On the 20th of August, Seattle settled for a 1-1 draw at home against the San Jose Earthquakes thanks to a Chris Wondolowski equalizer in the 65th. It was the second time in 4 games the Sounders had dropped points against San Jose, and secured the seventh point of a seven-game stretch extending back to a 1-0 loss in Vancouver on July 5th. Amidst the wonders of their first Supporters Shield season, there have still been doldrums and stretches of poor play (as is always the case for MLS). Facing the MLS Cup playoffs, now is an excellent time to review those moments, and suggest an approach to the lineup most likely to be successful in the quest for a treble.
The chart above depicts the number of minutes exchanged on the roster among the 10 outfield players in the 34-game MLS regular season - a single starter being swapped out from one game to the next, with no substitutes in either match, would register a y-axis value of 90, while swapping out all 10 positions would score 900. In 2014, Seattle has played 8 games with lineup turnover less than 125 minutes and won all 8. They've averaged 172 minutes of turnover in victories, and 254 minutes in draws and losses.
This could be perceived as self-fulfilling to some degree, as the team will increase turnover with substitutions when playing poorly - so the lower half of the chart simplifies matters to some degree. Seattle has won 9 of its 11 games when replacing fewer than 2 members of the starting 10, and won all 3 games where the lineup was wholly consistent.
That significant turnover would take place in 2014 - and that a consistent lineup would not be possible until the end of the season - was to be expected with international absences (particularly during the World Cup) and rotational positions at center back and wide midfield.
Is there a set lineup that has been more successful than the others? The table below re-introduces the concept of enhanced and suppressed goals for various lineup permutations and some relevant performance splits. Team goals scored and allowed are measured against the average performance of the opponent at home and away (e.g. a Genh of 1 in a game indicates the Sounders scored 1 goal more than their opponent conceded, on average, in that context). Only lineup permutations used in 3 or more games are tallied separately, and the CM pairing exclude Seattle's brief flirtation with a 4-3-3.
It's possible people might have a range of interpretations of the data, so I'll just pull out a couple features that I find most interesting.
- Zach Scott/Chad Marshall is unequivocally the most successful combination in central defense, and cb permutations have the greatest apparent impact on goals conceded. Normalizing for the opponent, the Sounders give up 7 fewer goals for every 10 games using this particular pairing instead of the main competitors in the rotation. There may have been an argument for trying out other options before the end of the season, but the time for experimentation is long passed.
- Seattle is heavily dependent on the health and availability of Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins.
- Early returns on Brad Evans slotting in at right back are very favorable.
- There is no real indication of wide midfielder selection having a major impact on defense, as far as can be determined by goals conceded. 1 additional goal might be expected in 10 games selecting Marco Pappa/Lamar Neagle over Evans/Neagle... but this difference is entirely due to the 5 goal disaster against New England. Excluding that game, Pappa/Neagle becomes the defensively superior pairing, again by an insignificant ~0.1.
- The offensive success of Evans/Neagle is a mirage. Excluding the 4 goals against LA for which Evans was not on the field, Genh on those 6 games drops to 0.382 - still decent, but not indicative of superior performance than the more common pairing.
Hidden in all that data is the fact that no particular permutation of the lineup can be held responsible for the July/August slump. Marshall and Scott were paired for 2 out of 4 losses in that stretch (Jalil Anibaba and Scott for the other 2, thanks to Marshall's car accident injury). The one lineup rule that held true throughout the seven game stretch is visible in the graph above - over those 7 games Seattle averaged 300 minutes of lineup turnover (never less than 163) and 4 changes to the 10 outfield positions (never fewer than 2).
The best prescription for the playoffs may simply be to stay the course.