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A statistical look at Atlanta United’s up-and-down start to 2017

Lies, damned lies, and statistics


Sports fans love statistics. They help us to fill the horrible void between games, provide the basis for endless water cooler debates and give us headaches when filling out fantasy rosters. And part of the fun with statistics is that they can be deceiving. That’s very true of Atlanta United’s season to date. Consider these numbers:

  • Ranked 2nd in goals scored
  • Ranked 2nd in assists
  • Ranked 18th in total shots
  • Ranked 8th in shots on goal

Those rankings remain the same when calculated on a per game basis, by the way.

Those first two numbers seem completely at odds with the last two. How can a team be almost at the top in goals scored but almost at the bottom in shots taken? And in the middle of the pack in shots on goal? That seems to defy logic.

Let’s throw in another statistic: excluding the ridiculous 82.8% possession in the Chicago game, ATLUTD’s average possession has been 48.8%, and in fact has been falling consistently since the beginning of the season. Since the Chicago game, ATLUTD has not had the majority of possession in a single game. Get this: even in the 6-1 drubbing of Minnesota United, the team only had 50.1% possession.

On the face of it, none of this makes sense. And yet, with apologies to Mark Twain, the statistics don’t lie. Instead, we must take a deeper dive. What is the underlying reason for all this scoring success? I think there are in fact two answers.

The first is an unerring efficiency. ATLUTD leads the league in goals scored per shot taken (0.243), goals scored per shot on goal (0.515), and in shots on goal per shot taken (0.471). Moreover, they lead by wide margins over the second-ranked teams in all three categories. Think on those numbers a moment. Almost a quarter of the total shots result in goals. And if that wasn’t already good enough, more than half of the shots on goal result in goals. In other words, don’t give the Five Stripes the ball, because more than likely they will score.

The second answer is that not only does ATLUTD score efficiently, they also score early. In all six ATLUTD games in which there has been scoring, the good guys scored first. Not only that, but the average time of the opening goal is 13:29. With that they force opponents to chase the game for long periods.

To an extent this explains the possession numbers. You take an early lead, you can afford to sit on it and let the other side have the ball a bit. Well, if you have the defense to go with the high-octane offense, that is. And that’s true too. ATLUTD is tied for 15th in goals allowed per game (1.14) and has the highest goal difference in the league (9, or 1.29 per game, well ahead of the second best, Portland, at 1.00). Also affecting the possession numbers are the five road games and playing down a man for meaningful stretches in two games, but the point stands.

In conclusion, the numbers may seem odd, but after consideration, they should not be all that surprising. ATLUTD is a high-pressing, counter-attacking team that comes out of the gate like a bullet, and the stats reflect that. Speed, pressure and an opportunistic mindset are the hallmarks of this team and the rest of the league looks like it is struggling to keep up.