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Using Substitution Patterns to Unlock More Goals

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There are really four purposes for substitutions - injury, general fitness, protecting the lead, or making a comeback. For injury the bench needs a few guys that can play in multiple roles. Roger Levesque seems to be turning into one of those guys for the 2011 Sounders. General fitness comes into play when guys are just tired and so a one for one swap is used. Most often the Sounders used this with one of the forwards, or the right midfielder. O'Brian White, Mike Fucito and Lamar Neagle would look to be the ones to fit this mold.

When protecting the lead most managers start pulling offensive players and plugging in more defenders, thereby shifting the shape from 4-4-2 (and variants) to 5-4-1 or 4-5-1 with two holding. In 2010 we saw Tyrone Marshall used as a 3rd CB once, as well as Leo Gonzalez and James Riley brought on as defensive midfielders in an Open Cup match. Rarely will we see subs when ahead be used to extend the lead by adding offense.

But when offense is needed, particularly when down a goal prior to the 50th minute conventional wisdom is wrong according to a study by a Villanova professor of Management and Operations. In general substitutes come in too late, also the failure to use the 3rd sub is overly cautious when a team needs that goal. In a league like MLS with its high level of parity, picking up 1 point rather than zero and holding an opposing team to 1 rather than 3 can shift the final standings. His system essentially doubles the chances of scoring a goal late.

He concluded that if their team is behind, managers should make the first substitution prior to the 58th minute, the second substitution prior to the 73rd minute and the third prior to the 79th minute. Teams that follow these guidelines improve—score at least one goal—roughly 36% of the time.

But did the Seattle Sounders leave goals on the bench? Maybe. But only one.

There were six matches in all competitions where his rules would apply. Seattle scored in none of those. In two Sigi Schmid essentially followed the substitution strategy. In the other four he did not. Now if that one more goal had come in just the right match Seattle's position on the table would have nudged up by one. Tying New York Red Bulls would have both at 49 points with Seattle holding the tie-breaker in the overall table, but not the Playoffs. Hooray for 5th!

If that extra goal had happened in Champions League play against Marathon then Seattle would have finished third on the table edging that side in the standings. Hooray for 3rd!

So while it would certainly be useful to find more offense on the bench, and with this year's likely bench talent it will be there. It is unlikely that there will be a shift in the standings from this technique due to its limitations, but I'd still like more goals, and if seeing more of Fucito and White is the way to get there is the way to do it, even better.

Likely bench
Terry Boss - Keeper
Patrick Ianni - CB, CDM, RB
Michael Tetteh - LW, LB
Levesque - RB, RM, F, CM, LM
White - TF, WF, RW
Fucito - WF, LW, RW
Erik Friberg - CM, RM, LM

That's five of sevens subs that are essentially offensive in nature. Seeing them earlier can equal more goals. A single opportune goal means one more spot in the standings. Rather than see a sub at 65 and 75, lets see them at 58, 73 and 79, whether down a goal or not. More goals are always better. More time on the pitch for talent capable or nearly capable of starting will payoff later in the year.