MLS Releases First Castrol Index—Henry Says It’s Perfect, Donovan Says Numbers Are “Bunk”

Major League Soccer released its inaugural Castrol Index last week, and Red Bulls striker Thierry Henry topped the player rankings, while Galaxy attacker Landon Donovan came in at a stunningly low 104th.

Granted, these numbers are for the month of April, before Donovan launched his recent scoring tear, but still, LD’s ranking invites skepticism, to say the least. (Five of Donovan’s seven goals have come in May, and LA has three more games this month; so we fully expect him to jump, oh, 102 or 103 places when the May rankings are released.)

The Castrol Index, which was launched at the 2008 European Championships, employs state-of-the-art technology to “objectively” analyze player performance.

The program was expanded at the 2010 World Cup, and is currently used to evaluate players in the top flights in England, Italy, Germany, Spain, and France, as well as the UEFA Champions League.

We put objectively in quotation marks above because we think it’s a dubious claim, as evidenced by the verbiage Castrol uses to describe its own criteria. From the FAQ section of the Index:

“The Castrol Index tracks every move on the field and assesses whether it has a positive or negative impact on a team’s ability to score or concede a goal.”

Right out of the gate, there’s a subjective judgment.

Here’s another one:

“The Castrol Index is also able to split up the rewards of a goal between penalizing the goalkeeper for letting in a shot he should have saved and rewarding the attacker for scoring a goal.”

That “for letting in a shot he should have saved” sticks out. Who’s to say he should have saved it? In some cases, this is an easy call, but in plenty of others you have to wade into gray area to make that judgment.

In any event, the Index analyzes roughly 1,800 player movements per game, placing value on a particular pass, reception, interception, tackle, etc., according to the zone on the field in which the action occurred. For example: “Successfully taking the ball from a striker near the penalty spot will earn more points than a tackle out on the wing.”

Again, we could take issue. Suppose you strip the ball on the wing, from the opposition’s speediest striker, when the attackers have a numerical advantage? That’s worth fewer Index points than stripping the same player at the penalty spot when the ball falls to him off a corner kick in a crowded penalty area?

The point is that the second you try to quantify something as quicksilver as the action on a soccer field, you are faced with a multitude of variables, slippery categories, and enough judgment calls to let a whole truckload of inaccuracy seep in.

Enough, possibly, to drop a player who is indisputably among the league’s elite all the way out of the Top 100.

We’re not statisticians, not by a long shot, but we’re taking the rankings with a grain of salt for now.

Maybe we need to hear Oakland A’s GM, passionate soccer fan, and San Jose Earthquakes consultant Billy Beane’s take before solidifying our opinion here.

Until then, here’s the Top 10 in April’s Index (after the data are compressed, each player receives a score out of 10, the higher the score the better the performance):

Rank/Player/ Position/ Team/Minutes/ Score

1. Thierry Henry / Forward/ New York Red Bulls/ 441/ 9.24

2. Steve Zakuani / Midfielder/ Seattle Sounders FC/ 452/ 9.16

3. David Ferreira / Midfielder/ FC Dallas/ 505 / 9.1

4. Omar Gonzalez/ Defender/ LA Galaxy/ 450 / 9.04

5. Atiba Harris / Forward/ Vancouver Whitecaps/ 443 / 8.99

6. Danny Califf / Defender/ Philadelphia Union/ 540 / 8.94

7. Charlie Davies / Forward/ D.C. United/ 361/ 8.89

8. Donovan Ricketts / Goalkeeper/ LA Galaxy/ 450 / 8.85

9. George John / Defender/ FC Dallas/ 540 / 8.81

10. Bobby Boswell / Defender/ Houston Dynamo/ 630/ 8.77

Donovan’s Galaxy teammate David Beckham clocked in at 44th, with a 7.9 ranking, just behind New York midfielder Dwayne De Rosario.

Click here for the complete list (and yes, Nos. 2 and 3 in the rankings are both out with long-term injuries suffered after reckless challenges….).

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