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2012 MLS Strength of Schedule: The Unbalancing Act

For the last two MLS seasons 'strength of schedule' wasn't really a meaningful concept. With a perfectly balanced schedule, the only differences in schedule strength came from the fact that teams didn't have to play themselves (good for Seattle, bad for Vancouver). But now that the new era of unbalanced scheduling has arrived, it's worth looking to see who's facing tougher competition and who's getting off light.

To calculate strength of schedule, I started by taking the split home and away Point Per Game totals for each team. Note that it's very important to look at home and away PPGs separately. It'd be hard to overstate how big the gap is between home and road performance. Last season the LA Galaxy ran away with the Supporters Shield with a 1.97 PPG, but their away PPG was only 1.53. That was second in the league to the Seattle Sounders absurd 1.88 away PPG, but it would have only been tied for 13th as a home PPG. LA's away results were the same as the home results of the Chicago Fire, who didn't even make the playoffs. That makes a big difference when comparing facing the Galaxy twice in Seattle versus facing them twice in Carson. Also note that we don't have any data for the Montreal Impact. I set their PPG as the average of the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps results to get a reasonable 'average expansion team' value. Once I had the PPGs I just applied them to each game on the schedule for home and away and averaged the results.

In the process I also calculated the distance theoretically traveled by the away team in each game. This is a very rough estimate that just calculated the great-circle distance (i.e. as the crow flies) from stadium to stadium. It doesn't take into account actual flight routes, potential road trips that would move from one away venue directly to another, etc. (Note: mileage is for one-way travel.)

The results and some thoughts are below the cut:

Team Opponent PPG Distance (miles)
Vancouver Whitecaps 1.421 21,102
San Jose Earthquakes 1.399 20,003
Portland Timbers 1.392 21,199
FC Dallas 1.361 19,454
Colorado Rapids 1.356 18,555
Toronto FC 1.335 14,541
Real Salt Lake 1.331 14,487
New England Revolution 1.321 16,835
Chivas USA 1.316 20,277
D.C. United 1.314 17,581
Seattle Sounders 1.292 20,406
LA Galaxy 1.288 16,916
Montreal Impact 1.285 18,500
New York Red Bulls 1.285 13,789
Chicago Fire 1.266 14,282
Philadelphia Union 1.258 17,751
Sporting Kansas City 1.248 17,358
Houston Dynamo 1.241 21,732
Columbus Crew 1.214 13,573

The table has sortable columns so you can sort the teams how you like.

The first thing to notice is that the West predictably suffers from an unbalanced schedule. The Western Conference has consistently dominated the East over the past few seasons and now that the teams are scheduled more heavily against each other, their schedules get more difficult. The West has the top 5 hardest schedules and the East has the easiest 7. The easiest Western schedules belong to Seattle and Los Angeles. The Galaxy get the edge thanks to two home games against Vancouver and a home schedule against the East that includes such luminaries as Toronto FC, New England, and DC United.

The toughest schedule by far belongs to Vancouver, who get a Western Confernece schedule loaded with Shield contenders but fail to play the weakest team in the West (themselves). Cascadia rivals Portland get the third toughest overall for the same reason. At the other end, Columbus is rewarded not only with the easiest schedule by opponent difficulty, they also have the fewest straight travel miles in the league. The most travel miles (as calculated here) aren't actually owned by Seattle or Vancouver, but by Houston, who probably suffers from being an 'Eastern' Conference team that's actually pretty far west. Of course this doesn't count CONCACAF Champions League travel (and Club World Cup travel, amirite?).

Thoughts? Seattle's getting it about as good as you can get it in the West, but of course the league bends over backwards for the Galaxy once again.

Update:If you want to check my work or use the data for your own purposes, the spreadsheet is here.

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