Stats Stories

Atlanta United goal at New York City FC a lesson in pace, precision and timing


As Atlanta United, and MLS, develops deeper knowledge and use of data analytics, we’ll be taking a look behind the curtain at some of the specific stats the club values. In our new weekly content series, we examine one metric provided by StatsBomb that may not stand out on a first watch, but upon closer evaluation, is a useful tool to measure the team’s performance.

Atlanta United’s goal Saturday against New York City FC was a thing of beauty.

It was also very fast.

After looking at a few defensive metrics so far this season (post-shot expected goals with Brad Guzan and ball-winning actions with Tristan Muyumba), we’re breaking down our first attacking play in our weekly stats-based series.

The goal has been talked about already. It signaled the third in two matches for Jamal Thiaré and the first career MLS assist for goalkeeper Brad Guzan. It also gained the attention of MLS, which named Guzan’s assist the Energy Moment of the Matchday.

But what hasn’t been shown is just how fast the play developed, which we can examine through a metric called pace toward goal.

The stat: Pace toward goal

What it measures: The speed of a play that ends in a shot.

The goal is a great example of pace toward goal, which StatsBomb defines as the average speed of buildup for possessions that end in shots, from the start of possession to the shot in meters per second (m/s). This metric looks at vertical distance traveled per second in possession to help measure the team’s directness in their chance-creating sequences. Teams who play extremely vertical and rely on transition will have much higher pace toward goal values. More possession-dominant teams are generally lower on this list because they create more of their chances through established possession sequences.

On first watch, the goal-scoring play in New York happened very quickly – so quickly, in fact, the live broadcast didn’t show how it started. But a cut away from a close-up of the back of Thiago Almada, whose head you can see actually see turn to track Guzan’s pass, showed the ball trickling toward the other end line at Citi Field. Atlanta United’s Edwin Mosquera chased it down and delivered a precise cross to Thiaré who drove a header to score in the 65th minute.

The possession had a pace toward goal value of 7.1 meters per second. The ball traveled 99 meters vertically in 14.0 seconds. It took just three passes to go from back to front, the second-fewest number of passes made by a team in a goal-scoring sequence that traveled at least 80 meters vertically.

What the live broadcast didn’t show initially was that the play began in the opposite 18-yard box with Guzan. After Derrick Williams headed the ball back to the goalkeeper out of danger from a congested area, which technically started the possession, Atlanta’s big, bald wall used his big boot to deliver a precise, low punt down the right side of the pitch.

Mosquera, who subbed on in the 56th minute, was just the right player for this fast-paced play. Not only were his legs fresh, but the winger can fly. The Colombian's top speed is the highest top speed of any Atlanta United player this year according to Sportec, and in the match against Chicago Fire on March 31, Mosquera logged a speed of 22.1 miles per hour. Guzan’s assist was so accurate it allowed Mosquera to use that speed to run onto the ball, outracing a NYCFC fullback and putting the center back in no man's land, unsure whether to pressure or drop back into the box to defend.

Edwin Mosquera chasing down Brad Guzan's pass

Mosquera’s first-touch cross was served on a platter, but Thiaré’s timing was also impeccable. You can see Thiaré time his run, slowing down as Mosquera catches up with the ball, then accelerating as he prepares to make a play on Mosquera’s cross. Thiaré has proven to be a skilled player with his head. Two of his three goals this season have been on headers, and the Senegalese striker also scored on a header during preseason.

What’s unique about this play for Atlanta United is the directness. The turnaround from going end-to-end was almost like whiplash, which is what NYCFC goalkeeper Matt Freese might've experienced. He’s unable to change his momentum after having to track back from his previous position further up the field, and the play catches him flat-footed. The goal was one of Atlanta United’s five most direct chance-creating sequences this season.

Atlanta United likes to play on the front foot and seeks to attack, but usually that involves possession, passing the ball around the pitch, working the ball from back to front, forcing the opponent to run and chase. This time around, it was a full-on sprint. The 5-Stripes are more than capable of cranking up the speed. According to Sportec, the team ranks fifth in MLS in team sprints per match heading into their seventh match of the season Sunday against Philadelphia Union:

Sprints per Match
St. Louis CITY SC
D.C. United
Toronto FC
Minnesota United
Atlanta United

Let’s compare this to another goal Atlanta United scored off the head of Thiaré this season. At home against Chicago Fire on March 31, Thiaré finished a header off a cross from Brooks Lennon. This play started in Atlanta’s defensive half with Tristan Muyumba making a short pass to Williams, who then dropped a lofted ball to Almada around the midway circle. Almada controlled the ball, turned and initiated the attack.

This play against Chicago Fire looked incredibly fast in-person, especially once Almada turns, and still developed quickly. Comparing the two shows just how fast Thiaré’s goal against New York City FC developed. In fact, Atlanta United has had only one goal-scoring sequence scored more directly this season: Giorgos Giakoumakis’s goal in the first half against Chicago Fire. That play also involved a long pass from Guzan, which was thrown.

This time around, Thiaré converted. His goal equalized the match and secured Atlanta United’s first point away from Mercedes-Benz Stadium on the season.

Atlanta United Data Scientist & Analyst Arjun Balaraman contributed to this story. Telestrations by Khoury Kennedy, Atlanta United's Motion Graphics Producer and Video Editor.

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