This MLS season epitomizes the parity within the league. 14 of the 19 teams are currently earning at least 1.4 PPG. The weakest of these 14 teams, the Chicago Fire, trails the current Supporter's Shield leaders, RSL, by 13 points with 3 games in hand. Seven teams in each division are within 3 points of making the playoffs at this point. And San Jose is only 5 points off. In the East, only 7 points separates first place from seventh. Both the MLS Cup and Supporter's Shield races are wide open with two months to go. Due to games in hand, there are probably nine teams with a viable shot at winning the Shield. The Seattle Sounders, currently 3rd place in the West, could finish anywhere from winning the Supporter's Shield to not qualifying for the playoffs. (I would argue that winning the Supporter's Shield is the more likely of the two scenarios based on Seattle's PPG.) 80% of the teams in the league are still in serious contention with over 75% of the season played. If MLS wants parity, this season answered their dreams.
This season's parity is probably an historical outlier in statistical terms. I cannot name another season in any sport where this percentage of teams was still contending this late in a season. Yes, MLS is often defined by its parity and over half the teams make the playoffs, but this season borders on ridiculous. Which begs the question, "What the heck is going on here?"
FIFA Tournaments a Possible Cause
I am not a statistician. The statistical modeling necessary to break this down in numerical terms is beyond my capabilities. But my intuition says that what we are looking at is the juxtaposition of the Gold Cup, U20 World Cup and Senior World Cup Qualifying tournaments with the shallow nature of MLS rosters. More teams are being impacted this year by the loss of key players for significant stretches of time. The key term here being "more".
Each year some teams suffer key personnel losses through injury. This year is no exception. Each year teams lose players for games due to disciplinary actions. Playing in multiple tournaments such as the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup and the CONCACAF Champion's League also strains team rosters. But this year the addition of three FIFA tournaments spread across the MLS season has changed the dynamic of the league standings.
The impact of personnel losses is a tough thing to quantify statistically. There are too many variables that result in whether a team wins an individual game. It is not possible to point at a specific lost game and unequivocally state that it is because a team was missing certain players. There was no guarantee that your team would have won the game even with the missing personnel. But it is equally quixotic to say that personnel losses have no impact. The truth is that personnel losses shift probabilities. Instead of winning 8 out of 10 games against a weaker opponent, the odds might shift to 6 out of 10. Or a team may be more likely to draw a given game than win. This pulls top teams back to the pack and inflates the records of mid-table teams. In short, it creates a type of parity.
The Challenge of Shallow Rosters
The depth of a team's roster can be defined as the team's ability to weather personnel losses. The tight MLS salary cap rules force teams to have shallow rosters. Rather than use specialists, MLS teams rely on generalist players like Brad Evans and Lamar Neagle to fill out their rosters and provide multi-position depth. Even with these generalists, MLS squads are often only two or three players deep at individual positions and the drop off in player quality between first, second and third string players can be dramatic. This is particularly true when dealing with the loss of a Designated Player. The Sounder's fifth forward is Eriq Zavaleta. If Obafemi Martins aggravates his ankle injury this week, Zavaleta could find himself starting next to Lamar Neagle for a game or two simply because both Eddie Johnson and Clint Dempsey have been called up for WCQs. Who would you rather see start a game if given the choice: Oba, EJ, Deuce or a roster with Neagle, Zavaleta and David Estrada? Why? These roster differences change the Sounders' probability of winning. I hope the Sounders win these critical home games, but I also know that those wins became less probable when Jurgen Klinsmann announced his call-ups.
Not all personnel losses dramatically affect a team's probability of winning. Losing your third string CB is often not a dramatic setback for the team. Leo Gonzales goes down with a red card and Marc Burch can take his place with little drop off in the overall chances the Sounders will win. Yet, there are three types of personnel losses that routinely impact the outcome of MLS games.
The Loss of a Lynch Pin Player
The Decimation of a Roster in a Single Position
The Simultaneous Loss of Multiple Key Players Across a Roster
Loss of a Lynch Pin Player
The Sounders without Osvaldo Alonso are a very different team. Even the growth of Servando Carrasco this season has not changed this issue. Any team that faces Seattle with Ozzie in the stands should count themselves fortunate. Columbus without Federico Higuain is another example of a team missing their lynch pin. Columbus looked awful without him on the pitch. Seattle spotted them a player in the 7th minute and Columbus still couldn't generate many meaningful chances. Missing a lynch pin player does not guarantee victory for the opposition but it dramatically shifts the odds.
But with the FIFA tournaments, the chances that a single key player is missing increase. The Vancouver Whitecaps were starting to gel prior to Russell Teibert being called up to the Canadian MNT. Teibert's set pieces were setting the table for Camillo and Kenny Miller. San Jose losing Chris Wondolowski to the Gold Cup meant that no one was there to knock in the loose balls created by Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart.
The Decimation of a Roster at a Single Position
The second type of high impact loss is the decimation of a team within a single position. The recent Seattle versus Portland derby game is an excellent example of how this problem plays out. Portland was missing their entire starting Center Midfield to injury and suspension. By contrast Seattle was without a starting Forward, a starting CB and a few depth players in MF all due to injury. In the end, Seattle was able to better weather the missing players through their depth and the fact that the missing players were more evenly spread to multiple positions.
Earlier this season Seattle suffered a similar setback at Goal Keeper. Josh Ford suffered an early season injury and then, in one week, the team lost both Marcus Hahnemann and Michael Gspurning to injury. Suddenly they were forced to bring in Andrew Weber from outside of the league. Each year a handful of MLS games are decided by the luck of the draw due to these types of roster issues.
But again, this year the problem has been exacerbated. Without the WCQ round next week, the Sounders could continue to use EJ and Dempsey if Oba's injury lingers. Or they could use any of their three primary forwards with Neagle as they did earlier this year. But if all three primary forwards are unavailable, the Sounders are a different team. Earlier this season the team lost Brad Evans to the USMNT right when their midfield was laid waste by injury. Instead of dealing with one period of decimation at a single position this season, the extra tournaments have forced the Sounders to deal with three such losses of personnel. The fact that they have weathered these losses and still hold the third highest PPG in the league is a testament to just how deep the Sounders' 2013 roster is by MLS standards.
The Simultaneous Loss of Multiple Key Players Across a Roster
Throughout the league this year many teams have suffered the loss of multiple key players at every one of these extra tournaments. Bruce Arena just about blew a gasket when both Landon Donovan and Omar Gonzales got called up for the Gold Cup. And now he faces the loss of Donovan, Gonzales and Robbie Keane for WCQs this month and next. Toronto keeps losing multiple players to the Canadian MNT. Portland lost key players to Canada, Jamaica and Costa Rica. The Sounders lost players to the US, Nigeria and Honduras this Spring. Not only do these personnel losses make it hard for teams to win individual games, they also disrupt a team's development and halt momentum. Portland was tearing through their schedule prior to the Gold Cup. In a normal year, these kinds of multi-position losses would only impact a few teams who are decimated by injury. San Jose started this season with many key players out of the line up and their record reflected it. But the FIFA schedule has amplified how many teams are being effected and increasing the number of MLS games where uneven rosters are shifting the odds.
Wear and Tear
All these games and all this travel add up. Brad Evans and Eddie Johnson flew to Bosnia and Herzegovina for a mid-week friendly last month racking up over 11,000 flight miles. EJ and Deuce are on their way to Costa Rica. Oba flew to Africa for a game. Each trip takes a toll. Each game players risk injury and fatigue. The grind of a nine-month season already exacts a price. National team duties add to that toll. It would not be surprising if the extra costs of USMNT duty were a contributing factor in Brad Evan's recent injury. There isn't a direct statistical correlation between this specific injury and the extra travel, but it weights the probabilities.
Many people predicted that the FIFA tournaments would impact MLS teams this season. It is a cost of having a Summer Schedule and the MLS not honoring international breaks. But what I find surprising is how dramatically it appears to be affecting league parity. There are two more WCQ rounds prior to the end of the MLS regular season. Coupled with the remaining CCL Group Stage games, the final two months of the MLS season should not see any change in the trend. The Supporter's Shield and the MLS Cup are up for grabs and the Sounders are right in the heart of the fray. Hang on to your scarves boys and girls, the next two months should be interesting.