Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Red Bulls Win Second Supporters Shield, Stat Nerds Scoff

After a roller coaster regular season that began in turmoil with the departures of Andy Roxburgh, Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry, the dismissal of manager/club legend Mike Petke, and the installation of the Ali Curtis/Jesse Marsch team, the New York Red Bulls pulled off the most improbable of feats in Chicago on Sunday, winning their second Supporters' Shield in three seasons.

The achievement was sweet vindication for Curtis and Marsch, who arrived in Harrison under fire, even as they promised nothing less than a complete overhaul of club operations, playing style, training and just about everything else under the sun (all part of Curtis' now infamous 300 page plan). That they have been so successful in instilling their methods in just a few short months is quite astonishing. That they have been able to do it with "cast offs" such as Mike Grella and Damien Perrinelle playing key roles is even more remarkable.

But lest Red Bulls fans celebrate with too much fervor, they should remind themselves of what happened in 2013, when the team marched into the postseason on the high of a Supporters' Shield winning performance against - yep - the Chicago Fire and promptly laid an egg in the first round. Securing home field advantage throughout the playoffs and having the chance to host the final in your own house is great and all, but it means nothing if you can't get past even the first hurdle. In this case, the first hurdle will be one of three potential opponents - DC United, New England Revolution or Toronto FC.

Happily, In all of their recent interviews, Marsch and his players have continued to talk about the ultimate goal of winning an MLS Cup, so they all appear to have their heads screwed on straight as they look to climb the final mountain. Of course it's impossible to know how the ball will bounce in what is essentially a post-season mini cup tournament, but the team seems remarkably focused on the task at hand, which should help them avoid another first round disaster.

Regardless of what happens over the next several weeks, it's fair to say that Marsch and Curtis' first season in charge has been a massive success. For the first time in a long time (perhaps the first time in club history), the team has an identifiable style of play and a work ethic that is instilled in every member of the squad. Young players such as Matt Miazga and Sean Davis have made breakthroughs and garnered important first team minutes. At the back, the team can rely on the rock that is Luis Robles, who has now arguably surpassed Tony Meola and Tim Howard as the best goalkeeper in club history.

So... onward to the playoffs!

But first a word about that Supporters' Shield. No sooner had the Red Bulls beaten Chicago than a number of MLS stat nerds felt compelled to knock the achievement down a peg, arguing that because of MLS' imbalanced schedule, FC Dallas, who finished level with the Red Bulls on points but lost the Shield on goal difference, were the more "impressive" club of the two. The reason? The fact that they are forced to ply their trade in the Western Conference, the more challenging of the league's two halves.

Yeah Red Bulls, you won it, the sour grapes argument goes, but it's a flawed award because everyone doesn't play everyone else the same number of times.

Let's unpack this, shall we?

First, is the Western Conference stronger than the Eastern Conference? Yes, and the numbers prove it - both in terms of head to head games and overall points. Chicago, New York City FC and Philadelphia brought up the rear in the Eastern Conference and were three of the weaker teams throughout the season. But a number Western Conference clubs were uncharacteristically disappointing. Colorado, vying with Chicago for the title of League's Biggest Dumpster Fire, had a totally forgettable season. Real Salt Lake lost its mojo when Jason Kreis left town. LA Galaxy has stumbled badly down the stretch - one week formidable and the next week flat out awful. Seattle went on a massive mid-season losing streak and still managed to make the playoffs.

Let's also take into account that the nine points that the Red Bulls earned against NYCFC (cited by some as proof that the East was a creampuff conference) were all won in heated and massively hyped derby matches. Those games may have looked easy on paper, but anyone who attended the games can attest to their intensity. For the Red Bulls to come through that cauldron with maximum points is nothing to sneeze at. Incidentally, FC Dallas didn't have to make a single trip to the NYC area this season, another vagary of the MLS schedule.

Finally, let's look at the one head-to-head match between the Red Bulls and FC Dallas, played not in Harrison but in Frisco, Texas. With the opportunity to play their eventual rival for the Shield on home turf, Dallas could only manage a draw.

More importantly, however, the idea that the only "fair" trophies are those won on a statistically level playing field is a strange one. Tell that to fans of any major American sports league, where playoff seeds are decided and eventual champions crowned based on imbalanced schedules - NFL, NHL, NBA. Tell that to FA Cup participants (or participants in almost any soccer association cup), whose opponents and home/away assignments are chosen by random draw. Extending it even further, you could argue that MLS Cup itself is imbalanced, since Western clubs have to claw their way through different competition from their Eastern counterparts and certain clubs have to travel more or play in lousy weather. Does that make winning the Cup any less impressive? Not in my book.

Further, the idea that merely playing the same opponents an equal number of times constitutes equity is debatable. If Sebastian Giovinco is away on international duty are you playing the same Toronto FC that you are playing when he's in the team? Surely not. Did you get to play the Drogba-less Impact early in the season or were you matched up with the late season version? Was Clint Dempsey away with the USMNT when your team rolled into town to play the Sounders? How do yellow cards and suspensions factor into the equation? There are so many variables from match to match, especially in MLS, which plays through a number of international breaks, that searching for equity quickly becomes a fools' errand.

Part of the issue is that MLS has grown so far and so fast that having a balanced regular season schedule is no longer possible, and won't be an option in the future as more teams - Atlanta, LAFC, Minnesota, potentially Miami - join the league. So we'd all better get used to the idea of competitive imbalance for now and the foreseeable future, both in the Supporters' Shield race and the MLS Cup.

So enjoy your Supporters' Shield, Red Bulls fans, get ready for a wild ride in the playoffs, and ignore the stat nerds.

blog comments powered by Disqus