Hanging Chants: Analyzing MLS Goals of the Week Voting / by Eliot McKinley

by @etmckinley

This week, news that is sure to shatter the confidence of MLS fans broke via Andrew Pearson on twitter: there may be massive election fraud happening during the weekly MLS AT&T Goal of the Week polls. Pearson revealed that Atlanta fans are running up record breaking vote totals by possibly untoward means. Furthermore, MLS may have tipped the scales against Seattle’s Cristian Roldan when the 2019 Week 10 award was handed to Ezequiel Barco despite Roldan winning the popular vote by 18 votes*. As fans, we demand answers. Don Garber should appoint Chris Mueller as an independent counsel to get to the bottom of these alarming reports.

After realizing these polling irregularities, Keith Naas took it upon himself to grab the results of each MLS Goal of the Week (GotW) poll since 2018 (and some others) from the poll provider, Chant. From this data we get the player, team, opponent, date, and vote total for MLS Goal of the Week.

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So what does the data say? As you’d expect, as with everything in MLS since 2017, it’s all about Atlanta. Atlanta has won the fan vote 10 times out of the 40 weeks in the data set, winning the GotW11 times (remember Roldan getting robbed?) in their 13 nominations. They have been only eclipsed in nominations by offensive juggernaut LAFC, with 16 nominations, who have somehow only managed to win once. Colorado, mired in a years long slump has only managed 3 nominations, less than expansion side FC Cincinnati. No team even comes close to Atlanta’s GotW vote win percentage of 77% (85% with the Barco victory). Salt Lake, surprisingly, is the closest at 57%, including one win over Atlanta’s machine (Albert Rusnak at 30,880 over Josef Martinez at 30,271), which caused much consternation amongst a subset of Atlanta fans.

In weeks where an Atlanta player is nominated, an average of 30,000 votes are cast compared to 9,500 when no Atlanta player is nominated (Seattle is 21,000/14,300). Atlanta’s ballot stuffing is clear comparing votes for their players compared to the rest of the league. Their average of 18,000 votes per eligible week is 10,000 higher than the next highest, again unexpectedly, Real Salt Lake. Seattle’s formerly dominant legion of keyboard troops has been relegated to third, perhaps after deciding, rightly, that fan votes for these types of awards are essentially worthless popularity contests and their time is better spent doing things like analyzing this data rather than voting on it. Pulling up the rear in voting is, somehow, a team from our country’s largest city, an extremely offline New York City FC. When nominated, players from NYCFC only average 257 votes, half of the second to last vote getter, San Jose.

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So what have we learned? Not much we already didn’t know. Atlanta fans treat GotW and other online polls seriously, while the rest of the league largely doesn’t. Some accusations have been leveled in Atlanta’s direction with regards to the possibility of them employing “bots” or “scripts” to repeatedly vote for their chosen candidate. Obviously, I’m not in a position to say one way or the other, but even though democracy supposedly dies in the darkness, a whole lot of Atlanta fans are voting in the middle of the night. Perhaps this is just what one does after a night out in Atlanta. Perhaps River Plate fans really REALLY care about Pity Martinez’s exploits in MLS. This is hardly conclusive evidence of anything, but it’s worth noting all the same.

Given these results, expect Atlanta to once again place all 8 nominated players on to the MLS All-Star team to stick it to Orlando City. Finally, here is some advice for MLS player agents out there. Put some bonuses in your player’s contracts for winning GotW. Given the small vote totals on any non-Atlanta player nominated week, hire some “people” to “vote” for your player, and profit. Otherwise, don’t really worry about these votes.

*If you’re wondering why MLS might decide to award Barco a goal of the week at Roldan’s expense, I don’t think the conspiracy goes much deeper than acknowledging that this entire ordeal is in the interest of driving engagements. Atlanta fans are theoretically going to RT something congratulating Barco more than Seattle fans will RT something congratulating Roldan.