The Ty Webb Award: MLS’ tallest team and other insights about height / by Matthias Kullowatz

Judge Smails: Ty, what did you shoot today?
Ty Webb: Oh, Judge, I don't keep score.
Judge Smails: Then how do you measure yourself with other golfers?
Ty Webb: By height.

-Caddyshack

By Jared Young (@JaredEYoung)

Ty Webb’s classic line is funny in part because no one measures the result of a sporting event based on how tall the participants are. But height is actually no laughing matter in soccer. An article written in 2011 by Chris Anderson revealed that, at least for national soccer teams, taller teams do perform better. The relationship produced a robust 0.53 r-squared. A recent trend showing that MLS homegrown players are smaller than players taken in the SuperDraft got me wondering more about the importance of tall players. How tall or short is MLS when it comes to height? And who in fact is the tallest current team in MLS, and therefore winner of the Ty Webb Award?

First, here is a look at how MLS stacks up against the top European leagues. This data is from mlssoccer.com rosters and an annual analysis of height in soccer managed by the CIES Football Observatory.

Interestingly, Germany and England clear nearly two centimeters per player over any of the other leagues in the analysis. That is pretty significant. MLS is the tallest league outside of those two countries, so they should not back down from any fights. It gets interesting when you look by position.

MLS stacks up quite consistently with Europe in all positions but midfield. MLS midfielders are 1.6 centimeters shorter on average than in Europe. Only Orlando City, Seattle and DC United have midfields that are taller than the European average. The Houston Dynamo, Sporting KC and the Vancouver Whitecaps all sport midfields four centimeters below that European average.

I dug into the midfield “issue” a bit. Players born in the US are just one centimeter shorter than the European average, but only 34 percent of US-born players are midfielders, compared to the league average of 40 percent. That means that foreign born players compensate for the lack of US midfielders, and they must be even shorter than average. Sure enough, Central and South American players represent the region that sources more than its share of shorter midfielders in MLS. In fact, 48 percent of players born in those regions who play in MLS play in the midfield, and they are much shorter than average at just 175.1 centimeters tall.

The Latin American players in MLS are also significantly shorter than the players overseas. They average 178.1 centimeters in MLS (when you include forwards, goalkeepers and defenders), and yet players from those regions are 181 centimeters over in Europe.

Players originally from the US are actually of slightly above average height compared to Europe, but MLS attracts foreign players that are below average height for soccer players. This is perhaps worth some future investigation.

Okay, onto the big trophy. This season’s Ty Webb Award for tallest team goes to the Colorado Rapids!

Here is a chart that shows all the MLS teams in order by average height.

I’ll leave you with a few observations:

*Colorado leads the league in defender height and also has a tall midfield, so their height is very much in the back. Colorado were tied for 5th last season in set piece goals.

*Sporting KC and Real Salt Lake, the two franchises most noted for winning the most with the least amount of salary, have the shortest teams.

*The expansion teams NYCFC and Orlando City SC are starting out tall.

*There does not appear to be any relationship between preseason favorites and the height of the team.

Despite the MLS targeting shorter homegrown players, folks like Ty Webb and soccer analysts will continue to question if that’s the right move. The latest understanding is that taller is better. That doesn’t mean that the Colorado Rapids are preseason favorites. It just means they may have a slight advantage over other teams they will face. 

In the next installment, we analyze which MLS team was most likely caught putting with the daughter of the Dean. Just putting, at night.