Lindsey Horan #3, Thorns vs. Dash, 7.15.18
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Inside PTFC | Digging into the numbers beneath Lindsey Horan's dominance

On a sports statistics level, this post isn’t going to be for the faint of heart. But if you’re #Statman-inclined and like tweets like this one …

… this could prove your favorite post of all time, because not only are we going to dig into more Lindsey Horan stats, we’re going to do so in some of the most exhaustive ways possible. We'll go to almost every length to show that the hyperbole we injected into Sunday’s story wasn’t as hyperbolic as you might think.

Okay, implying Horan’s night was akin to getting double-digits in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals in a basketball game is prima facie hyperbole, but the underlying point – that the Portland standout dominated in a number of statistical areas – was not only true for Sunday’s 3-1 win over the Houston Dash but holds true when you look at the midfielder’s entire season.

So, let’s do that. Let’s look at Horan’s entire season, but let’s also try to go farther than just the numbers you would get on a Saturday broadcast, or from a quick search of the NWSL’s website. We not only have the ability to dive into all the specialty stats that the league’s stats provider, Opta, offers (who’s a big fan of "Possessional Passes?"), but we can also take the time to look at the numbers on a per-minute level. We don’t have to be blunt, ignore playing time, and look at a player’s raw totals. We can look at Horan’s play per minute, as well compare those numbers to the rest of the NWSL.

Across a series of attacking, creating, possession and defensive numbers, we looked at Horan's percentile rank against the league. In the same way you knew your 1500 SAT score was in the 96th percentile of all high school students (because you definitely got a 1500, right?), we’re be able to see that Horan’s goals scored per 90 minutes ranks better than 97 percent of players in the NWSL, as well as assess how her other skills are producing when compared to her competition.

To which, let’s dive into it, starting with what we’ll clumsily call Horan’s attacking numbers.

Dominance at goal

By attacking, I basically mean actions on goal: goals, shots, and the like. In terms of those, here’s what we see from the Thorns’ leading scorer:

Lindsey Horan 2018 NWSL statistics, chart 1, toward goal
Statistic Total per 90 Percentile rank
Goals 9 0.56 97.7
Shots 41 2.56 93.2
Big Chances 6 0.38 84.1

There are going to be some definitions needed along the way. For example, you know what goals and shots are, but what are “Big Chances?” You can find all of Opta’s definitions here, but the group defines Big Chances as “A situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score usually in a one-on-one scenario or from very close range.”

Perhaps the most important thing to know about all of these ranks: Horan is not a forward. These are all categories advanced attackers should dominate, not central midfielders who’ve spend more time covering as a defensive midfielder than getting forward into a striker’s position. Yet across all three measures, from generating goals to putting herself in position to, Horan is performing at elite levels.

For example, consider how Horan compares, in these categories, to the NWSL’s four other leading scorers: Chicago’s Sam Kerr (forward); North Carolina’s Lynn Williams (forward) and Crystal Dunn (attacking midfielder); and Portland’s own Christine Sinclair (attacking midfielder):

NWSL 2018 leading scorers, percentile ranks
Players Goal rank Shots rank Big chance rank
Dunn, Crystal 95.4 94.5 92.3
Horan, Lindsey 97.7 93.2 84.1
Kerr, Sam 99.5 97.7 99.0
Sinclair, Christine 94.1 72.3 81.4
Williams, Lynn 98.6 98.1 95.9

Understandably, the players who aren't forwards – Dunn, Horan, Sinclair – aren't getting on the end of as many big chances as the forwards (Dunn, remarkably, almost is, perhaps because she has spent a good amount of time this season at forward). Across the other categories, though, there are a lot of similarities, with the possible exception of Sinclair's ability to put up big goal scoring numbers without taking huge numbers of shots (regression alert?).

Again, the fact that Horan is even in the same conversation as these players is notable. At a position one, sometimes two levels deeper on the field, she’s producing like she’s at the tip of the team’s formation. She’s providing striker-level output from her midfielder’s role.

Dominance creating for others

She’s also creating chances like a trequartista; though, perhaps "like" isn’t the right word. After all, Horan hasn’t been freed up to lurk behind the forwards, dedicate herself to seeking space and the ball, and single-mindedly focus on creating for others. She’s had to defend, too. Yet despite those more all-around responsibilities, she’s still generating opportunities at a rate that would make you think she’s playing a pure 10’s part:

Lindsey Horan 2018 NWSL statistics, chart 2, creativity
Statistic Total per 90 Percentile rank
Assists 2 0.13 82.3
Chances created 19 1.19 76.9
Chances created, open play 18 1.13 81.4
Passes 929 58.0 97.2
Successful passes 692 43.3 97.2
Successful passes, opponent's half 358 22.4 95.9
Big chances created 5 0.31 88.2
Passes ending in final third 293 18.3 94.5

The context here has to be harped on, because it’s what makes numbers like these so amazing. These percentiles aren’t based on aggregate numbers, where playing time alone might put you in the league’s top half. They’re not being compiled by a specialist player whose contributions are concentrated into her time on the ball. This is from one of the league’s elite scoring threats, and, as you can see below, this is also from one of the league’s best at possession, retention, and ball-winning:

Lindsey Horan 2018 NWSL statistics, chart 3, possession
Statistic Total per 90 Percentile rank
Touches 1340 83.75 96.8
Touches in opponent's penalty box 62 3.88 82.8
Dribbles completed 37 2.31 91.4
Recoveries 167 10.44 92.3
Fouls conceded 29 1.81 88.2
Fouls won 30 1.88 90.4

Lest you think we're only focusing on the good stuff, look at that fouls conceded rate. Still, given her role, that is not unexpected. In addition, when looking at these percentile ranks, remember that there are a bunch of low-playing-time players around the league who, because of a tackle, interception, shot or goal in their limited exposure, skew toward the high end of these scales. It's incredibly hard to get up to 96.8 in touches when somebody like Orlando's Bridget Callahan is credited with two touches in her only minute played (go Bridget!).

Still, the same logic we applied to Horan’s attacking numbers works here. If she was only a central midfielder, potentially somebody whose responsibilities were concentrated solely in the middle of the park, Horan would still be worthy of NWSL Best XI conversation. Go across the NWSL, look at every single lineup, and you won’t find a team that would instantly be better for adding the player with this profile, let alone adding all the other things Horan can do.

(More) dominance off the ball

Speaking of which, here are Horan’s ranks in the categories we’d typically associate with defensive play. That’s not to say that only defenders accumulate these types of numbers. It’s more that these are the areas which, in terms of a player's skillset, exist in a different space than much of what we’ve covered, above.

Lindsey Horan 2018 NWSL statistics, chart 4, defensive
Statistic Total per 90 Percentile rank
Tackles won 32 2.00 84.1
Blocks 3 0.19 69.2
Clearances 42 2.63 79.6
Clearances, headed 32 2.00 95.9
Interceptions 28 1.75 66.9
Duels won 216 13.5 99.0
Aerial duels won 135 6.19 95.9
Yellow cards 5 0.31 95.4

Look at some of those percentiles. Headed clearances? Elite. Duels won? Elite. Aerial duels won? Elite. We all know Horan is good in the air, but these numbers? They reinforce the idea that as potent as she has been on the end of set pieces, she has been equally dominant winning battles in midfield as well as clearing danger in front of her own goal.

Let’s take a step back, here, and remember why we went through all this, as well as the scope. Horan put in a performance on Sunday that was among the best of her career; if not the best, then certainly one of the most well-rounded. We went through all the numbers, then – the category after category in which she bested everybody else on the field – but it also made us think: she’s been doing this all year, and from a position that doesn’t usually put up these kinds of numbers. How does that compare to the rest of the NWSL?

It compares favorably. Extremely favorably, which is why the conversation ourselves and others ignited after the Houston result has to persist.

Pick your preferred skills, compare Horan to the rest of the league, and no matter what type of player you want her to be, she’s excelling in that role. Except the amazing part of Horan’s reality is that she’d playing all those roles at once.