The Unintentional Brilliance of the Assist Statistic

Somewhere out there, an article on Steve Ralston moving into second place in the all-time assists in Major League Soccer (MLS) goes into a somewhat obligatory spiel about how assists don't quite fit soccer, a sport that rarely wears statistics well.

That spiel made sense till last night when I watched the New England Revolution's Steve Ralson head a ball over his head toward goal; that semi-random action led to an Adam Cristman goal, the Revs' first for the night and Cristman's first all-time. It's not so much that Ralston consciously headed the ball with an assist to Cristman in mind; the action can more accurately be described as bonking the ball somewhere that seemed useful. Whether intended or not, that shows up as an assist to Ralston and, the more I think about it, the more fair that is.

Of course, there are "real" assists; in the same game, for instance, LA Galaxy midfielder Pete Vagenas played sharp pass against the grain - and through a thicket of defenders' legs - to teammate Kyle Martino; it was a spot-on, intentional pass and Martino slotted it home for the Galaxy's first goal. When people talk about assists, that's what they have in mind.

Even if Ralston's assist was more random, less skilled, etc. it falls under a kind of big umbrella concept: making shit happen. In a sense, that's what the assist stat should be: give it an acronym ("MSH's"?) to protect tender ears, but that's basically what's going on. The same principle applies on the defensive end as well. A well-time tackle (for instance, Frankie Hejduk picked Francisco Mendoza clean in the Columbus Crew v. Chivas USA game) could pick up the same statistical denotation.

Sure, this is imprecise and, sure, people will quibble about what really counts as an MSH, but we already quibble about assists and everything else under the sun so what's the harm? But the MSH fits a sport like soccer, in which so much positive activity cannot be readily quantified.

No, I don't think this will ever become an official stat - though I'd love to see league officials have to explain it to soccer neophytes. But it does help me look at Ralston's looming stroll into the league record books without wondering how many of those assists would require asterisks. The thing is, none of them do because all of them essentially say, "Let the record show that, on 113 occasions, Steve Ralston made shit happen."


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