals, 923 and 924, on his way to tying the record for most goals in a season by a single player. Goals were aplenty this season by both Wright-Phillips and the league. Which direction will MLS buy next?