W-L-T Considered Harmful

Fredy wants to you stop using W-L-T. NOW!

Something that's always annoyed me about soccer coverage in the US is the fact that records are listed in W-L-T order. I find it irksome because within the context of soccer, there's no logical reason for this: it orders the points 3-0-1, which is just bizarre. Of course the reason has nothing at all to do with soccer. The other sports that fill the other 90% of the sports pages (if you're very lucky and get that much soccer coverage) don't allow draws in normal circumstances, and so usually list their records as W-L. In the extremely rare circumstances that a draw or two actually happen during a season, that gets tacked on to the end, to make it W-L-T. Because that's what most American readers are expecting, that format ends up winning out over the more sensible W-D-L.

However, I've recently realized that there's a bigger problem than just cognitive dissonance. W-L-T completely misrepresents the competition. And before anyone gets overheated, W-D-L does as well, as would D-L-W, D-W-L, L-W-D, or L-D-W. This is because no team in MLS is competing on its record.

That sounds strange, doesn't it? Here in the US, your record is your season. Each team rises or falls as each win or loss accumulates and when the end of the season comes around, the records are used to determine who gets into the playoffs. So, it's only natural that a team's win-loss record enters very early on in the conversation, and writers, fans, players, and coaches all talk in terms of records.

The conversations about MLS are no different, but they should be. There are twelve factors that are used to determine which teams make the playoffs and which don't: one primary criterion and eleven tie-breakers. Unlike other sports league here in the US, a team's record isn't that primary criterion and it's not even the first tie-breaker. In fact, in the tiebreakers, a team's record sits... nowhere.

  • The primary criterion is points. This is obviously related to, and can be calculated from, the team's record. But why not talk about the actual criterion? One could also report the result of a match as Sounders SOG: 9 Saves: 0, Houston SOG: 0 Saves 7. The information to get us to the actual criterion, goals, is there and it's not a difficult calculation, but why waste time with it? Why not just start in the right place to begin with? I know this may not be a perfect analogy because I think there are times when a team might give up a goal and the SOG and saves wouldn't show it, (maybe own goals?) but you get the idea.

    By the way, the points calculation is why soccer reporting anywhere else on the planet lists records, when they do so, as W-D-L. It makes the mental operation of totaling up points very easy:
    "First number times three, then add in the second number."
    The W-L-T format is more awkward:
    "First number times three, ignore the central number, add in the third number."
    This is especially true if one follows other leagues, because it becomes something along the lines of:
    "First number times three, add in the second number, get a nonsensical result, remember that records in the US are listed in that weird way, remember or recalculate the first number times three, ignore the second number, add in the third number"
  • The first tiebreaker between two teams is the head-to-head record between them, and between three or more teams, the points-per-game against the others. Those games contributed to a team's record, but knowing the overall numbers won't help you discover what happened in a few specific matches.
  • The second tie-breaker is goal difference. A team's record is no help there either.
  • Third is total goals, and again, W-L-T is completely unhelpful.
  • Fourth through sixth are the first three tie-breakers applied to road games only.
  • Seventh through ninth are the first three tie-breakers applied to home games only.
  • Tenth is the team's disciplinary record. The team with the lowest total of disciplinary points goes through. Again, not in a team's record.
  • A coin flip. Yep, if the teams are still level after all those considerations, then heads or tails determines who goes to the playoffs. Surprisingly, knowing how many games a team has won, lost, or tied doesn't tell you how a coin tossed in an MLS office will land. Who knew?

Okay, so we should stop using records, but what do we put in their place? After all, the need for a compact way to depict a team's current situation doesn't go away. There are various ways to go, but any sensible solution will start with points, since that's the foundation of the competition. I'd probably put games played next, because that gives you a context for points. Eight points is a pretty good point total for four games, but pretty horrible for fourteen. This also puts the ingredients for the PPM calculation right up front, and in the right order nonetheless. If we're going to be doing any math on our season-summarizing numbers, let's make it something really useful. We could stop there, but I'd probably toss in goal difference as well. It's not the first tiebreaker, but it is the first one we can know about at any arbitrary point in the season, since there's no way of knowing in advance who will end the season level on points.

Here's an example of how it might work:

The Sounders (28 pts, 20 GP, -2 GD) are hoping to continue their surge in MLS as they visit Chivas USA (18 pts, 18 GP, -3 GD), who surrendered all three points to Toronto in their last game and sit at the bottom of the West.
If this format, or something like it, were adopted widely enough we could eventually drop the labels and it would read something like (28, 20, -2). That wouldn't take much more room than listing a record. Unlike listing a record, however, we'd be passing along actually relevant information.

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