Steve Fenn puts MLS’s 2013 schedule into the data blender
MLS has released the 2013 schedule, which is once again not balanced, and with further expansion coming soon probably never will be.
Every club will play each cross-conference opponent once. All Western clubs will play everyone else in their conference 3 times, and the East will play 2 intraconference opponents twice and face the rest 3 times.
Here’s a graphic layout of the entire schedule, with hosts on the left and visitors on top:
Strength of Schedule
Given these imbalances, it is only natural to ask which teams gain advantage.
By linking opponent 2012 goal differential to every fixture, we can approximate strength of schedule pretty well. Across professional soccer leagues, goal differential has been proven to be a somewhat reliable predictor of the next season’s success or failure. Each individual match’s difficulty is tallied by dividing the opponent’s 2012 goal differential by 34 then adjusting for the average home field advantage in 2012 MLS (0.49 goals per game).
This strength of schedule figure is an approximation of how many goals each club should be favored by over the entire season based on their schedule alone. Like a betting line, negatives are good. Here is graph of 2012 goal differential vs 2013 strength of schedule:
The West lines up perfectly with its best-fit line, the East is a bit jumbled.
Each Eastern club’s skew is driven by which two intraconference opponents they only face twice. Those above the line have it most difficult. Houston (orange) are the most hard done, facing Toronto and Philadelphia less than others, while Red Bull New York are the most fortunate, dodging 3rd matches against Sporting Kansas City and Chicago. Keep in mind that over the course of the season these differences in schedule strength are still quite small.
The worst-case scenario, though, would be the conferences becoming imbalanced. East and West were more-or-less equal in 2012, with goal differential of zero in interconference matches. However, when a season is unbalanced, that year’s Supporters Shield could deserve an asterisk, and the determination of the MLS Cup host might be questionable, too.
Monthly Schedule Strength
The month-to-month difficulty of this schedule should also be quite relevant to club expectations at various points of the season. To that end we have a graphical representation of the number of matches each club will play each month and the per-match difficulty of that month:
The smallest squares are the easiest months, and the green months contain 3 or 4 matches, while the red have 5 or 6. March is clearly the easiest month in the schedules of Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Dallas. Don’t be surprised if these clubs’ records appear too good to be true on April Fools Day. If they struggle out of the gate, they may find it very difficult to catch up with the rest of the field in the West, though.
Additional Notes on the 2013 Schedule
Opportunity lost, again: MLS has yet to take full advantage of the slowest day of the sports year. Fans will have no other options on the day after the MLB All Star Game, July 17, but MLS’ only offering will be Toronto FC at Chivas USA on MLS Live. This is one weeknight that should feature a couple marquee matchups every year.
Steady match distribution: Of the 152 club-months, only 2.6% feature 6 matches, and 13.1% have only 3 matches. The US Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League will congest some clubs fixtures, but MLS has at least set a mostly even pace.
Staggered season finales: I went over this last season, but it bears repeating. The last week of the season should be synchronized for competitive balance. At least one of the teams playing on Sunday after their competitors are done will unfairly get to rest starters heading into the playoffs when they should be sweating the results.