An analysis of playing time for the 2009 Columbus Crew

With the end of the year quickly approaching, and the 2009 season starting to recede into memories both good and bad, this seems to be a good time to look back and begin to consider how the Crew’s performance this season compares to┬áprevious years. One way to do this is to examine how playing time was distributed in 2009, compared with past seasons.

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After the Crew’s 2-0 victory over Los Angeles, coach Robert Warzycha declared “We don’t have a reserve team. We have 23 players right now who can step up any time in the field and win any games.”
Post-match blustering aside, playing time in 2009 was distributed generally in line with how it was handled in the past. The team relied on a core of four players who appeared for more than 80% of the season: Eddie Gaven (90%), Danny O’Rourke (87%), Gino Padula (86%), and Brian Carroll (85%). Beyond this core quartet, another 12 players played the bulk of the rest, meaning only 16 players appeared for at least 20% of the season. The remaining six players on the roster can only be characterized as fringe or role players, logging fewer than 400 minutes out of a total of 2,700.

There are some external factors which can influence whether someone racks up enough playing time to pass the 80% threshhold. Frankie Hejduk would certainly have appeared for more than 47% of the season were it not for frequent absences for injury and the US National Team.

Regardless of the reason, however, a look at history shows that the Crew has done the best when it has been able to keep a larger core of players on the field for the majority of the season. In 2008, when the Crew won 17 games en route to the Supporters Shield and MLS Cup, six different players were on the field for at least 80% of the season – with four on the field for at least 90% (Brian Carroll, Alejandro Moreno, Danny O’Rourke, and Chad Marshall).

Beyond having a small core of ever-present players, another factor that seems to correlate with team success is to limit the number of fringe players. This is the flip side of having a stable core of players, which means that there isn’t much playing time to spread out among the lower half of the roster. While 16 players appeared for at least 20% of the season in 2009, in 2008 that figure was only 14.

Looking farther back in history, the dismal 2006 season (8 wins, 33 points, finishing last in MLS) saw 20 players appear for at least 20% of the season, with a grand total of 33 players appearing over the course of the season. Given that it was Sigi Schmid’s first year in charge, and he was beginning a long-term rebuilding process, this revolving door of players is understandable – and the evaluations made that season laid the groundwork for a competitive run for the playoffs in 2007, and the double championships in 2008.

Looking Ahead to 2010

What does this mean for next season? With a World Cup on the schedule, a number of key performers could miss a significant portion of the season. In fact, previous World Cup years have coincided with a smaller playing core, with barely a handful of players crossing the 80% threshhold in 1998 (2), 2002 (3) and 2006 (1). The challenge will be made easier in 2010 because the league will be taking a two-week break during the tournament.

It should also be noted that 2010 will be crowded for another reason. Not only will the Crew have to compete in another group phase of the Champions League, but it will also begin the year with a two-legged series against Mexican club Toluca. Managing a roster across multiple competitions is not a challenge that ever faced Sigi Schmid, and it appeared to trip up Robert Warzycha late in the 2009 season.

Given all of these factors, it appears that the impetus in 2010 will be on the Crew’s players to stay healthy, and on the coaching staff to somehow establish a core of players, for the team to repeat its success from 2008.

2009 Playing Time
Eddie Gaven
Danny O’Rourke 87%
Gino Padula 86%
Brian Carroll 85%
Eric Brunner 77%
Emmanuel Ekpo 72%
Guillermo Barros Schelotto 67%
Robbie Rogers 63%
Alejandro Moreno 59%
Chad Marshall 59%
Jed Zayner 54%
Frankie Hejduk 47%
Steven Lenhart 39%
Jason Garey 26%
Andy Iro 23%
Adam Moffat 20%
Kevin Burns 13%
Duncan Oughton 8%
Pat Noonan 8%
Emilio Renteria 7%
Alex Grendi 5%
Cory Elenio 1%

Disclaimer: Soccer, as a sport, has traditionally avoided the type of numeric analysis which is so prevalent in sports such as baseball or chess, where every action can be quantified, analyzed, and dissected. This does not mean, however, that analysis is fruitless. Some types of analysis, particularly those that look for larger trends, can be quite instructive. If you have any comments on whether you find this type of examination helpful, please leave a comment below.

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