D.C. United's Unbalanced Schedule in 2013: Comparing the Eastern Conference "Third Games"

D.C. United has a tough slate of "third games" in 2013--how about the Red Bulls? - Jeff Zelevansky

Teams in MLS's Eastern Conference will again play "third games" in 2013 against most (but not all) conference competitors. So how do United's "third games" (six matches combined on the road against KC, NY, and Chicago!) stack up against their Eastern Conference rivals' "third games?"

In a post last week on the 2013 Major League Soccer schedule, Martin commented on one negative effect the unbalanced schedule would pose for D.C. United this season--something we called "third games" last year:

...I remember writing early last year that United would have a minor advantage over other Eastern Conference teams because the unbalanced schedule had dealt us only two matches against KC and Chicago, and three against all other EC teams. And if you think about, with the EC standings packed so tightly together, that honestly could have made a difference in our finish. Had we played three matches against KC and only two against Toronto, instead of vice versa, second place in the East would have been just a bit more difficult.

Well this year we have only two matches against Columbus and Montreal, and then three against every other Eastern team. That advantage from last year is gone

Martin is absolutely right that D.C. United faces a tough slate of "third games" this season, but let's break it down to see how United's "third games" compare to the other teams' "third games" in the Eastern Conference. Let's also not forget his other point, that the Eastern Conference was so close last year that even minor differences in schedule parity may have (we'll never really know) affected the final standings.

Here are the final 2012 Eastern Conference standings:
As a reminder, every Eastern Conference team in MLS will play all nine teams in the Western Conference once (for nine games total), home and away series against the other nine teams in the Eastern Conference (18 games total), and a "third game" against seven of the Eastern Conference teams (7 games total). This comes to 34 games total for the 2013 regular season.

These "third games" are unbalanced in two ways. First, each team plays it's "third games" against a different group of seven teams, and, second, where teams play each "third game", whether at home or on the road, is different from where other teams may play their "third games."

So, here are the "third games" for Eastern Conference teams in 2013. The first table shows the "third games" against the 2012 playoff teams, while the second table shows the "third games" against the non-playoff teams. Home teams are listed on the left and away teams are listed across the top. For example, D.C. United's "third game" against Sporting Kansas City will be played away at Kansas City on Oct. 18. In some cases, the "third game" that is listed is not the final game of the series. For example, D.C. United plays at Chicago on Jun. 2 and Jul. 20, before playing the Fire at RFK Stadium on Oct. 4. Since it's the extra home game at Chicago that is of interest, the Jul. 20 game is listed.

Eastern Conference "third games" in 2013 against last year's playoff teams:
Sporting Kansas City D.C. United New York Red Bulls Chicago Fire Houston Dynamo
Sporting Kansas City ----- Home, 18 Oct N/A Away, 23 Aug Away, 9 Oct
D.C. United Away, 18 Oct ----- Away, 31 Aug Away, 20 Jul Home, 27 Oct
New York Red Bulls N/A Home, 31 Aug ----- N/A Away, 20 Oct
Chicago Fire Home, 23 Aug Home, 20 Jul N/A ----- Away, 27 Jul
Houston Dynamo Home, 9 Oct Away, 27 Oct Home, 20 Oct Home, 27 Jul -----
Columbus Crew Away, 7 Sep N/A Home, 10 Aug Home, 21 Sep Home, 4 Sep
Montreal Impact Away, 1 Jun N/A Away, 13 Jul Away, 28 Sep Home, 24 Aug
Philadelphia Union Home, 26 Oct Away, 12 Oct Away, 17 Aug Home, 3 Aug N/A
New England Revolution N/A Home, 21 Sep Away, 5 Oct Away, 14 Sep Home, 28 Sep
Toronto FC Home, 21 Sep Away, 24 Aug Home, 20 Jul N/A N/A

Eastern Conference "third games" in 2013 against non-playoff teams from last year:
Columbus Crew Montreal Impact Philadelphia Union New England Revolution Toronto FC
Sporting Kansas City Home, 7 Sep Home, 1 Jun Away, 26 Oct N/A Away, 21 Sep
D.C. United N/A N/A Home, 12 Oct Away, 21 Sep Home, 24 Aug
New York Red Bulls Away, 10 Aug Home, 13 Jul Home, 17 Aug Home, 5 Oct Away, 20 Jul
Chicago Fire Away, 21 Sep Home, 28 Sep Away, 3 Aug Home, 14 Sep N/A
Houston Dynamo Away, 4 Sep Away, 24 Aug N/A Away, 28 Sep N/A
Columbus Crew ----- Away, 14 Sep N/A Home, 27 Oct Away, 27 Jul
Montreal Impact Home, 14 Sep ----- Home, 19 Oct N/A Away, 26 Oct
Philadelphia Union N/A Away, 19 Oct ----- Away, 25 Aug Home 5 Oct
New England Revolution Away, 27 Oct N/A Home, 25 Aug ----- Home, 4 Aug
Toronto FC Home, 27 Jul Home, 26 Oct Away, 5 Oct Away, 4 Aug -----

Based on last year's standings, let's rank the "third game" schedules for the top five Eastern Conference teams entering this season, least difficult to most difficult:

5. New York Red Bulls. The Red Bulls have the good fortune of being the only Eastern Conference team to only play "third games" against two of last year's playoff teams (home vs. D.C. United and away vs. Houston Dynamo). In addition, they get to play four of their seven "third games" at home this season.

4. Chicago Fire. The Fire play "third games" against three of last year's playoff teams, and two of those games are in Chicago (home vs. Sporting, home vs. D.C. United, and away vs. Houston). They also get to play four of their seven "third games" at home.

3. Sporting Kansas City. Sporting also plays three "third games" against last year's playoff teams, but only one of those games is at the stadium formerly known as LIVESTRONG Sporting Park (home vs. D.C. United, away vs. Chicago, and away vs. Houston). They only get to play three "third games" at home this year, with the other four on the road.

2. Houston Dynamo. The Dynamo have to play "third games" against all the other playoff teams from last year. Fortunately for them, however, they get to play three of those four games at home (home vs. Sporting, away vs. D.C. United, home vs. New York, and home vs. Chicago) where they were undefeated last year. Unfortunately for them, they only get to play three "third games" at home this year.

1. D.C. United. There's no way around it, this is a tough schedule of "third games." D.C. United has to play "third games" against all the other playoff teams from last season (away vs. Sporting, away vs. New York, away vs. Chicago, and home vs. Houston), and only one of those games is at RFK. And like Sporting and Houston, they only get to play three of the "third games" at home in 2013.

Of course, this will all get blown up if/when a team like the Columbus Crew or the Montreal Impact gets hot and becomes a standout team this year, or if a team like Chicago unexpectedly fades from contention early in the season. But, as we enter the 2013 preseason, D.C. United appears to have a tougher intra-conference schedule than their fellow Eastern Conference competitors.

In the next few weeks, we'll also compare the unbalanced schedule for inter-conference games between the Eastern and Western Conferences.

For the six matches D.C. United will have to play on the road against Kansas City, New York, and Chicago this coming season, how do you think United will do? If they want to challenge for the Supporters' Shield, how well will they need to do in those matches?
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