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Talking Tactics: Back-up strikers, it's a thankless job but someone has to do it

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MLS: Houston Dynamo at Real Salt Lake Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

In the world of soccer, being a back-up striker is a thankless task. Sure, they might briefly star in the limelight if they score a winning goal or a golazo – like either of the ones that Devon Sandoval and Olmes Garcia earned Goal of the Week honors with a year ago:

But these unfortunate souls aren’t even guaranteed minutes on the pitch. No matter how good they are, sometimes there are just player who are simply better, more clinical, or simply more valuable in the coaches’ eyes. Therefore, breaking into their club’s first team can be a very challenging obstacle, but that doesn’t mean they cannot contribute from the bench.

Finding playing time off the bench might be difficult for Sandoval and Garcia, but one can argue that the strikers’ positions is the most competitive position on the squad – especially with the likes of Yura Movsisyan, Joao Plata, and Juan Martinez. Real Salt Lake’s back-up strikers get a lot of stink from fans for what is, in their own perception, deemed as under-performing. But what do the statistics say?

Here are the basic stats:

Since Joining RSL in 2013
Garcia Sandoval Total
Games in 18 man lineup 113 113 226
Games Played 84 69 153
Games Started 35 34 69
Games Substituted 49 35 84
Goals 10 7 17
Minutes Played 3761 3191 6952
Minutes between Goals 376.1 455.9 416
Assists 5 3 8
Shots 98 57 155
Shots on Target 43 25 68
Minutes between Shots 38.4 56.0 47.2
Shot Accuracy 44% 44% 44%
Conversion Rate 10% 12% 11%
Fouls Conceded 84 53 137
Offsides 27 12 39
Yellows 13 3 16
Reds 0 0 0

Diving straight into it, there are some stats that grab the eyes immediately. Apparently, both Olmes Garcia and Devon Sandoval have been available in match day rosters 113 times. Garcia has been called into action more with 84 matches played but Sandoval is not far behind with 69. Garcia makes, on average, 27 regular season appearance for the Claret-and-Cobalt, while Sandoval only makes 21. The players are nearly equal in matches started, however – Garcia has started 35 and Sandoval has started 34.

In addition, despite having identical shot accuracy, Sandoval once again finds himself trailing Garcia in the offensive categories. Garcia with 10 goal for RSL finds the back of the net every 8.4 appearances, while it takes Sandoval (7 goals) 9.9 appearances to tally. On average it takes Garcia 376.1 minutes and Sandoval 455.9 minutes to produce a goal, but those figures are not far off Alvaro Saborio’s final season with the Claret-and-Cobalt (361.0 minutes) – who was a starter for RSL, even though his numbers significantly increased from the years prior (143.5 in 2014 and 112.2 in 2013). Yes, Saborio is no longer with the club – and whether or not these numbers had anything to do with it – Garcia and Sandoval stayed in competition for a starting role in 2015 (at least).

Let’s also consider the club’s result when these players are on the pitch.

Appearances During
Garcia Sandoval Total
WIN 30 32 62
LOSS 31 24 55
TIE 23 13 46
Total 84 69 153

Percentage of Appearances During
Garcia Sandoval Average
WIN 36% 46% 41%
LOSS 37% 35% 36%
TIE 27% 19% 23%
Total 100% 100% 100%

Not too shabby right? In only 36 percent of matches that either or both Garcia and Sandoval take the pitch does RSL walk away with no points.

A fun statistic that shouldn’t be over looked here is that RSL is far more likely to either win or loss rather than draw when Devon Sandoval makes an appearance.

On that note and since these players are not normally starters, let’s look at the likelihood that these players will be substituted during these same scenarios:

Likelihood to be Subbed During
Garcia Sandoval Average
WIN 35% 40% 37%
LOSS 41% 31% 36%
TIE 24% 29% 27%
Total 100% 100% 100%

Just as would be expected, RSL back-up strikers are more likely to come on during a win or a loss. Either the back-up strikers can come on to give the first tier strikers a rest or they can be brought on to switch things up a little bit and hopefully turn the tide of the match.

The above statistics gives a peek into RSL’s back-up strikers, but I attempted to see if an individual player’s contribution is in any way correlated with the RSL winning in any fashion. As such, I decided to turn to those dreaded significance tests from statistics class – which you all might remember.

Using ANOVA, multiple t-tests, and correlation graph tests on game log stats posted on MLSsoccer.com, I found that in no way are Garcia or Sandoval scoring a goal correlated to the ultimate outcome of a game. There was no correlation between overall player goals and club goals. Nor were player goals (only when they scored) correlated to the final score of any given match. In fact, all these things showed that an individual player goal is independent of the final score. In other words, a single player is not responsible for the outcome of a game – rather soccer remains a team effort.

I decided to dive deeper into the stats and to avoid all the nitty-gritty, mumbo-jumbo that comes out of said statistical test, here is a quick overview and the story they tell:

Two Sample T-Test Based on Game Log Statistics
Garcia (Mean) Sandoval (Mean) Statistical Significance
Time played when in 18 man lineup 32.78 27.74 NO
Goals scored when in 18 man lineup 0.09 0.06 NO
Assists when in 18 man lineup 0.05 0.03 NO
Time played as a Sub 19.83 14.18 YES
Goals scored as a Sub 0.19 0 YES
Time Played as a Starter 79.74 79.39 NO
Goals scored as a Starter 0.03 0.21 YES

With the major of the tests coming out negative, there remained some talking points from the few that demonstrated statically significance.

While there is insufficient data to suggest that either Garcia or Sandoval spend more time on the pitch than the other, there is significant data to suggest that Garcia spends more time on the pitch as a substitute when compared to Sandoval. That is, Garcia appears more likely to be a substitute and spend more time on the pitch as a substitute than Sandoval.

In addition, the statistics also demonstrate that Garcia is more likely to score a goal as a substitute, while Sandoval is more likely to score as a starter. Whether it is because the amount of goals scored, the time between goals, or simply the amount of shots taken, the RSL coaching staff seems to perceive Garcia as a more competitive substitute – which the stats support – but Sandoval appears to not be given the credit of being a more successful starter – besides what it shows above.

Coming off the bench Garcia is more likely to find the back of the net than Sandoval, but Sandoval seems to be more clinical in a starting role.

- - -

Most successful sides in Major League Soccer history have had multiple options in the attack. These strikers put in the work day in and day out, but some never receive the playing time or starting spots that the others get. Even when they are criticized for not getting the job done in the proper fashion, the never fail to leave it all out there on the pitch. The story of Olmes Garcia and Devon Sandoval for the Claret-and-Cobalt unfolds in a similar manner.

The role of a back-up striker is a difficult one. The back-up striker in the MLS is experiencing the most troublesome chapter in the league’s history. With bigger name and larger salary players coming into the league, the once prominent and likely starters are getting relegated to the bench. The inherent glamour of goal-scoring will remain, but the responsibility of these players have gradually shifted elsewhere.

Elsewhere in the league, other less prolific but equally talented strikers are making the move to starting roles to cover for the dreaded summer injury bug that comes every year. And although I hate to suggest it, players like Jack McInerney are making a difference for their team. Even if the player plays a distasteful form of soccer on the pitch, their influence of late has been undeniable.

Unable to shoehorn themselves into the starting line-ups on a regular basis, the second- or even sometimes third-choice strikers are finding a way onto the pitch with great success.

Tactical fashions are no reason to criticize the back-up striker as they have likely come on the pitch with a specific duty in mind. Whether it is simply sprinting through the entirety of the dying minutes of the match to pull apart the opposition defense – Garcia’s usual role – or to rough up the tired central defense – Sandoval’s specialty – the back-up striker in this league is not given their dues.

While they might not put up the big stats week-in and week-out, it is the little intangibles of the game that the back-up strikers can strive to achieve in every opportunity.

Moreover, back-up strikers can offer the age-old benefit of providing a "different dimension" to the starting strikers – an undoubtedly handy quality for a back-up striker to offer an alternative attacking threat/strategy.

The demands of competing on several fronts mean that a credible back-up striker can prove themselves in many ways to the coaching staff, while fans seem hell-bent on just production. In other words, that same credible back-up is often beyond question for any top clubs in the league. Blighted by the frustrated figures of unrealized talent sitting on the benches, it is important that the back-up players still play an important role for Real Salt Lake – or any other club for that matter.

What do you think?  Do you concur that the back-up striker role is often thankless?  Or do you think that their stats should merely speak for themselves?  Are back-up strikers back-ups simply because they do not have the skills to match the starters?  Or do the coaches' perceptions influence their fate at all?  Share your thoughts and opinions below.