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Assists: the most misunderstood of statistics - A history

Marcelo Sarvas was given an assist on Landon Donovan's goal by MLS, after the in-stadium statisticians did not. So just where did this crazy statistic come from?


A silver fox extends out a front paw, inviting you on a journey. You grasp it.

In 1883, a man named Lester Patrick is born in Drummondville, Quebec. As a defenseman, he played hockey at McGill University. Later, he was a star on the Victoria Aristocrats of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. While in the PCHA, he grew frustrated with scorers being the only players getting credit for a goal. Thus in 1913 the PCHA introduced two innovations that would change hockey (and sport) forever, the forward pass and the assist. Hockey still gives out a Lester Patrick trophy for outstanding contributions to hockey. His nickname was The Silver Fox.

The NHL started crediting assists in 1918, but forward passing was still illegal. From 1930-36 the NHL recorded up to three assists on a goal, but didn't allow passing between zones. In 1936 the number of assists recorded was reduced to two, but the rule also changed to only allow passes made in the offensive zone.

Assists are very much a North American contribution to the world of sport. By the time the NASL came along in 1968, the established NHL and the upstart NBA were recording assists on goals from the field so the NASL followed suit; even though assists weren't recorded in most of the association football world.

In 1986, Mexico hosted the World Cup for the second time, after Colombia proved financially unable to host the tournament. The FIFA Technical Study Group's resort for that World Cup included these paragraphs about an unofficially recorded statistic called assists:

"The Technical Study Group would like to understand this scoring list as an idea"

An idea in association football? It is probably new and thus evil, like goal line technology.

"The members of the study group were guided by the thought that might be quite interesting to record statistically also the players who prepared the goals."

Woah, woah, woah, woah, woah. Do you record who prepared your meal at a restaurant? Do you record who prepared your taxes? Hrm, there may be something to this. Maybe, in recording who prepared the goals we can see which players are great at preparing goals, and they can be rewarded like a chef or an accountant. Let's look into this.

"At this World Cup we made such an attempt for the first time. Of course we are aware of the fact that there are no objective criteria to allot assists. This scoring list was established according to the following rules."

Well gawrsh, that's a good point too. We can't just go giving out assists to every Tom, Dick, and Harry. We need some rules, for gosh sakes this can't be anarchy.

"An assist was awarded to the player who had given the last pass to the goalscorer."

Seems reasonable.

"In addition, also the last but two holder of the ball could get an assist provided that his action had decisive importance for the goal"

Flippin' flapjacks, what is that?! A second assist? Awarded by FIFA? I'm confused. Assists were also given out to players whose on target shot resulted in a rebound, and to the player fouled on free kick goals and penalty kicks. FIFA, again unofficially, tallied assists in the 1990 World Cup.

The 1994 World Cup, in a country called the United States of America, is when FIFA first officially tallied assists. Recording assists is still not part of the official Laws of the Game. The Laws of the Game do allow for goal-line technology as of 2012.

So it's important to note that assists are more of a tool to understand the game than anything official. That MLS choses to award a second assist isn't all that radical. It's just that FIFA is really quite conservative. After all, it's not like MLS is awarding assists to players who earn fouls that lead to free-kick goals.

Which is all to say that Marcelo Sarvas was given an assist by MLS on Landon Donovan's second half goal, after the statisticians at the match gave Robbie Keane the only assist on that goal. Sarvas' pass was directly responsible for the goal, but Keane had to dribble half the pitch to make it happen.

Determining decisive importance, as FIFA once described it, is bit to the eye of the beholder. However, I went into writing this expecting to prove that second assists are an outlier statistic and a liar. Instead, I've come to the conclusion that if anything there could be more assists given out.