Is MLS's Unbalanced Scheduled also Competitively Unequal? East vs West

SB Nation Soccer published an interesting article on Wednesday showing that, so far this season, the Eastern and Western Conferences of Major League Soccer have almost identical records in inter-conference matchups. Breaking that down, however, how have individual Eastern Conference teams performed against the Western Conference, and how has the new unbalanced schedule unveiled in 2012 affected the competitive balance?

Through the game played on July 11th, here is the current table of performance in inter-conference games by Eastern Conference teams:

Team Record vs West Points vs West Games Played vs West Avg Pts/ Game Potential Pts vs West
Sporting KC 6-1-2 20 9 2.22 20
Houston Dynamo 4-2-1 13 7 1.86 19
New England Revs 4-3-1 13 8 1.63 16
Columbus Crew 3-2-2 11 7 1.57 17
New York RB 2-2-3 9 7 1.29 15
D.C. United 2-2-2 8 6 1.33 17
Philadelphia Union 2-4-2 8 8 1.00 11
Chicago Fire 2-4-1 7 7 1.00 13
Montreal Impact 2-5-1 7 8 0.88 10
Toronto FC 1-4-1 4 6 0.67 13

The table above tells a few interesting stories, but let's look deeper into the inter-conference schedule to see if this season's unbalanced schedule is also competitively unequal.

In 2011, Major League Soccer had a perfectly balanced schedule. The 18 teams in the league played each of the other 17 teams in a home and away series for a total of 34 games. This season, with the addition of the Montreal Impact as the 19th team, the league decided that each team would continue to play 34 matches in the regular season. To keep the number at 34, MLS adopted an unbalanced schedule that emphasizes competition against conference foes.

For the Eastern Conference, this means every team plays the 9 teams in the Western Conference only once for a total of 9 games. That leaves 25 games to be played against Eastern Conference teams, of which 18 are home and away games against each of the other 9 teams in the East. The remaining 7 matches are additional games (i.e. a "third game") played against 7 of the 9 other teams in the Eastern Conference.

Unlike last season's balanced schedule, this year's unbalanced schedule is competitively unequal in at least two ways:

1. Some Eastern teams get to play the top Western teams at home, and others have to play those same teams on the road.

2. The "third game" opponents are not the same for each Eastern Conference team, nor is where those games are played (home or away).

The table below shows where each Eastern Conference team played each of the Western Conference teams ("home" or "away") and the score of the game (or, the table shows the date of the game if it hasn't been played yet). For example, for D.C. United, the table shows they lost away to the San Jose Earthquakes by a score of 3-5, and will play away on September 1st at Real Salt Lake.

(Note: the table below only shows the Eastern Conference against the top five Western Conference teams--I'll put the rest of the table against the bottom four Western Conference teams in the comments section at the bottom of the post at the bottom of the post):

San Jose Earthquakes Real Salt Lake Seattle Sounders Vancouver Whitecaps LA Galaxy
Sporting KC Home, 2-1 Home, 1-0 Away, 1-1 Away, 3-1 Home, 1-0
D.C. United Away, 3-5 Away, 1 Sep Home, 0-0 Away, 0-0 Away, 1-3
New York RB Home, 2-2 Away, 0-2 Home, 15 Jul Away, 1-1 Away, 1-0
Chicago Fire Away, 28 Jul Home, 0-0 Home, 1-2 Home, 14 Jul Home, 0-2
Houston Dynamo Away, 1-0 Home, 6 Sep Away, 0-2 Away, 1-3 Home, 2-1
New England Revs Away, 0-1 Away, 1-2 Home, 2-2 Home, 4-1 Away, 3-1
Columbus Crew Away, 1-1 Home, 2-0 Away, 2-0 Home, 0-1 Home, 15 Aug
Montreal Impact Home, 18 Aug Away, 0-1 Home, 4-1 Away, 0-2 Home, 1-1
Philadelphia Union Home, 1-2 Home, 24 Aug Away, 0-1 Home, 0-0 Away, 2-1
Toronto FC Home, 0-3 Away, 2-3 Away, 1-3 Home, 3-2 Away, 22 Sep

So what do these two tables tell us:

1. Based on today's standings, D.C. United has the toughest inter-conference schedule of any team in the East. Although no one was predicting San Jose would sit atop the West at the beginning of the season, the way the season has unfolded means that only United will have had to face four of the five top Western teams on the road. And, only D.C. and the New England Revolution will have had to play both the top two teams from the West (San Jose and Real Salt Lake) on the road. In contrast, the Chicago Fire only plays one of the top five Western teams on the road, and Sporting Kansas City only plays two of them on the road. Plus, Sporting along with the Philadelphia Union are the only two Eastern teams to get to play both San Jose and Real Salt Lake at home. Perhaps not surprisingly, D.C. United has under-performed against the West so far (1.33 pts/game) compared to their overall season average (1.83 pts/game).

2. To their credit, Sporting Kansas City absolutely cleaned up against the West. As part of the unbalanced schedule, MLS emphasized inter-conference games early in the season which played to Sporting's strengths. In fact, Sporting played all 9 Western Conference teams within their first 14 games of the season. As the hottest team at the start of the season, Sporting took full advantage of other teams' slower starts and piled up a huge amount of points. To drive home how well they did, even if each of the other Eastern Conference teams win all their remaining games against the West, none of them will be able to equal the points Sporting has already accumulated (see "Potential Pts vs West" in the first table above). Overall, Sporting KC over-performed against the West (2.22 pts/game) compared to their overall season average (1.83 pts/game).

3. Houston Dynamo has also performed well against the Western Conference so far this season, despite already playing three of the four top teams from the West on the road. To date, they have averaged 1.86 pts/game against the West, but only 1.39 pts/game during their road-heavy season so far. If they can win at home against Real Salt Lake on September 6th, and on the road in their season finale at the Colorado Rapids on October 27th, both very big challenges, they will have racked up an impressive 19 points in 9 games against the West.

4. Although it is the subject for another post, the attractiveness of D.C. United's home schedule this year has been adversely impacted by the unbalanced schedule. Not playing the LA Galaxy at home (the team that can sell the most tickets just by showing up), not playing pre-season Western Conference contenders Real Salt Lake and the Vancouver Whitecaps at home, and not playing San Jose at home (the team that has emerged as one of the league's best stories this year) have all likely contributed (along with a host of other reasons) to the attendance issues D.C. United has experienced this season.

We'll look at the competitive equality issues of the "third games" in another post, but what do you think about the unbalanced schedule? Should MLS go to a balanced 36-game schedule as long as they have 19 teams, and look to go to balanced 38-game schedule when they hit 20 teams (like the big European leagues)?


Here's the table against the Western Conference's bottom four teams:

Colorado Rapids Chivas USA Portland Timbers FC Dallas
Sporting KC Away, 2-2 Away, 1-0 Away, 0-1 Home, 2-1
D.C. United Home, 2-0 Home, 23 Sep Away, 29 Sep Home, 4-1
New York RB Home, 4-1 Home, 1-1 Home, 19 Aug Away, 1-2
Chicago Fire Away, 0-2 Away, 2-1 Away, 1-2 Home, 2-1
Houston Dynamo Away, 27 Oct Away, 1-0 Home, 0-0 Home, 2-1
New England Revs Home, 2-1 Home, 29 Aug Home, 1-0 Away, 0-1
Columbus Crew Away, 0-2 Home, 19 Sep Away, 0-0 Home, 2-1
Montreal Impact Away, 2-3 Away, 1-2 Home, 2-0 Away, 1-2
Philadelphia Union Home, 1-2 Away, 1-0 Away, 1-3 Away, 1-1
Toronto FC Home, 18 Jul Home, 0-1 Home, 15 Aug Away, 1-1