D.C. United's 2014 "Third Games": An Analysis

D.C. United won't be playing in the Asian Cup, but they will be playing "third games". - Matt King

It's fact of life; MLS has an unbalanced schedule. But, in its unbalancedness, is it balanced? Let's take a look at the Eastern Conference "third games" to see if any competitive advantages appear as we get ready to enter the season.

This will be the third year in a row in which Major League Soccer fields 19 teams and plays an unbalanced schedule. Even as the league grows to 21 teams in 2015, and eventually heads to 24 teams over the next few years, it's almost a certainty the days of a balanced schedule will remain in the past for MLS. For some reason, this lack of balance seems to rankle the soccer fan (myself included) more than the fans of other sports. And so, let's see how "balanced" the unbalanced schedule is this season by looking at the "third games" MLS Eastern Conference teams will play in 2014.

As a reminder, the MLS unbalanced schedule calls for each Eastern Conference team to play the following:

- One game against each team from the Western Conference (nine total games, with either four or five played at home and the balance played on the road)

- A home-and-away series against each team in the Eastern Conference (18 total games)

- A "third game" against seven teams from the East (seven total games, with either three or four played at home and the balance played on the road)

One final note about the "third games": a "third game" isn't always the final game of the three-game series two Eastern Conference teams will play against each other (because the MLS schedule just doesn't work like that). Rather, the "third game" is the game in which the two teams play in the same city for a second time in the same season. For example, D.C. United will play Toronto FC three times this season: at Toronto on Mar. 22, at Toronto again on Jul. 5, and then at RFK Stadium on Jul. 30. So, for our purposes, the "third game" is the Jul. 5 match (while the other two matches are part of the home-and-away series).

1. Let's take a look at how each Eastern Conference team finished the 2013 season. We'll start by reviewing last season's final Eastern Conference standings as a way of measuring the strength of each team as it enters 2014 (more below on the returning strength of each team):

2013 Eastern Conference Position Team Total 2013 Points
1 New York Red Bulls 59
2 Sporting Kansas City 58
3 New England Revolution 51
4 Houston Dynamo 51
5 Montreal Impact 49
6 Chicago Fire 49
7 Philadelphia Union 46
8 Columbus Crew 41
9 Toronto FC 29
10 D.C. United 16

2. Next, let's take a look at 2014's slate of Eastern Conference "third games" against the returning playoff teams:

New York Red Bulls Sporting Kansas City New England Revolution Houston Dynamo Montreal Impact
New York Red Bulls ----- Away, 26 Oct N/A Home, 4 Oct N/A
Sporting Kansas City Home, 26 Oct ----- Away, 3 Sep N/A Away, 12 Jul
New England Revolution N/A Home, 3 Sep ----- Away, 16 Oct Away, 11 Oct
Houston Dynamo Away, 4 Oct N/A Home, 16 Oct ----- Home, 6 Sep
Montreal Impact N/A Home, 12 Jul Home, 11 Oct Away, 6 Sep -----
Chicago Fire Home, 10 Aug Away, 10 Oct Away, 7 Sep N/A Away, 16 Aug
Philadelphia Union Home, 13 Sep Away, 1 Aug Home, 17 May Home, 20 Sep Home, 9 Aug
Columbus Crew Away, 19 Oct N/A Away, 4 Oct Away, 13 Sep Home, 27 Sep
Toronto FC Away, 11 Oct Away, 16 Aug Home, 30 Aug Home, 8 Oct N/A
D.C. United Home, 31 Aug Home, 3 Oct N/A Away, 12 Oct Away, 25 Oct

3. Here's the 2014 table for the Eastern Conference "third games" against the teams missing the playoffs last year:

Chicago Fire Philadelphia Union Columbus Crew Toronto FC D.C. United
New York Red Bulls Away, 10 Aug Away, 13 Sep Home, 19 Oct Home, 11 Oct Away, 31 Aug
Sporting Kansas City Home, 10 Oct Home, 1 Aug N/A Home, 16 Aug Away, 3 Oct
New England Revolution Home, 7 Sep Away, 17 May Home, 4 Oct Away, 30 Aug N/A
Houston Dynamo N/A Away, 20 Sep Home, 13 Sep Away, 8 Oct Home, 12 Oct
Montreal Impact Home, 16 Aug Away, 9 Aug Away, 27 Sep N/A Home, 25 Oct
Chicago Fire ----- Home, 19 Jul N/A Home, 13 Sep Away, 18 Oct
Philadelphia Union Away, 19 Jul ----- Away, 26 Oct N/A N/A
Columbus Crew N/A Home, 26 Oct ----- Home, 9 Aug Away, 7 Jun
Toronto FC Away, 13 Sep N/A Away, 9 Aug ----- Home, 5 Jul
D.C. United Home, 18 Oct N/A Home, 7 Jun Away, 5 Jul -----

4. So, after looking at the schedule of Eastern Conference "third games", who has the most difficult slate and who has the easiest as we enter the 2014 season? One back-of-the-envelope method of measuring the difficulty of the "third games" is to simply add up the "position" (from the final 2013 standings above) of each of the seven "third game" opponents every Eastern team will face this year. For example, D.C. United plays third games against #1 New York, #2 Sporting, #4 Houston, #5 Montreal, #6 Chicago, #8 Columbus, and #9 Toronto. If you add all those "positions" up, D.C. United has a strength of "third game" schedule of 35 (and in this case, the lower the number the more difficult the schedule). For the entire conference, here is a ranking of the "third game" schedule, most difficult to least difficult:

Sum of Opponents' 2013 "Positions" Opponents' Average 2013 "Position"
Philadelphia Union 29 4.1
Toronto FC 34 4.9
D.C. United 35 5.0
Chicago Fire 37 5.3
Columbus Crew 39 5.6
Montreal Impact 40 5.7
Sporting Kansas City 41 5.9
New England Revolution 41 5.9
Houston Dynamo 43 6.1
New York Red Bulls 46 6.6
Average 38.5 5.5

Before we talk about the limitations of this approach, there is no doubt Philadelphia drew the short stick for this year's "third games". They are the only team to play "third games" against all five returning Eastern Conference playoff teams, plus the Union also play the sixth and the eighth returning Eastern team (and the Union were the #7 team). New York, on the other hand, is the only team to play "third games" against only two of the returning Eastern playoff teams, and they are the only team getting to face all five of the returning bottom Eastern teams in "third games". Said differently, the average "position" of New York's "third game" opponents is 2.5 "positions" easier than Philadelphia's.

What about D.C. United? They have an above-average-difficulty lineup of "third games", avoiding only the #3 returning team (New England) and the #7 returning team (Philadelphia).

5. Two significant limitations of the above approach. While looking at the strength of the "third game" schedule is admittedly simplistic, it specifically doesn't take into account whether individual games are played at home or on the road, and it doesn't account for the potentially historic improvement Toronto has likely made to their roster over the last few weeks.

First, what about the home-and-away breakdown of the "third games"? Of course, the number of "third games" each team plays at home alternates between three and four each year. In 2014, it looks like this:

2014 "Third Game" Home Games 2014 "Third Game" Away Games
New York Red Bulls 3 4
Sporting Kansas City 4 3
New England Revolution 3 4
Houston Dynamo 4 3
Montreal Impact 4 3
Chicago Fire 3 4
Philadelphia Union 4 3
Columbus Crew 3 4
Toronto FC 3 4
D.C. United 4 3

For Philadelphia, even though they have the most difficult set of "third game" opponents, they at least get to play four of the five returning Eastern playoff teams at home in those "third games". Similarly, D.C. United gets to play four of their "third games" at home, including "third games" against returning #1 New York and #2 Sporting.

Lastly, Toronto has become a major wild card in this year's unbalanced schedule. Sure, every Eastern team will be different than their 2013 version, but only one team (Toronto) seems to be competing on an entirely different level in 2014. Only time will tell as this season unfolds, but the signings of Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley make games against the Reds look entirely different than when the 2014 schedule came out last November.

Here's how each Eastern team's "third game" against Toronto looks this coming season:

"Third Game" vs Toronto
New York Red Bulls Home, 11 Oct
Sporting Kansas City Home, 16 Aug
New England Revolution Away, 30 Aug
Houston Dynamo Away, 8 Oct
Montreal Impact N/A
Chicago Fire Home, 13 Sep
Philadelphia Union N/A
Columbus Crew Home, 9 Aug
Toronto FC -----
D.C. United Away, 5 Jul

Again, if there's any good news for Philadelphia, they get to avoid a "third game" against Toronto this year. D.C. United, unfortunately, has to play a "third game" at Toronto, but it likely won't be against Bradley and Defoe since it occurs during the World Cup (but, United will likely be missing Eddie Johnson as well). Proving they have a favorable schedule this year, New York gets to play their "third game" at home against Toronto this season.

Of course, this analysis won't survive the first surprises of the 2014 season, but at least it let's us complain about New York, the defending Eastern Conference regular season champions and Supporters' Shield holders, having the easiest schedule of "third games" entering the season. Next week we'll take a look at the unbalanced slate of games against the Western Conference and see if it levels out the apparent disparities of the "third games".

What are your thoughts on MLS's unbalanced schedule? Any thoughts on this season's Eastern Conference "third games"?

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