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MLS Remaining Schedule Difficulty at the Third-Way Point

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As of the end of this weekend's games we're almost exactly a third of the way through the MLS season. Out of 306 total, we've played 106 (assuming my math is right). Obviously some teams have played more than others. MLS was true to its word that teams that qualified for the Champions League would have frontloaded schedules to help with fixture congestion once CCL play starts, and so the teams that have played at least 13 games already include CCL qualifiers Seattle Sounders, Los Angeles Galaxy, Colorado Rapids, and FC Dallas — along with (inexplicably) the Houston Dynamo. Meanwhile Real Salt Lake has played only 9 to help along their 2010 CCL bid, which was competitive all the way to the second leg of the final. And Sporting Kansas City has similarly played 9 as they stall their season as much as possible until their new home park opens.

But now that we've reached the third-way mark league wide the standings have started to take shape. In a couple of days I'm going to cover the playoff odds at this point, but for now I want to take a look at remaining schedule difficulty. Veteran readers know that I run a league simulation (similar to Sports Club Stats) to help determine playoff chances and I've also adapted it to calculate schedule difficulty. The short explanation is that it plays out each team's remaining schedule with a league average team and the better an average team does, the easier that schedule is. In addition, I'll include Jeff Sagarin's schedule rankings based on a formula he uses to calculate team quality. Sagarin doesn't actually calculate future schedule difficulty, but he calculates schedule difficulty thus far this season and as long as MLS is running a balanced schedule then the difficulty of the future schedule is just the inverse of the difficulty of the past schedule.

Here's the table, with the schedule rank, number of points an average team would get with that schedule, PPG for the average team, and Sagarin's ranking. In both cases a rank of 1 indicates the hardest remaining schedule and a rank of 18 the easiest. Basically, you want to be at the bottom of this table.

Team Avg Team Points Avg Team PPG Rank Sagarin
Toronto FC 27.42 1.306 1 4
Vancouver Whitecaps 28.911 1.314 2 1
New England Revolution 29.161 1.326 3 5
Portland Timbers 30.773 1.338 4 13
Colorado Rapids 28.277 1.347 5 9
Columbus Crew 31.149 1.354 6 2
Houston Dynamo 28.478 1.356 7 15
San Jose Earthquakes 31.358 1.363 8 3
Chivas USA 31.41 1.366 9 6
Chicago Fire 31.543 1.371 10 15
D.C. United 31.581 1.373 11 10
Seattle Sounders 27.632 1.382 12 16
FC Dallas 29.033 1.382 13 8
LA Galaxy 26.527 1.396 14 17
Philadelphia Union 32.277 1.403 15 12
Real Salt Lake 35.217 1.409 16 11
New York Red Bulls 30.996 1.409 17 7
Sporting Kansas City 36.33 1.453 18 18

My rankings and Sagarin's mostly agree, which is a good sign. The big exceptions are Portland and New York. My rankings suggest Portland has had a pretty easy schedule and has the 4th hardest remaining. Sagarin says that the Timbers have played the 6th hardest schedule in the league. I suspect the difference is that Sagarin rates teams based on results (wins & losses) whereas my sim uses goal totals (both scored and allowed). So Portland beat Philadelphia, who Sagarin rates as the 3rd best team in the league because they've won a lot, whereas I only rate them as a decent team because they win a lot of one-goal games and are probably the beneficiaries of some significant luck (leaving aside the drubbing of Toronto, of course) and have played more home games than away.

But regardless the results suggest that we may be experiencing some spreading out in the standings. The easiest schedule coming up by far is Kansas City's, simply because their entire home schedule is yet to be played. But otherwise the easiest schedules are all owned by top teams in the league. And at the other end the hardest schedules remaining are owned by Toronto and the Whitecaps, which may provide a rocky start to the Tom Soehn era in Vancouver. To some degree this is because the bad teams don't have the luxury of playing themselves, but mostly they just haven't played the top teams yet. For all their struggles already, Toronto has yet to play New York or Real Salt Lake, has only faced Philadelphia and LA at home, and has played 8 home games to only 5 away. Despite signing a 3-year contract, Winter may be on the hot seat if the 2011 season only gets worse thanks to a more difficult schedule.

The Sounders should be looking forward to a pretty favorable schedule. Getting the games in New York, Salt Lake, Philadelphia, and Colorado out of the way is a big help, especially considering that they picked up 7 points out of a possible 12 from those games. The easiest chunk may be coming up soon as Seattle plays Chicago, Vancouver, Toronto, and New England in June along with a home match against the Red Bulls. When July rolls around Seattle's schedule won't look nearly as good, but hopefully they'll have a big chunk of points banked by then.

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