By Jacob Beckett (@jacobbeckett22)
One of the most common complaints about MLS is the lack of a balanced schedule. In many of the biggest leagues around the world, every team plays the same schedule. For a twenty-team league, a home-and-home against every team in the league yields 38 games where every team’s record can be easily compared to the rest of the league.
Given the vast geography covered by Major League Soccer, as well as the conference structure, MLS teams don’t all play the same schedule. Here’s the nitty-gritty on how this all worked for 2017: every team played 34 games. Those 34 games included one each against members of the opposite conference (unless you’re Minnesota or Atlanta – they played cross-conference matches against each other twice). Each team also plays everyone in their conference twice (once at home, once away), which makes up 20 games. Combined with the 11 out-of-conference matches we’re up to 31, leaving three additional games to be made up against some opponent (rivals often play three times) throughout the league.
The league office does the best they can to make each team’s slate roughly even, but inherent in any imbalanced schedule will be some winners facing easier slates and losers facing tough schedules. It may not seem like this slight schedule imbalance could make much of a difference over 34 games, but small margins make a big difference in this league. In the league’s final standings, nine teams were separated by six points in the Shield standings, making up the difference between the third-best team in the league all the way down to the final playoff qualifiers. An easier draw from the scheduling gods could be the difference between missing the playoffs and having a post-season home game.
The biggest source of inequality in scheduling comes in those teams that are scheduled to face each other three times. For example, New England had a particularly rough bunch of three-time opponents: shield-winning Toronto, shield runners-up NYCFC, and another Eastern conference playoff team in Chicago. But another, less obvious source of inequality is where teams play each team, particularly in the opposite conference. Since teams only play opposite-conference rivals once, the location of that game is of the utmost importance. Consider our friends New England again, who were among the league’s best at home (2.29 points per game) but nearly the league’s worst on the road (six points all year). If you’re in the West, your schedule was a lot easier if you got New England at home and didn't have to make the trip up to Foxborough.
To quantify the effect of the imbalanced schedule, I undertook a pretty simple analysis looking at each team’s schedule compared to league averages. My methodology was to compare the average points per game of each team’s opponents (both home and away) to league average points per game (both home and away). Then based on how much harder than average a schedule was, we can measure how many additional points won or lost were the product of the schedule. What I found is perhaps a bit surprising: having an easy schedule could benefit teams by up to four or five points, and having a hard schedule could do the opposite. Thats a potential swing of eight to 10 points, based solely on scheduled opponents.
To stick with our New England theme, I found them to have the hardest schedule in the entire league this season. Their opponents in home games averaged 0.95 points per game on the road, nearly 12% more than league average. In road games, their opponents averaged 1.98 points per home game, about 4% higher than the league average. If we adjust New England’s home points per game upward by 12% and away record up by 4%, they would have been expected to win 49.9 points on the year, nearly 5 points higher than their actual total of 45. One more note: the difficulty of a team’s home schedule has a bigger impact than the away schedule, simply because home is where most teams earn the majority of their points (except you, Galaxy).
The results for every team are summarized in the table below, with “SchedPoints” being the number of additional points won or lost due to the team’s relative schedule difficulty. As I said, this is a pretty simple analysis that I’m sure could be improved in many ways: incorporating fixture congestion, goal differential, expected goals – but for now we’ll save that until next season. Enjoy the playoffs, everybody!
|Real Salt Lake||31||1.82||3.0%||-0.92||14||0.82||-6.7%||0.93||45||1.32||0.01||9|
PPG:Points per game, SOS: Strength of schedule, SchedPoints: number of additional points won or lost due to the team’s relative schedule difficulty.