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March 14, 2017

Is this Major League Soccer's most useless – or its most underrated – statistic?

Soccer Union
31417_herbers_psp Earl Gardner/Philly Soccer Page

Fabian Herbers lead the Union with seven assists in 2016, a combination of primary and secondary helpers.

Salary caps and designated players and "allocation money" are just a few quirks unique to MLS.

We're also the only soccer league in the world that awards secondary assists, which is when I pass the ball to you, you pass it to someone else, and he or she scores a goal.

Should my name go on the score sheet for that contribution?

A quick bit of history:

MLS used to have rules mirroring those of the NHL. Assists were handed out to players who made the two passes leading to a goal, no matter the context or situation. If Mikael Renberg picks out John Leclair with a 40-foot pass, who then passes it three feet to Eric Lindros for a goal, then both players get an assist. If Jim Curtin kicks the ball 60 yards to Chris Armas, who then kicks it 20 yards to Damani Ralphi for a goal, then Curtin and Armas both get assists.

Easy, right?

MLS changed those rules in 2003 to add some validity to the secondary (and primary) assist. The new rules read, in part:

" assist shall only be awarded when it is determined that the pass in question required a reasonable amount of skill, vision and accuracy. A maximum of two assists shall be awarded on any goal."

Of course, we're all going to have different interpretations of the phrase, "reasonable amount of skill, vision, and accuracy."

When Opta started doing MLS statistics six years ago, it created a new definition for secondary assists, as passes that are "instrumental in creating a goal-scoring opportunity."

That concept is similarly arbitrary, but you get the point.

Let's take a look at the five weekend goals that included secondary assists, and figure out whether those assists were warranted.

1. Jay Simpson, assisted by Chris Pontius (primary) and Haris Medunjanin (secondary)

This was the first Union goal from the home opener.

Chris Pontius gets the primary assist for knocking down Haris Medunjanin's long diagonal. Medunjanin gets the secondary assist for that original pass.

I don't think you need to hand out a secondary assist to Medunjanin. Was it "instrumental in creating a goal-scoring opportunity?" That's doubtful. I think Pontius created that opportunity.

For context, you can talk about Medunjanin's alertnesss. He recognizes that he has an aerially proficient winger matched up against a smaller fullback. He also sees a 3v3 inside the box. You can say a lot of good things about that pass without requiring it to go on the stat sheet.

Ruling – no secondary assist

2. Matteo Mancosu, assisted by Ignacio Piatti (primary) and Patrice Bernier (secondary)

Piatti got the primary assist for a nicely weighted ball behind the Seattle defense. Patrice Bernier picked up a helper for a short pass to beat the Sounders midfield.

Again, I don't know. I think you give Bernier credit for picking his head up and splitting the lines, but are we really handing out an assist for a 10-yard pass that took place 10 yards inside of your own half?

Ruling – no secondary assist

3. David Villa, assisted by Rodney Wallace (primary) and Maxi Moralez (secondary)

This was New York City's second goal in a 4-0 thrashing of D.C. United.

I had to go back and clip this one myself since the secondary assist didn't even make it into the MLS highlight reel. It's a really nice chip into the corner for Rodney Wallace, who settles, looks up, and picks out David Villa for a nifty header against the grain.

I'm more inclined to hand out a secondary for this one since the distance to the goal is a bit closer and it's a pass that really unlocks the defense and gets the backline moving towards the goal. I'm on the fence, though, because it's not exactly a "bang-bang" type of play.

Ruling – I have no clue

4. Ola Kamara, assisted by Justin Meram (primary) and Jukka Raitala (secondary)

This "assist" was so pathetic that it barely even made the highlight reel.

This is deep into stoppage time with Houston holding a comfortable three-goal lead. Columbus left back Jukka Raitala plays the most simple of passes to Justin Meram, who turns and squares for an Ola Kamara tap-in.

One issue I have with secondary assists is the amount of time that lapses between the first pass and second pass. In this case, Meram takes two touches, gets the ball out from under his feet, then picks out Kamara in front of goal. How long does a player get before that original pass loses "assist" status?

Ruling – no secondary assist

5. Nick Lima, assisted by Chris Wondolowski (primary) and Jahmir Hyka (secondary)

Rookie right back Nick Lima scored a banger for San Jose in their 3 to 2 comeback win against 10-man Vancouver.

In this sequence, Jahmir Hyka makes a nice juke to get into the left channel, where he lobs a far post ball for Chris Wondolowski. Wondo cushions the ball into Lima's path for a first-time finish.

I'm a little more inclined to give a secondary assist to Hyka in this case since his cross takes place right at the edge of the box and it's not some long ball played from 40 yards deep. This was a really nice goal all-around, and his back-post cross does unbalance the defense and create the goal.

Ruling – secondary assist warranted


The arbitrary nature of the secondary assist will always make for some controversy surrounding scoring statistics. There is never going to be a solution that works for everybody, but one thing we can do is provide context by pointing out important passes or key sequences that lead to goals. That's our responsibility as media members (and fans, too).

Otherwise, is it really that hard to create a separate category for primary and secondary assists? MLS doesn't do it. The NHL doesn't do it either. I'd be interested to see how many of Connor McDavid's 52 assists are primaries and how many are secondaries. I'd also like to go back to Fabian Herbers' rookie season and take another look at his team-leading seven assists. How many were legitimate?

We have all kinds of bogus stats in MLS these days, so is it really that hard to separate primary and secondary assists?


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