Given the emphasis that Columbus coach Gregg Berhalter places on possession and passing, it probably isn’t a surprise that I’ve started to focus on those statistical categories. Throughout the 2016 season, as troublesome results started to accumulate, I’ve tried to understand the Columbus approach to possession and passing within the context of other teams in MLS.
Each observation is a single team’s performance in a single game – so with 20 teams each playing 34 games, there are 680 rows available. Fields include:
Pass completion %
Passes in specific areas of the field (attacking half, final third, and crossses)
Pass completion % in those areas
Shots on target
Hopefully the work to assemble this data proves useful to someone. I’ve been using this data for many of the plots that I’ve shared on Twitter this season, and now that Columbus is done for the year I’ve been exploring it in more detail.
I hope to be able to share what I’ve found over the coming weeks, but for now I mostly just want to see whether anyone is interested in the data itself.
The 2016 season for Columbus Crew SC is turning into one of the hardest in team history. A year after hosting MLS Cup, the team is mired near the foot of the Eastern Conference standings. The collapse is threatening to set several team records for futility, including lowest number of victories and the fewest points earned in a season.
Recently, I was asked via Twitter to look into another possible mark of futility:
@bernhardtsoccer Can you query your database to determine the greatest number of calendar days between #CrewSC league wins in one season?
The answer, sadly, is that this year’s team will at least equal the longest winless stretch in history. Should they fail to defeat New York City FC (currently leading the Eastern Conference) on August 13th, they will own the mark outright.
The following table illustrates the longest winless streaks (solely looking at league play) during each calendar year.
Columbus did not win its first game in 2004 until 42 days into the 2004 season.
Columbus did not win its first game until 49 days into the 2009 season.
The 2010 team’s 50-day winless streak ended when the season ended.
2014 had two different spells of 56 days between victories.
This assumes Columbus defeats New York City FC on August 13.
Before 2016, the club record for days between victories in a single season was 2006, when Sigi Schmid’s inaugural squad went 77 days between victories on June 3 and August 19.
The 2006 season is commonly acknowledged as the worst in team history. The first of Schmid’s three years in charge saw so much player turnover from the Greg Andrulis years that Columbus was essentially an expansion club, and almost none of the players from that year were on the roster to lift MLS Cup two years later.
Interestingly, the season with the shortest winless streak – including season-beginning streaks – was 2000. This is ironic, given that the 2000 team was also the first to miss the playoffs. While their 11 victories were spread out evenly enough that they avoided any long doldrums, they also won no more than two games in a row during the season.
Other seasons of note in this summary were 2004 and 2009, which began with winless streaks (42 and 49 days respectively) that were longer than any seen during the middle of the season. Oddly, both of those years ended with Columbus winning the Supporters Shield. The 2004 team in somewhat infamous for reaching this mark on the strength of only five losses, but drew more often (13 times) than they won (12).
I should give a caveat that my records for 1996 – 1999 treat all games that went to a shootout as ties. Arguments can be made that this is inaccurate, but in the case of this particular question the difference is irrelevant. In 1996 Columbus did not win a game of soccer between May 11 and July 25 (a stretch of 75 days) – even though they twice won the post-game shootout during that spell.
With the 2016 season starting tomorrow, it seems appropriate to build upon that analysis. This piece expands on last summer’s work in two ways. It does this first by adding all seasons of MLS to the data, and second by considering a new measure of success: advancement in the playoffs.
The data used in this article, and the R code to generate the illustrations, has been posted to GitHub. I encourage anyone interested to download the data and build upon it. The data is in CSV format for maximum portability.
Turning first to the league analysis, the plots below now include the final standings from all 20 seasons of Major League Soccer. There are 251 instances in league history of teams playing consecutive seasons*. Plotting all of these in a scatterplot, with first-year performance along the X axis and second-year performance along the Y axis, produces the following figure.
The chart above was generated in R, and a model fitted to this data is summarized below.
> model <- lm(data$PPG2 ~ data$PPG1)
lm(formula = data$PPG2 ~ data$PPG1)
Min 1Q Median 3Q Max
-0.9891 -0.1992 0.0165 0.1830 0.7460
Estimate Std. Error t value Pr(>|t|)
(Intercept) 1.04390 0.08498 12.283 < 2e-16 ***
data$PPG1 0.24374 0.06118 3.984 8.91e-05 ***
Signif. codes: 0 ‘***’ 0.001 ‘**’ 0.01 ‘*’ 0.05 ‘.’ 0.1 ‘ ’ 1
Residual standard error: 0.2972 on 249 degrees of freedom
Multiple R-squared: 0.05992, Adjusted R-squared: 0.05615
F-statistic: 15.87 on 1 and 249 DF, p-value: 8.907e-05
The addition of all historical data does not appreciably change the result. The R-squared coefficient for this model is a very small 0.0599, which is similar to the 0.0681 that was found last summer with a smaller dataset.
Generally speaking, the conclusion from recent seasons holds up well when all seasons of MLS are examined. Team success in one year is a fairly poor predictor of success the next year. This minimal relationship is unlikely to be a figment of the data, but it also leaves a large amount of variation unexplained.
Turning our attention to the playoffs, the dataset now includes information about how far each team advanced in the postseason. The measure is simple – how far did the team advance? Each team is recorded with one of six values, ranging from “Did Not Qualify” to “Champion”. For some parts of this analysis, numeric equivalents of these six levels are used, ranging from 0 (did not qualify) to 5 (champion). The distribution of these values is depicted below.
It should be noted, here, that the structure of the playoffs has changed at two different points. After being an eight-team competition for the first 15 years, in 2011 an octofinal round was added that expanded the field to ten teams. In 2015 the competition was expanded again, to include 12 teams. Because of these expansions, the count for teams advancing to the octofinal stage is relatively small.
When we examine how team success in the playoff changes from year to year, some interesting details emerge.
First, teams have demonstrated radical changes in fortune in the playoffs, but not significantly enough to say that past performance is completely meaningless. Teams that missed the playoffs in one year are – slightly more likely than not – going to miss the playoffs the next year. Teams that advanced to the quarterfinals or semifinals are probably going to reach the same general stage the next year (not missing the playoffs, but also not advancing to MLS Cup).
Yet beyond these very general statements, there are some interesting details. Teams that reach MLS Cup are only able to repeat that feat 20% of the time – and are eliminated before the quarterfinals at roughly the same rate. Curiously, no MLS Cup-winning team has ever been in eliminated in the semifinals the next year – they all either lose before then, or make a second MLS Cup.
Another interesting phenomenon is how frequently teams have surged to MLS Cup from previous disappointment. The percentage of teams to win the championship after either not making the playoffs, or falling in the quarterfinals, is relatively even – approximately 5%. This is in marked contrast to the difference in these teams’ likelihood of missing the playoffs altogether.
One final quirk relates to the chances of a team’s appearing in MLS Cup. Based on these data points, the group most likely to play in the championship game is not the reigning champion – but the defeated finalist. However, while approximately 25% of losing finalists repeat their appearance the next year, those teams that do repeat are still more likely to lose a second time than to finally claim the title. Blame the New England Revolution and Houston Dynamo for these data points.
The varying fates of teams that reached different stages of the playoffs are separated in the following gallery of histograms. Each plot focuses on one level of playoff advancement.
A note on significance
This last note also bears some explanation. For as much as there are now 20 years of history in this data, there are still relatively few data points behind some of these individual categories – so it is still somewhat likely that these are aberrations rather than an emergent trend. This stands in contrast to the linear model for league success, where we can be relatively certain that a team’s performance from one year to the next only explains about 6% of the variation in future performance.
With this analysis now expanded to include all of MLS history, we can say with relative certainty that team fortunes can change drastically from year to year. Yet this begs the question – what does determine team success? Are there factors that predict repeated success? How would we go about identifying them?
Thanks and footnotes
I owe a sincere thanks to Katrin Anacker for helping me work through the analysis of the linear model in this piece, and also to Jason Little and William Rand for their helpful feedback.
* The final seasons for Tampa Bay, Miami, and Chivas USA are obviously excluded. Additionally, I have chosen to exclude the final season of San Jose before their relocation in 2005, classifying Houston as an expansion team.
When Columbus and Portland face off this evening in MLS Cup, it will be a clash between two of the better passing teams in the league. Both feature midfields heavy on ball control, with international-caliber players pulling the strings supported by a back line that likes to get forward.
In preparation for this game, I collected player-by-player passing summaries for each game the two teams played, starting from the last time they faced each other in late September. What I found indicates that fans of all stripes could be in for quite a treat.
There is a narrative about Major League Soccer that describes an emerging financial arms race between its teams. The Designated Player Rule, instituted in 2007 with the arrival of David Beckham, has allowed teams additional flexibility to spend larger sums of money on key players. Every team in the league has taken advantage of this opportunity, and the rule itself has been expanded several times in recent years. Teams can currently have up to three such players on their roster, and a new category of expenditure – “Targeted Allocation Money” – was announced earlier this season. This tactic was used almost immediately by the Los Angeles Galaxy, with the end result being the acquisition of Giovani dos Santos.
Now [MLS is] like all the other leagues of haves and have nots. We will now march predictably into every season essentially choosing among a handful of big brand clubs as the real title contenders. Everyone else will fight for the scraps.
Is this narrative of financial inequality accurate? I set out to investigate.
This question of repeatability is something that resonated with me, so I started digging around a bit. While I can’t claim great familiarity with some of the advanced modeling that goes on around the soccer world, my starting point was a fairly simple question:
The week of the All-Star Game is upon us. Most teams in Major League Soccer hit the midway point of their season a few weeks back, the Gold Cup just finished, and the CONCACAF Champions League is starting soon. This seems a decent time to step back from the season, take stock of the trends so far, and begin to anticipate the push to the playoffs.
I started working with a new type of impact plot tonight, looking specifically at playing time compared against team goal difference. Dots representing each player are plotted along two axes: the horizontal axis records how much of the season the player has seen, while the vertical axis indicates the team’s goal difference during the player’s time on the field. Continue reading Plotting individual playing time against goal difference