The MLS season is officially at the end of what was called “Phase One.” While we were originally supposed to end this after our game against Sporting Kansas City, numerous cases of COVID-19 has resulted in that game getting pushed back to October 21st and into the “Phase Two” of the 2020 schedule. With the Portland Timbers game also being postponed, we’re sure to have an even more compact end to the 2020 season than we expected.
Every year, I try and talk about the 10-game mark for the team. At roughly a third of the way into the season, it acts as a good checkpoint of the team: where trends can start to be inferred and the state of the team can be defined by multiple games as opposed to one-off games that can skew results. Normally, I would have done the same thing this year, but everything is all sorts of weird. With a calendar of having weekend-midweek-repeat for almost the entirety of our playing schedule, 2020 will always have a big asterisk by it. Nonetheless, I wanted to take this chance to take a look at the state of the team. Not with what we see on the field, but strictly from the statistics through their 13 games of the season so far.
The caveats for such an analysis are numerous. For one, a 10-game sample doesn’t strictly translate into this being statistically significant. Even with 13 games, results and numbers would change significantly based on even just a single match. Two, the calendar is affecting everyone and 2020 is anything but a normal year, no matter how hard we try. The “10 games in” checkpoint should have been taking place around early May, not in October.
With long breaks due to the season being suspended, a tournament in Orlando, more mid-week games than ever before and games getting (re)shuffled around due to coronavirus cases on the teams, this has put a stress on the team in ways no one could have predicted. Obviously, not all of the team’s results can be boiled down to something as simple as these stats. Expected goals, tackles, yellow cards, red cards, pass completion percentage, possession percentage—all of these things are important to the game. I could spend days talking about what it means with the changes in place, but I’d bore everyone to death.
So with everyone taking that fistful of salt, let’s talk about the team as we end Phase One, 13 games in, accounting for slightly over half of the estimated 23-game season prior to playoffs.
Here are the key stats I want to address, from the start of 2018. This is separated into five semi-arbitrary different eras, primarily sorted by coach and year.
Once again, these numbers reinforce how bad the team was during Anthony Hudson’s tenure, and how much Conor Casey and Robin Fraser have drastically turned things around since then. While the 2019 Fraser era was short, in seven games we got five wins. That does skew the results significantly, because even one additional loss would have meant a big change in the numbers, but it does highlight how things are going.
What is surprising here is that we have improved under Fraser’s tenure in basically every area, even compared to what Casey managed in about the same amount of games. We’ve been scoring more goals per game, allowing fewer goals per game, getting a higher points-per-game run, tying more games over losing them, and are putting up more shutout games than before. Keep in mind that his 2019 record is really hard to fully justify being that good over the course of a full season—even one more loss would have dropped us into a more reasonable state. But, this is the nice thing about these stats—they happened.
Which brings us back to 2020. Over our 13 games, we have gotten 19 points. Looking back at the last four years, here are the average points-per-game required to get into the playoffs, as well as a look at the team at the very top of the conference. The Supporters’ Shield winner is highlighted in bold.
While we are currently above that playoff line, things are going to be tight. With a smaller number of games, that means that placement in the conference is probably going to be pretty close. Even three points might mean the difference between life and death in regards to playoffs.
What can we conclude from this?
Fraser has improved the team significantly
Check the stats above: more goals scored, fewer goals allowed, higher points-per-game average than during the Hudson and even the Casey eras. Although we have had some frustrations, such as the MLS is Back Tournament, it still means that we have become a better team. Not necessarily Supporters’ Shield winners, but better.
Additionally, Fraser now has had 20 games under his belt with the team. The team has earned more points under those 20 games than with Hudson over 46 games. We’re getting an average of twice as many points per game. If nothing else, we’re no longer narrowly avoiding the Wooden Spoon, but rather competing for a playoff spot.
But… the stats are very swing-y
Two 5-0 victories really artificially pump our numbers up. Not including those two games, numbers plummet. Two of our five wins this year, 6 of our 19 points and 10 of our 25 goals scored are all contained in just two of our 13 games. On the other hand, we had two 1-4 losses this year, where 8 of our 20 goals allowed came from those two matches, and two of our four losses were in those games. Sadly, entire seasons are still susceptible to having one good or bad match start to skew the numbers, but especially so at the reduced number of games.
You can’t convince me that in a regular season, we wouldn’t be more secure in our playoff standing
In this condensed schedule, we are playing against the same teams multiple times, while not playing certain teams at all. Ordinarily, we would have been able to go and play against teams like Nashville, Vancouver, FC Cincinnati, Inter Miami, Chicago, and more. All of these teams that in all likelihood, we would be able to get three points against. We also wouldn’t be playing against RSL and SKC both a total of four times in the season. Plus, we are only around a third of the way through what would be a normal season.
Currently, three points separate us in 7th place from us being in 4th place. We also have two games in hand compared to most other teams in the conference. If we maintained this points-per-game, we would have ended the 2019 season with around 50 points, which would have put us in the playoffs pretty comfortably.
That isn’t even taking into account how the compressed schedule has forced player rotation and put greater physical stress on the guys. The idea of an MLS Iron Man, i.e. a player who players every single minute of the regular season, happening in 2020 is pretty ludicrous. In 2019, Keegan Rosenberry did just that for the Burgundy Boys. Doing that while playing midweek-weekend games ad infinitum, though, is asking too much.
Who knows where things will end with the season. Everything is weird, games are getting rescheduled, we’re seeing the same familiar faces game in game out. But, even despite all of the challenges that we’ve faced this season, we are still showing a remarkable improvement over the team in the last few years.
There is no shortage of criticism that can be lobbed at the team and the front office alike, but credit where credit is due. We also need to recognize the progress we have made.
For now, fans are going to be slowly let back into the stadium to watch the games live, and now more than ever we need to support the players. They’ve had a lot asked of them to be putting their health and livelihoods on the line playing amidst a global pandemic, and all without the support of the fanbase. We need to make up for lost time and root for them as we continue to push for playoffs.