The Art of a Free Kick and How To Giovinco / by Eliot McKinley

Map of all free kicks taken in the attacking half during MLS play 2015-2017. Direct shots (light red), goals from direct free kicks (red), goals from rebounds from direct shots (purple), crosses (gray), goals from crosses (black), other types of free kicks (light blue), goals from other types of free kicks (blue).

By Eliot McKinley (@etmckinley)

Sebastian Giovinco’s free kick prowess is well documented, but what if your team is not blessed with a formica atomica to bang in 13 direct free kick goals over the last three seasons? How do MLS teams score, or not, from free kicks?

From 2015-2017, 12,728 free kicks were taken in MLS play in the attacking half, resulting in 272 goals. Free kicks can be taken a number of ways, a direct shot on goal, a cross into the box, long balls, through balls, or quick restarts, among others. The type of free kick restart is generally dictated by the position it is taken from. If a free kick is given close to goal, in the center of the field, a team will generally take a direct shot on goal (zone 14; 57.0% shots). Free kicks close to the goalline, but near the touchlines are most likely crosses (zones 13, 15, 16, 18; 57.1% crosses). Free kicks farther away from goal are almost always some other form of restart than a direct shot or cross (zones 10-12; 95.1%).

For the purposes of this analysis, any goal scored within 10 seconds of a free kick being taken is considered a goal resulting from a free kick. This allows for shots from rebounds, scrambles in the box, quick restarts to develop, and other events that, while not necessarily predictable, occur as a result of a team taking a free kick. A little over 2% of free kicks result in a goal within 10 seconds. As one would expect, free kicks taken closest to goal have the highest probability of scoring, regardless of type. Within 25 yards, free kicks are scored 13.0% of the time, 10.6% for 25-30 yards, 4.7% for 20-35 yards, and 1.4% for free kicks farther than 35 yards from goal. Shots taken directly from free kicks are converted at a rate almost double that of crosses from free kicks, and 8.5 times that of the other restart. However, once the distance from goal is greater than 35 yards crossing from a free kick will more likely result in a goal than a direct shot. The Team xG for all free kicks is very similar to the rate of goals scored for each type of free kick over the 2015-2017 seasons. So, to maximize your chances of scoring a free kick, you want to be close to goal and take a direct shot.

TypeSample SizeGoalsRateAvg xGTAvg Dist Avg Goal Dist
Shot 1,214 77 6.3% 0.0696 31.01 29.31
Shot Rebound 1,214 (705) 13 1.1% 0.0055 31.01 30.83
Total Shots 1,214 90 7.4% 0.0738 31.01 29.52
Cross 2,801 106 3.8% 0.0302 40.38 38.82
Other 8,713 76 .9% 0.0111 48.6 42.6
Total 12,728 272 2.1% 0.0212 45.12 36.84
Rate: the percentage of shots that are scored. Avg xGT: the average team xG of those shots. Avg Dist: the average distance from goal of the shots. Ave Goal Dist: the average distance from goal on shots that are scored.

LOESS curve fitting of free kick probability

As one would expect with Giovinco on the team, Toronto leads the league is goals per game from free kicks, scoring almost once every four games. Toronto shoots directly on goal 21.9% of the time on free kicks in the attacking half, double the league average. Furthermore, Toronto takes almost three times as many direct free kicks per game and their free kicks are almost two yards closer to goal than league average. Not too far behind Toronto is Vancouver who scores a free kick goal once every five games. Unlike Toronto, Vancouver does not usually score free kicks directly off shots, but rather continues their run of play cross-a-palooza style by scoring 11 goals of crosses from free kicks, five more than any other team since 2015, while taking almost 26% of their free kicks as crosses. Interestingly, despite having arguably one of the greatest free kick takers of all time in Andrea Pirlo for much of their existence, New York City FC leads the league in goals from other types of restarts (and free kicks per game) and takes fewer direct free kicks than average. Bringing up the rear is Atlanta United, who in their one season of play only scored once off of a free kick in their 187 free kicks in the attacking half.

Looking at players that have created at least six free kick goals since 2015, Giovinco is the undisputed king of direct free kick goal. What sets Giovinco apart from every other player (but Didier Drogba) is that he takes a shot on almost 70% of his free kicks, his free kicks are much closer to goal, and that he takes so many. However, when other types of free kicks are taken into account, another diminutive forward converts more free kicks into goals at a higher rate, Joao Plata. Since the departure of Javier Morales (also one of the top free kick goal creators) from Real Salt Lake, allowing him to assume more free kick duties, Plata leads the league with 0.19 goals created per game in which he takes a free kick and a goal is scored once for every 10.71 of his free kicks. Plata’s goal rate on direct shots from free kicks (16.67%) is even higher than Giovinco’s (10.16%), albeit with a small sample size. Whether Plata can keep up this pace as the primary free kick taker for Real Salt Lake remains to be seen.

In summary, if you want your team to score goals from free kicks, take as many direct shots as you can, as close to goal as possible. One team, Toronto, and one player, Sebastian Giovinco, currently deploy this in MLS. Will other teams try to maximize goal scoring chances by attempting to increase free kick attempts? Is that even possible? Is free kick accuracy a thing (like finishing may or may not be)? Do you need a prodigy like Giovinco to maximize these opportunities? Vancouver has shown an alternative methods of scoring, by taking advantage of crosses, but they also lead the league in requiring 9.2 direct free kick shots per goal, so perhaps they should take more shots. It is unclear if any manager but Greg Vanney has noticed this trend, and it will be interesting to see if any others take up the cause of more direct free kick shots.

Team Sample size %Direct %Cross %Other Goals Direct Goals Goals from Rebound Goals from Cross Goals from Other Goals per Game FK/g Direct Free Kicks per Game Free Kicks per Goal Direct Free Kicks per Goal Distance
Toronto 661 21.9 14.8 63.2 24 15 1 2 6 0.24 6.54 1.44 27.54 9.67 42.97
Vancouver 614 7.5 25.9 66.6 20 5 0 11 4 0.2 6.08 0.46 30.7 9.2 45.32
Salt Lake 684 10.4 23.1 66.5 19 5 2 6 6 0.19 6.71 0.7 36 14.2 44.87
New York 703 7.8 20.3 71.8 17 3 2 4 8 0.17 6.89 0.54 41.35 18.33 45.47
Houston 615 8.3 30.2 61.5 16 5 0 8 3 0.16 6.03 0.5 38.44 10.2 45.24
New England 646 7 23.8 69.2 15 4 0 7 4 0.15 6.33 0.44 43.07 11.25 45.24
Colorado 573 8.2 26.7 65.1 14 3 0 7 4 0.14 5.73 0.47 40.93 15.67 45.93
Montreal 597 13.6 20.4 66 14 6 1 4 3 0.14 5.85 0.79 42.64 13.5 45.56
Portland 650 9.8 21.4 68.8 14 4 1 7 2 0.14 6.37 0.63 46.43 16 45.19
Kansas City 694 8.4 22.9 68.7 13 1 0 7 5 0.13 6.8 0.57 53.38 58 44.08
New York City FC 565 11.2 13.6 75.2 13 3 2 3 5 0.13 5.65 0.63 43.46 21 45.74
L.A. Galaxy 584 9.6 22.8 67.6 12 3 0 5 4 0.12 5.73 0.55 48.67 18.67 44.83
Minnesota United 205 3.9 16.6 79.5 4 0 0 2 2 0.12 6.03 0.63 62.45 32 46.12
Orlando City 687 9.3 21.1 69.6 11 2 0 8 1 0.11 6.74 0.46 49.3 46 45.68
Columbus 493 9.3 20.9 69.8 10 1 0 6 3 0.1 4.88 0.39 54.2 9.75 43.88
DC United 542 7.2 20.8 72 10 4 1 0 5 0.1 5.37 0.5 63.3 12.75 45.63
Philadelphia 633 8.1 21 70.9 10 4 0 3 3 0.1 6.21 0.69 60.8 23.33 45.78
Seattle 608 11.5 23.5 65 10 3 1 4 2 0.1 6.02 0.44 70.67 Inf 45.15
San Jose 636 6.9 24.7 68.4 9 0 0 6 3 0.09 6.3 0.44 70.5 22.5 44.65
Chicago 564 8 22 70 8 2 1 3 2 0.08 5.53 0.48 73.38 16.33 45.78
FC Dallas 587 8.3 24 67.6 8 3 1 3 1 0.08 5.75 0.24 51.25 Inf 45.15
Atlanta United 187 8.6 14.4 77 1 1 0 0 0 0.03 5.5 0.47 187 16 45.32
Average 578.55 9.31 21.59 69.09 12.36 3.5 0.59 4.82 3.45 0.13 6.05 0.57 56.16 19.72 45.16
Player Sample Size %Direct %Cross %Other Goals Direct Goals Goals from Rebound Goals from Cross Goals from Other Goals per game FK/g Direct Free Kicks per game Free Kicks per goal Direct free kicks per goal Distance
Sebastian Giovinco 184 69.57 17.93 12.5 14 13 0 1 0 0.18 2.36 1.64 13.14 9.85 33.35
Sacha Kljestan 255 11.76 38.82 49.41 10 1 1 3 5 0.12 3 0.35 25.5 30 40.97
Benny Feilhaber 263 5.32 37.26 57.41 10 1 0 5 4 0.12 3.09 0.16 26.3 14 41.81
Javier Morales 297 9.43 27.27 63.3 10 2 1 4 3 0.15 4.43 0.42 29.7 14 43.94
Didier Drogba 50 62 20 18 7 6 0 1 0 0.25* 1.79 1.11 7.14* 5.17 36.4
Joao Plata 75 24 33.33 42.67 7 3 1 2 1 0.19 2.03 0.49 10.71 6 40.52
Diego Valeri 212 15.57 35.38 49.06 7 2 1 4 0 0.1 2.9 0.45 30.29 16.5 41.65
Mauro Diaz 218 12.39 30.73 56.88 7 2 1 3 1 0.11 3.41 0.42 31.14 13.5 41.43
Shkelzen Gashi 104 15.38 43.27 41.35 6 2 0 3 1 0.17 2.89 0.44 17.33 8 42.28
Pedro Morales 108 6.48 30.56 62.96 6 2 0 4 0 0.15 2.7 0.18 18 3.5 44.37
Cristian Maidana 158 7.59 39.87 52.53 6 2 0 2 2 0.12 3.16 0.24 26.33 6 42.52
Federico Higuain 181 12.71 30.39 56.91 6 1 0 5 0 0.09 2.59 0.33 30.17 23 40.04
Lee Nguyen 237 9.28 27.43 63.29 6 1 0 4 1 0.07 2.86 0.27 39.5 22 42.75