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Sounders gave more outfield minutes to depth players than anyone else in MLS

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Over the course of the season, the Sounders played more field players from the bottom half of their roster than any other playoff team.

MLS: LA Galaxy at Seattle Sounders FC Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

You ever have a shower thought that turns into a tweet that turns into an article? To be fair, I hadn’t either until two weeks ago when I started an extremely not-time-efficient stat dive in an attempt to finally answer just how much depth the Sounders used this year.

The answer, not surprisingly, was quite a lot. The method I used was to take each team and add up the total number of minutes played by players who rank outside of the top 14 for total minutes on that team over the course of a season.

It sounds more complicated than it is.

Simply put, I ranked each of the playoff teams by how much they used their bottom half of the roster over the 2019 season, and I defined bottom half as players who ranked outside of the top 14 for minutes played over the course of a season. I picked 14 as my cut-off point since every game allows for a maximum of 14 players from each team to see the field. The results, shown in the table below, are striking.

Minutes played by players outside of top 14 per team

Team MPOT14
Team MPOT14
Toronto FC 7,017
Seattle Sounders 6,637
New York Red Bulls 6,416
New England Revolution 6,285
Portland Timbers 6,142
Minnesota United FC 5,707
New York City FC 5,180
Los Angeles Galaxy 4,782
Atlanta United 4,382
FC Dallas 4,249
Philadelphia Union 3,911
Real Salt Lake 3,599
Los Angeles FC 3,340
D.C. United 3,012

Sounders fans will likely notice how high Seattle is on the list and ruefully remember a potentially record-breaking season tarnished by injury and international call-ups. MLS fans may chuckle at how fortunate the actual record-breaking LAFC have been in maintaining roster consistency this year. And anybody who can read a table will wonder what the hell happened to Toronto FC, who sit atop the table with 380 more minutes (roughly four whole games) than the second highest team, the Sounders.

Starting with Toronto, it’s important to note that 540 of their total MPOT14 belong to goalkeeper Alex Bono, who started the first month or so of Toronto’s season before being supplanted by Quentin Westberg. Take those away and Toronto’s MPOT14 is actually 6,477, making the Sounders the team with the highest field-player-only MPOT14 of any playoff team. And while the Sounders would have likely done much worse with 540 minutes less of Stefan Frei through the year, it’s also fair to note that rotating keepers may not have as great of an effect on overall team cohesiveness/style/shape as rotating field players.

Factor in the Sounders being the only team in the top 10 of MPOT14 to have not played in Concacaf Champions League or made it to at least the Round of 16 of their country’s domestic cup, and it becomes even more obvious how much injuries and international call-ups affected them this year.

Of course, not all of the Sounders’ depth minutes have been forced by circumstance. General Manager Garth Lagerwey has spoken often of trying to increase depth and competition by spreading salaries more evenly across the middle part of the roster. As such, the Sounders have a league-leading 12 players (three more than any other team) over the cap, while there are eight teams with a more expensive top-paid player.

Though most of the Sounders players who are outside of the top 14 for total minutes are not over the maximum salary, the overall philosophy of creating a more evenly balanced roster goes hand-in-hand with spreading minutes across all players throughout the course of the season. Specifically, it’s easier to justify rotating a player making $500k in order to give an academy grad or a recent draft pick midweek minutes than it is to sit a $7 million star who makes a third of the team’s total salary. Moreover, investing in smaller chunks allows for more midseason acquisitions and upgrades, which spreads minutes even further.

For example, Joevin Jones, who has likely locked down a starting spot in the absence of Victor Rodriguez, is a TAM player who is outside the Sounders’ top 14 because he was acquired midseason. Additionally, first- and second-year players Handwalla Bwana, Alex Roldan, Danny Leyva, Justin Dhillon, Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez and Shandon Hopeau make up 1,803 of the Sounders’ MPOT14. In fact, one common thread between the teams at the top of MPOT14 is that they all made significant midseason signings (Omar Gonzalez, Gustavo Bou, Brian Fernandez) or they’ve invested significantly in their academy/USL pipeline (NYRB).

Perhaps more important than how teams racked up a low or high total MPOT14, is what that stat means for their chances going into the playoffs. Here, it is useful to look at how well teams did in the Supporters’ Shield relative to how high or low their MPOT14 is. Below is a table that shows the difference between where a team ranks in MPOT14 vs. where they finished in the SS. Teams with the highest numbers outperformed their expected SS standing the most. For example, the Sounders have a +9 score because they had the 13th lowest MPOT14 and finished fourth in SS, a nine-place difference.

MPOT14 rank compared to Supporters’ Shield Finish

Team MPOT14 rank minus SS finish
Team MPOT14 rank minus SS finish
Seattle Sounders 9
New York City FC 6
Toronto FC 5
Atlanta United 3
Minnesota United FC 2
Los Angeles Galaxy 1
Los Angeles FC 1
New York Red Bulls 0
Portland Timbers -1
Philadelphia Union -1
New England Revolution -3
Real Salt Lake -3
FC Dallas -8
D.C. United -9

Going off this table, Seattle, NYCFC, and Toronto may be the most likely to pull off upsets based on the strength of their regular seasons relative to how much depth they had to play. Conversely, D.C. United, and F.C. Dallas may be the most likely to flame out early if their records have truly been inflated due to lack of depth used.

Then again, regardless of strength of depth, it’s the stars who rule the playoffs. Even if NYCFC and Toronto did perform well while going deep on their bench throughout the regular season, neither team is likely to make the cup final if Heber and Jozy Altidore aren’t ready to go.

At least the Sounders will be as healthy as they have been in months, with only Will Bruin out for sure and Rodriguez questionable. Though both players are game-changers, and Rodriguez could be the best player on the pitch in any given match, neither plays up the spine of the team’s ideal 11. If the Sounders can count on Frei, Gustav Svensson, Cristian Roldan, Nico Lodeiro, and Raul Ruidiaz to run the team through the middle, the rest of the squad should have enough talent and experience to make a deep run. If nothing else, with the amount of rotation the team put in this year, everybody will be ready to go.