Why Major League Soccer is taking over American sports

On Friday, I walked up to Stanford Stadium to buy tickets for San Jose and Los Angeles the next night. The Earthquakes play one fixture a year at this college football stadium, and it wasn’t a problem getting tickets for the game with the New York Red Bulls last year.

Sold out.

Fifty thousand tickets were gone. I tried Stub Hub for the 4 tickets I needed, but the least expensive offer was $91 per ticket.

Ninety-one dollars for a ticket to a Major League Soccer match.

Surely, San Jose’s success this season played a role in selling out this match. The Earthquakes sit atop The Power Rank with a 0.68 rating, or average margin of victory against an average MLS side. More importantly, they lead the Western Conference as MLS approaches mid season.

Surely, fans also came out to see David Beckham and Robbie Keane of the Los Angeles Galaxy, two players Europeans with long club careers in England. Unfortunately, Los Angeles just hasn’t put it together this season. The Galaxy are 13th in The Power Rank with a -0.06 rating, not a record anyone expects from the defending MLS champions. Their back line couldn’t hold a 3-1 lead against San Jose on Saturday night. The Earthquakes won 4-3.

Fifty thousand fans for a soccer match is what usually happens in London, not Palo Alto. MLS might not be taking over American sports yet, but the growth of the league has been quite remarkable.

To see our complete MLS rankings, click here.

Thanks for reading.

MLS Cup Final Preview

Tough road for Houston
Taking on LA at home
Expect to see stars

The Power Rank uses past results to determine what is likely to happen in future matches. In that spirt, we’ll look back at the MLS Conference Finals to gain some insight into what will happen in the MLS Cup Final because they demonstrated a lot about the class of teams in MLS.

Starting in the Eastern Conference Final, the Houston Dynamo (#4) emerged victorious with a 2-0 win in Kansas City (#3). As someone with ties to both Houston and St. Louis, I was quite pleased with the result. However, the match itself was not a particularly great one. Relatively few good chances were created, with KC usually being contented with crosses into the box. Dynamo playmaker Brad Davis went down in a physical first half, but Houston stayed in the match by being compact in defense. Neither side really demonstrated a strong ability to possess and move the ball at will. In the end, even without Davis, Houston was still able to score off set-pieces while each side was unable to score when they had numbers in the box. In fact, Sporting Kansas City’s next best chances were off poor back-passes by Houston. While SKC’s season ended, they are a young team with a strong offense, so expect more from them next year.

Meanwhile out west, Real Salt Lake (#5) travelled to the Home Depot Center to take on the top ranked LA Galaxy (#1). This game captured how the various numbers that we use in the Power Rank relate to what’s going on on the pitch. First, the half a goal advantage for the home team was on full display on the Galaxy’s opening goal, which came from Landon Donovan by way of the penalty spot following a foul on Omar Gonzalez. The foul was definitely soft, and a significant portion of home field advantage is due to referee bias. Perhaps that was the case here, but fortunately, this was the only time the ref played a significant role in this game. What we got to witness for the rest of the game was a good team taking on a great one.

Here at the Power Rank, we consider that either team could win any game, so the objective of the rank is try to understand which team has the advantage. In soccer, advantage amounts to creating and finishing chances, while denying the other side the same opportunities. Quantifying a “good chance” is very difficult, but we can use human intuition in concert with the quantitative rankings to help understand the game. Prior to the frenetic finish, Salt Lake City had four really good chances. Three came off set pieces, with Alvaro Saborio scoring a nice header while Josh Saunders did well to block a short range effort that fell to Robbie Russell. Kyle Beckerman also hit the post after a set-piece scrum, while Fabian Espindola did the same following a good individual effort in the box. Had they converted all four chances, they would have won the game. However, it speaks to the difficulty of finishing in professional soccer that four goals is an unusually large tally, so while possible, scoring all four in would be an improbable event.

While it’s clear that Real Salt Lake is a good team, it’s telling that Galaxy striker Robbie Keane had five good chances just himself; more than RSL generated as a team in the first 80 minutes. Unfortunately for Salt Lake City, starting center back Nat Borchers was out while partner Jamison Olave was injured and not at 100%. That said, the real difference in this match was the play in the midfield. LA did an excellent job of working the ball through their midfield into good attacking positions. The forwards had support on the wings and through the center, resulting in many good chances for the Galaxy. In fact, the one fault in their game was poor finishing. RSL was not able to match this level of play, and were unable to effectively remove pressure from their back line. Their main problem was a lack of linking up between Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales. Beckerman had a good game and played well on the ball, but couldn’t establish a rhythm with Morales, who often would up drifting wide. Instead, their attack revolved around getting the ball up to Espindola and letting him try to take on several defenders without support. In fact, aside from the first leg against Seattle (#2), Real Salt Lake has been unable to replicate their midfield partnership that was so effective last season.

So what did we learn from the conference finals? Well, the first thing is that Sporting Kansas City is not one of the elite teams in MLS. While good, this young side still has some growing to do and needs to resolve some defensive issues. We also learned that Real Salt Lake is not the same team they were last year. Certainly having Morales absent for most of the season was a significant loss, but he has yet to be the impact player he was before his injury. Only time will tell if this is temporary. Most definitely though, the LA Galaxy are firmly established as the class of MLS. They are 0.11 goals better than the second ranked Sounders, or put another way, they are over 10% better than the next best team based on the range of rankings.

Looking ahead to the MLS Cup Final, we’ll have Houston at Los Angeles. That’s right: at. While the final rotates between MLS cities, this year it takes place at the Home Depot Center in Carson, California. This makes the Galaxy 0.76 goal favorites to lift the MLS Cup. Win or lose though, it is highly unlikely the Dynamo could win by a large enough margin to overtake LA in the rankings, or even match Seattle to join the elite. So in the end, credit to the LA Galaxy for having a great season and setting the pace in Major League Soccer.

MLS 2011 Playoff Preview

MLS playoffs
More parity than last year
Red Bulls as spoilers?

The MLS regular season has ended, so now it’s time to look at what The Power Rank can tell us about the playoffs. First, the good news: despite the point differential between conferences, in which Eastern Conference champions Sporting KC (#3) would have finished 5th in the Western Conference, there’s actually quite a bit of parity between the conferences. It worked out this year that 5 teams from each conference qualified for the playoffs, and indeed 9 of the rank’s top 10 made the playoffs. The lone exception was Columbus (#11) edging out the Fire (#10), but both play in the east.

Now for the bad news: the true elite teams, LA (#1) and Seattle (#2), both reside in the west, so fans will not be treated to a championship game pitting these sides against each other. This fact alone reveals the foolishness of the playoff system in a league in which each team plays every other team exactly twice. Because of this format, The Power Rank shows that the first playoff match featuring New York (#6) traveling to FC Dallas (#8) might be one of the most critical postseason matches. If Dallas wins, then the winner of Columbus at Colorado (#9) will play LA in the Western Conference semifinals. The Galaxy would be expected to score 0.8 more goals than the Rapids and a whopping 0.98 goals more than the Crew over a two game playoff. In contrast, KC would be favored by only 0.34 goals over Dallas.

However, if New York wins, the situation would be quite different. The Red Bulls are the most underrated squad by points based on their rank. Because they took the final playoff spot, if they beat Dallas, they will play LA. Even so, the Galaxy should still have a 0.62 goal advantage, but KC could potentially have as much as 0.56 goal edge if the Crew pull off the upset. In this bizarre scenario, the Galaxy end up with only a slight advantage over Sporting KC despite besting them by 16 points during the regular season.

Of course, a possible playoff round against the New York could be the least of LA’s concerns. In the one guaranteed marquee match up of the conference semifinals, Real Salt Lake (#4) will take on the Seattle Sounders (Seattle has a 0.5 goal advantage), setting up what could be one of the best matches of the playoffs if LA ends up winning their semifinal. Home field advantage for the Galaxy could be crucial as they would only edge the Sounders by the slightest margins on a neutral field: 0.01 goals. The Eastern Conference playoffs should still be exciting, as Philly is only a 0.12 favorite versus Houston, while KC would only have a 0.10 goal margin if the Union emerge from their semifinal. However, as has been the case for the past few years, the Western Conference champion will most likely be deserving of the MLS cup.

MLS Blog 10/12/11

The MLS rank
Symmetry is beautiful
But not for Canucks

As we approach the end of the regular season, the MLS Power Rank has taken on a very clear form. Los Angeles (#1) and Seattle (#2) form the elite, while RSL (#3) through Kansas City (#6) round out the upper third. The Sounders and Salt Lake are separated by 0.18 goals, while the above average pack of RSL, Philly (#4), New York (#5), and KC are within a mere 0.05 goals of each other. Of these top sides, all but New York are virtually guaranteed of not only making the playoffs, but a first round bye as well. The Red Bulls have a tough road, as they travel to Kansas City and then finish the season hosting the Union, both of which are in the top third.

A gap of 0.1 goals exists between the above average squads and the 7 teams residing squarely in the middle of the Power Rank. These sides, from last year’s runner-up FC Dallas (#7) through Columbus (#13) are all within 0.07 goals of average (always zero). It is these teams that are currently fighting for their playoff lives, with Dallas, defending champs Colorado (#8), Houston (#10), and Columbus currently in, with Chicago (#9) and DC United (#11) on the bubble. Of this group, only Chivas (#12) has been officially eliminated. With a game in hand and 1 point advantage, Dallas is the clear favorite to emerge from the middle, as two of their last three games are against the lowly Earthquakes (#15) and Whitecaps (#16). DC are also in good shape as they have four matches left, with two against fellow middle teams and two against the lower third. Houston, however, may be in trouble. Their season may depend on whether or not LA decides to field their stars in the last game of the regular season in a bid to break the single season points record.

Once again, a 0.1 differential is found between the bastions of mediocrity and those teams that need some work: the bottom third. In this region, there are two teams slightly better than the rest (a relative situation to be sure): Portland (#14) and San Jose (#15). Of the bottom third, only the Timbers still have a shot at the playoffs, but it will be a challenge. Despite having a game in hand, they finish against teams ranked above them. A difference of 0.2 goals divides the top of the bottom from the true cellar of MLS: Vancouver (#16), New England (#17), and Toronto (#18).

The current MLS rank structure is highly symmetric, with gaps of 0.2 and 0.18 goals separating the exceptionally good and bad teams from the rest. Similarly, differences of 0.1 make the top and bottom thirds distinct from the middle. Of the other sports tracked by The Power Rank, only MLB comes at all close to recovering a structure like this, and then only between the distance between the top 5 clubs and all the rest. This clarity just developed this past week because the top three teams all lost by multi-goal margins. LA dropped 0.06 goals after they lost 2-0 to the Red Bulls in New York, while Seattle decreased by 0.09 goals following a 2-0 defeat at home to the Union. Both victors vaulted above KC in The Power Rank to form the above-average-yet-not-elite. To complete this group, Salt Lake suffered the shock defeat of the weekend, falling 3-0 in Vancouver, who were then the lowest ranked team. Their resulting drop of 0.07 goals confirmed that, this year, they are not a truly elite MLS club.

MLS Blog October 4th, 2011

We’re now in the final stretch of the MLS season, so with all respect to Jim Mora, it’s time to start talking about the playoffs. This week we’ll focus on an aspect unique to soccer that can make or break a team’s postseason hopes: draws. While fans of other sports will grudgingly admit that sometimes a game deserves no winner, this occurrence is common in soccer as typically 25%-30% of games end all knotted up. As of Sunday, this year in MLS the percentage is nearly 36%, and teams’ chances are riding on them: currently Kansas City (#4), Philly (#6), Colorado (#9), Houston (#10), DC (#11), and San Jose (#15) have more ties than either wins or losses, while amazingly New York (#5) and Chicago (#8) have more draws than decisions!

So what’s behind this spate of mediocrity? Unsurprisingly, all these teams have ratings around the middle of the rank, and with the exception of the lowly ‘Quakes, they are also all sitting in the middle of the table (Sporting KC may look hot in the east, but they’d be tied for fifth place in the Western Conference). While it makes sense that average teams will tend to draw more, this season it has happened at a much higher rate. For example, this last Saturday, three out of six matches were drawn… but it turns out it’s also not surprising that they all involved fewer goals than the average MLS game.

We can expect that as less goals are scored, the likelihood of a draw is greater. While the mathematical formula governing draw probability of two evenly matched teams can be visualized using Pascal’s triangle, what it boils down to is this: 0 goals: 100%, 2 goals: 50%, 4 goals: 37.5%, and so on, so that the fewer number of goals that are scored, the more often the match ends tied. Below we can see the draw percentage and goal rate going back to the 2002 campaign in MLS:

Comparison of Goal and Draw Rates for the Past 10 Seasons

So over the past 10 years, the goal rate this season is tied for the third lowest. 2002 is the opposite, when defenses didn’t show up, yielding by far the highest goal and lowest draw rates. With this data, it turns out that for each additional goal per game, the frequency of a tie decreases by 18.5%. This year, we would expect the draw probability to be 29.0% with the difference attributed to factors we’re not including, most especially luck. However, this season is as much of a deviation as 2002 (expected draw probability of 21.6%) or last season (expected draw probability of 32.4%), albeit in the direction of more draws which doesn’t make MLS happy.

Of course, this phenomenon is not unique to soccer. While we haven’t run the numbers, it seems like there are more tied matches in soccer than there are overtime games in other sports where scoring is more common. More importantly, in soccer it matters more. Overtime in other sports is set up to produce a winner, whereas in soccer, winning earns 3 points whereas drawing gets 1. The differential encourages teams to play to win rather than draw, but it also selects for teams with good offense and bad defense instead of vice versa. That’s because a team which has half wins and half losses over the 34 game season will earn 17 more points than a team which draws all it’s games. However, when the playoffs start and every match has a winner, then both teams would have the same chance of winning. The Power Rank measures goal differential, not points, and knows to watch out for teams that “sneak” into the playoffs with a lot of draws.