There are few things in sports more important than statistics. They shape how we view a game. They are inherently woven into a sport’s history and narrative. Don’t believe me? I’ve never seen Babe Ruth play baseball, but I know he was a great player by the numbers he left behind. Historical accounts of his skills at the plate are numerous, but would his legend be nearly as great without the records he held for so long? 60 home run in a single season. 714 home runs in his career. These numbers are a part of the mythology of sport.
Last night, Landon Donovan further etched his name in the annals of MLS history by tying Steve Ralston’s all time assist record—but the way it happened was curious and problematic. It sheds a light on a much greater issue regarding the stats we choose to value.
Officially, Landon Donovan tied the MLS assists record in the 80th minute last night when Robbie Keane smashed home the Galaxy’s fourth goal against the New York Red Bulls. In actuality, Landon Donovan tied the record minutes after the game was over after a crew in New York decided to retroactively award him an assist on the following goal. Take a look for yourself.
Originally the goal was ruled unassisted. Despite Landon’s brilliant feed, it was ruled that Keane’s first shot was blocked. The resulting shot of his own rebound resulted in the goal, thus it was considered unassisted. Sound convoluted? It is. For the record, I think that awarding Donovan an assist on this goal is extremely generous since the ball looks to change direction after Keane’s initial shot, indicating that it was blocked or saved. In the end, does it even matter?
Unfortunately, it does. We choose to value stats like goals and assists more than shots, expected goals, or chances created. Outcome matters more than potential. In the example of this Robbie Keane goal, Landon’s ball was absolutely perfect. It was an amazing demonstration of skill, creativity and vision. After the game, Robbie Keane seemed baffled that the goal was ever credited as unassisted.
To Robbie Keane, it really doesn’t matter whether or not his initial shot was deflected or blocked—and why should it? Obviously Landon Donovan’s phenomenal pass created that goal, and it was perplexing to him that anyone would ever think otherwise. Here I think Robbie has exactly the right mind set.
If the aim of the assist stat is to measure Donovan’s creativity then why should it matter if Keane’s initial shot was blocked, saved, or if he missed the net entirely? Does it change the fact that Donovan created a chance on goal?
For this reason, assists really don’t matter in the big picture. Yes they matter in a game because goals win games, but if you’re trying to use it to evaluate a player’s ability (as is the case when it comes to the way we glorify players who hold goal or assist records) then the model is all wrong.
As we see in the case of this Keane goal, the process of awarding assists is often arbitrary. It relies too heavily on the performance of players that are not being measured. If the aim is to measure Donovan, Keane's finishing should not matter. In baseball, RBI's are quite famously ridiculed for this same reason.
Landon Donovan created a chance on goal. He’s been doing it all season. In fact, around 25% of the team’s total chance creation this year has come from him. It’s something the man has been doing his entire career. Season after season he continues to be among the league leaders in this category. I’m sure if anyone was to take the time and collect all the chance creation data since before Opta’s partnership with the league, which has never been observed and cataloged, I’m sure he’d probably hold that record too.
While well meaning, in the end, assists are a bad stat.
Regardless of how you measure it, what Landon has achieved in his career is remarkable. When it’s all said and done, walking away with the goal and assist record weaves exactly the type of historical narrative that will put his historical legacy in the pantheon of MLS lore. They aren’t the stats I would use to prove his greatness, but never the less, his place in that pantheon could not be more deserving.