Major League Soccer has a reputation for being a tough, physical league. What it lacks in talent and technique it makes up for with speed and strength. Often heard in discussions of the league is the belief that teams need a target forward to win — someone to launch crosses at, get physical with center backs and hopefully score off of set pieces. Conor Casey, Kenny Cooper, Nate Jaqua — these are the types of players that allegedly lead to success. The question is, do these types of players help teams win?
To start, I needed an objective way to classify forwards as either big or not. Intuitively this is easy. Thierry Henry? Big. Luke Rodgers? Not big. Nate Jaqua? Big. Fredy Montero? Not big. I needed something more formal so I plotted the distribution of heights in centimeters (note: this is for forwards who started 5 or more games this season).
The heights sort of group themselves into 3 groups: small guys (those below 5’10″), larger guys (above 6’0″) and big guys (6’3″ and above). The median height was 183cm (~6’0″) so I defined three classes: below median (height <= 183cm), above median (height >183cm) and “big man” (height > 190 cm).
To determine if larger players help teams win, I compared the points earned by a team the large player starts versus the teams overall record and looked at the difference in points per game (PPG).
There was a statistically significant difference between large and small forwards and their impact on their teams records. The difference between above and below median players only accounts for 1.28 more points a season, but the difference with players over 193cm accounts for 6.32 more points a season. Interesting — teams do better with big men in the lineup. The question is better than what?
Not every team has a forward who is above median height or a “big man” (Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, DC United, LA Galaxy and RSL to be precise). Are the teams without height in the forward position able to succeed? I looked at the PPG of the teams based on whether they had a forward with above median height or a big man and compared that to those that don’t.
Teams with height at the forward position do worse than those without height (statistically significant). The difference is far greater than when we looked at the player difference. The difference with above median teams is 11.4 points a season and for big men it was 9.3 points per season. While tall players might be helping their teams, they are part of teams that aren’t that good (the best teams with big men are Seattle and Portland, both of whom are mid-table). If you’ve designed a team around a target forward and they miss a game, chances are the results won’t be as good as when the target forward is in the lineup. The team is better with the target forward in the lineup than without, but maybe that isn’t the best strategy. Real Salt Lake, LA Galaxy and FC Dallas seem to have no problem winning without a lumbering target forward. Is it possible to win in MLS without a big man? Yes.